The Okavango Delta is considered a pristine wilderness. Visitors are treated to vast open landscapes and extraordinary wildlife sightings. One of the biggest draws is the lion, the largest predator and undisputed king of the region. But for all of the strength that lions possess, there is an Achilles heel that can throw a thriving population into chaos: the removal of a territorial male.
Photo of Lentswe in the distance (photo: Stephanie Periquet)
When we started our lion conservation program here, along the northern boundary of the Okavango Delta, the lion population was reeling from a series of poisoning events that cut the population in half in one year. Many of the prides disappeared altogether and a struggle for territory ensued. Though the females, living in prides, maintain their areas, it is the males that protect and defend the territory against intruders that seek an opportunity to mate.
In many areas, males can hold a pride for only a few years, just long enough to mate and see their cubs to independence before younger, bolder males take their place. To increase their chances of holding their ground, males will build coalitions with other males–typically their brothers–in order to have the best chance of maintaining a territory for longer periods.
Since females don’t always sync up their reproduction, often there are cubs at a range of ages and so the new males have a choice to make. Do I wait for these cubs to reach independence, or do I kill the cubs, bringing the female into estrous for faster mating opportunities? This is the cold calculation the new males must make, because they are on the clock from the moment they take over a pride. If the cubs are less than a year, they are typically killed by the incoming coalition. This is the tragedy of regime-change in lion society.
Photo of cubs (photo: Andrew Stein)
In areas of greater instability, territorial males change more often, stagnating population growth and slowly killing the population. When lions kill livestock, communities retaliate. With poison or bullets, lions fall and the pride dynamics are shaken.
In the communal areas north of the Okavango, conflict between lions and people is nothing new. Since the start of 2018, lions have been slaughtering livestock. This is due to a number of factors, including unherded livestock venturing deep into lion territory, and also the roaring return of the lion population since our program began and poisoning stopped in the region. The communities have steadily reduced lion-killing, which led to the birth of over 15 new cubs in 2016 and 2017.
Photo of male and female lion (photo: Stephanie Periquet)
Despite the reduced killing, we have seen dramatic turnover as the area males struggle to keep a pride. In 2014 it was Eretsha and his brother who were the new kings in the west after pushing Nduraghombo and Mutlawankanda to the east. Then in 2016, Gombo and Poison (named because the community believed his limp was the result of a previous poisoning) took over the western and central portion of the study area, pushing the previous males to the margins. When Mutlawankanda was shot in February of last year, that put Nduraghombo on notice, and he has essentially been nomadic ever since.
By the end of 2017, however, the mighty Gombo and his injured companion Poison, couldn’t hold off the new young males, Lentswe and Stout. During our January darting expedition, we were shocked when we collared Lentswe in the eastern portion of our study area, and then found him the next night on the western edge. He and Stout were covering the area of at least three prides. Wetu, one of our newly collared females, was mating with Stout, and Shishatiya, another female, was receptive to him as well. We later found out that Shishatiya likely lost her recent cubs (sired by Gombo) to Lentswe and Stout. Other females in his area also had young cubs that fell, and they were quite busy ensuring that their genetic line would take root.
All that came into question on Friday, when Lentswe was found dead near an area lodge. Our team took traditional mokorros to find him and inspect the body. It was determined that he had been shot in the chest, missing several organs. But after four days of struggle, he eventually succumbed to the injuries.
Lentswe was a strong, prime-age male. He was named for the Setswana word for “Stone” by a member of the community. Now that he is no longer there to defend his many cubs, both newly born or on the way, we face a serious period of instability. Stout will likely be chased out by intruders that must in turn immediately defend their claim against a crop of new competition. Females typically lay low during these periods, