Post submitted by Barbara Cozzens
In the mid-morning hours of May 2016, a dominant male lion named “Nduraghumbo” ambles through Botswana’s cattle-trodden grasses, unaware he has just crossed an invisible barrier. Just as he does, a text message comes in to Dr. Andrew Stein’s phone: Nduraghumbo has entered Gunotsoga. Geofence 1 break time: 1025hr. Coordinates: Latitude: 18°08’S, Longitude: 24°34’E.
Within minutes, Stein’s team alerts two village chiefs, who in turn sound the alarms. Soon, farmers in both villages know they must gather and corral their livestock, as the “Head of the Homestead” – or Nduraghumbo according to locals— is near.
In the past 75 years, lion numbers have fallen from more than a half million to less than 30,000 today. Retaliatory killing is one of the main drivers of this dramatic and continued decline (Photograph provided by Claws Conservancy).
This real-time lion warning system is just one of the many ways National Geographic Society-grantee Dr. Andrew Stein is protecting Africa’s lions, livestock and livelihoods. Over the summer, Stuart Pimm had a chance to sit down with Dr. Stein in northwestern Botswana’s famed Okavango Delta.
A Massachusetts native, Stein grew up fascinated by exotic wildlife in far-away lands. As he describes, “I’ve always been interested in helping people and wildlife. Through my studies in biology, I gravitated towards those projects that had a human element to a conservation issue. Today much of my research takes place outside of the national parks, working with communal and commercial farming communities to develop conservation initiatives that protect wildlife and the livelihoods of local people.”
One of those places is the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated between the borders of Namibia and Zimbabwe. Pimm explains, “the Okavango Delta is a vast wetland system that supports a rich array of wildlife, including nearly 500 species of birds, Africa’s largest population of elephants, and some of the world’s most endangered large mammals, including the lion and other large carnivores.”
More than 100,000 people, most subsistence livestock farmers, live in and around the Delta. Cattle number over 45,000 at densities as high as 33 animals per square kilometer. But as Stein explains, “as is often the case when cattle and carnivores clash, the outcome can be catastrophic for both animals”.
In retaliation for attacks on livestock, farmers have used poison bait to indiscriminately kill lions, resulting in deaths of unintended targets as well, including spotted hyenas, leopards, and even critically-endangered vultures.
In 2013, that year up to 60 percent of the Delta’s lions were killed in mass-poisoning events. Stein remembers it all too well. “I hope to stop this retaliatory killing of lions through Pride in Our Prides, our multifaceted program that includes traditional approaches such as education and outreach, as well as more tangible solutions.”
“My team is building lion-proof enclosures – or kraals – that keep lions and other predators out and livestock safely in at night. Local villagers contribute their weaving skills to help us construct the portable kraals from locally-sourced materials. The kraals are paired with our Pride in Our Prides’ real-time warning system that alerts villagers when lions are nearing their livestock or homes.”
This real-team warning system Stein describes is a “virtual fence” technology not unlike that used to keep dogs contained within invisibly fenced yards.
“We’ve outfitted lions in the main prides with modern GPS collars that transmit location data via satellite. When a lion crosses the first digital conflict fence – Geofence 1, the boundary between the tourism concessions and communal grazing lands – it triggers the collar to send a text message alert. We immediately relay a warning to the nearest village, so that people can protect their livestock, often within the kraals. If the lion crosses Geofence 2, only 2 kilometers from the villages, a similar alert is issued, but in these cases, we also go out and try to haze the lion away from the village boundaries. “
Virtual fences have shown tremendous promise in mitigating human-wildlife conflict, not only across central and southern Africa, but in the United States as well. Geofences have helped keep elephants from raiding crops in Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau. If a collared animal crosses through a virtual barrier, a team is then mobilized to chase the animal out of the farming area.
Likewise, similar technology may help prevent, or at least reduce bird collisions at wind farms, which cause more than 500,000 deaths per year in North America. When alerted that a bird has flown past a virtual fence towards a turbine, wind-farm operators can slow or shut down machines.
“From the traditional to the cutting-edge and high-tech”, says Stein, “Pride in Our Prides’ range of approaches are helping to reduce the damage that people incur from lions, so that humans and lions can continue to coexist, long into the future.”