By Kris Everatt (with contributions by Rae Kokeš)
I first arrived in Africa in 2011 to conduct an MSc in Wildlife Management on the ecology of lions. Whilst pouring over maps of Africa a remote landscape caught my attention – the Mozambican component of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA). This landscape consisted of a variety of land-use types, wildlife densities, communities, livestock, and large carnivores. At the heart of the region was the newly established Limpopo National Park holding a huge expanse of un-surveyed wilderness.
I chose this as my study site because there had not been any research conducted on carnivores in the region, including even baseline species and community inventories. It was a blank spot on the carnivore map; I didn’t even know if there were lions in the National Parks.
During two years of walking surveys and camera trapping, I found that lions were seeking out a niche amidst villages of agro-pastoralist-hunter peoples. My research showed that the lions in the park were being held below carrying capacity by humans, and at the same time that the lions here were trying to avoid cattle herds and bushmeat poachers.
The conservation and ecology of lions exposed to the pressures of poaching and pastoralism deeply intrigued me, and so in 2014 I began my PhD in Zoology at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa to further investigate these relationships across the larger landscape.
Lions have been extensively studied over vast tracts of Africa and I wanted to ensure my studies would provide something new and original to the conservation world — and more personally, I wanted to survey an area on foot.
Over the next three years I walked more than 4,000 km [2,500 miles] of occupancy surveys and gathered a huge dataset on lions and other predators, their prey and threats. I came to know the resident lion prides, wild dog packs and cheetah cohorts; I came across large elephant herds, small groups of white rhino, and found outstanding biodiversity amongst the National Parks. I also found extensive poaching, and an awful lot of livestock.
One of my hypotheses was that lions would alter their ecological habits in response to bush-meat poaching and pastoralism, and therefore an integral part of my work has been to examine prey selection and habitat use by lions when faced with poaching and livestock. To do this I have deployed satellite-GPS collars on animals within resident prides and dispersing individuals that share the land with wild prey, domestic animals and poachers. With generally low lion densities in the Mozambican region, locating lions on which to fit collars on has, as expected, been challenging, and it has taken two years to deploy just five collars.
Disturbing Disappearance of Lions
My aim has been to deploy a further five collars. Having come to know different pride whereabouts during my walked surveys, I have had faith that my persistence will pay off; yet during efforts to locate other prides over the last year, a disturbing trend has become apparent. In those areas where I often found signs of lion, the lions appeared to have vanished. Call-ups were no longer responded to, photos no longer taken in camera traps, and spoor no longer found whilst walking game trails once frequented by the big cats.
Since the onset of my studies I have come across lions that have died from a variety of anthropomorphic threats. On average the population has lost 0.8 lions per year due to snaring — where lions have been caught as by-catch in wires laid for ungulates; 2.7 per year to conflict following incidents of livestock depredation; and 3.2 per year to targeted poaching efforts. Overall, targeted poaching has accounted for 35 lion deaths, equating to 26 percent of the population of the Mozambican component of the GLTFCA.
It was in 2014 that I began to witness a significant increase in the targeted poaching of lions, and the timing of all the incidents discovered since then have coincided with publications and international meetings focused on the issue.
Concerns regarding a growing trade in lion bones and other derivatives began to circulate, albeit quietly, in the media in 2013/4. Around this time I located three lions poached in Limpopo National Park; their heads and paws removed.
In 2015 a report published by WildCru and TRAFFIC detailed the extent of the trade and supply from captive breeders in South Africa. Most notably it stated there appeared to be no impact on the wild populations of South Africa. However, the report stated that “the impact of the bone trade on wild Lion populations outside of South Africa…has yet to be determined.” In 2015 I was informed one of only an estimated two prides in Banhine NP, Mozambique, had been poached and a further five wild lions in Kruger NP were reported poisoned; their faces and paws also removed.
In 2016 conservationists, biologists, African range state representatives and international media met at Sandton in Johannesburg for the CITES COP17 meeting. There they decided to legally permit South Africa to export 800 lion skeletons from captive sources per year to supply the now more commonly known lion bone trade demand from Asia. On the very same day I discovered two more poached lions poisoned, and this time harvested for their bones and flesh.
In July this year a report was published by the Environmental Investigation Agency. Their findings suggested the tiger bone wine trade in Asia is resulting in the poaching of not only wild African lions but also snow leopards, clouded leopards, Asiatic lions, jaguars and the further demise of wild tiger populations. During the same month we located a further three lions poached; two had been butchered again for faces and paws, the other had only died a mere few hours before we arrived and before poachers had time to remove sought-after body parts.
The coincidental timing between these poaching incidents and international releases/meetings reads like that of a tragic thriller-based novel. However the stark truth is that the trade in lion parts has resulted in a population catastrophe for the Mozambican lions of the GLTFCA. It is this particular population that is suffering the brunt of this insatiable trade. Immediate intervention is needed to recover it and curtail any further reaches of the lion part trade across Africa to other lion populations.
We are about to begin a replicated survey to ascertain the precise percentage by which this population has crashed, and to still try and deploy collars on any lions that may remain. It has now been over a year since we have sighted a live lion. My fieldwork has helped to identify poaching hotspots and core lion areas; data that we are using and sharing to improve the conservation prospects of the area. However, improving and raising international attention to the issue is also desperately needed to ensure trade does not spiral out of control.
Incidents are still poorly reported on and are continuously overshadowed by the misconception that trophy hunting is the single biggest threat facing wild lions. The infamous shooting of ‘Cecil the Lion’ dominated headlines in 2015 whilst little attention was paid to lions killed in Banhine and Kruger NPs that same year. Now the sudden reported death of his son has been shared a thousand times more than that of our own news of the recently poisoned lions in Limpopo NP. For those wild lions without a name, they are being left faceless, metaphorically and literally.
To rescue the remaining lions of the Mozambican population the Greater Limpopo Carnivore Program is implementing a dedicated anti poaching team – the Limpopo Lion Protection Unit. With funding from National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative we’ve secured major logistical support and with additional funding currently being sought, hope to deploy our first unit of locally employed rangers in September 2017.
Rangers will patrol those areas we’ve identified as core resident lion home ranges, to remove snares, traps and poison threatening existing prides. Patrols will also secure those areas of intact habitat that could support lions but are currently limited by poaching. By doing so ‘silent savannahs’ and ‘empty forests’ may once again support viable lion numbers and plentiful prey. Anti-poaching efforts, supported by community-outreach initiatives, will also secure those specific areas we have identified as important corridors between Gonarezhou NP (Zimbabwe), Banhine NP and Limpopo NP.
Despite what feels to be a disillusioning situation, we have hope. Recent fieldwork in Banhine NP resulted in the collaring of two young adult lionesses of the remaining one pride – both in wonderful condition and showing signs of pregnancy. If our efforts can improve their long-term prospects and that of their litters, we must continue.
The GLTFCA was once deemed one of Africa’s few remaining lion strongholds, however the population is now only precariously holding on. With long-term support for our in-situ efforts, and international pressure to change legislation regarding the lion bone trade, this population can be strengthened and rescued.
The Greater Limpopo Carnivore Program is a conservation research initiative working in the Mozambican component of the Greater Limpopo Trans Frontier Conservation Area. Through scientifically sound research and direct conservation action, the program strives to improve the conservation prospects for lions and other large carnivore populations in the region.
Kris Everatt is a PhD Candidate at Nelson Mandela University and National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grantee of 2016/7. Originally from Canada, Kris began his career as a biologist in the Yukon studying wolves and grizzly bears. He now manages the Greater Limpopo Carnivore Program in Mozambique, working to restore the meta-population viability of lions across the region and improve the conservation management of large carnivores.
Rae Kokeš emigrated from the U.K. in 2011 after graduating with a MSc in Animal Behaviour. After working extensively in Zambia and Zimbabwe, she implemented the Matusadona Lion Project in the Sebungwe region of Zimbabwe. Since 2016 she has also worked as Assistant Project Manager with Kris Everatt on the Greater Limpopo Carnivore Program. Rae is also the founder of the World Lion Day campaign.
Meet National Geographic Society Big Cats Initiative grantees and learn about their on-the-ground conservation efforts.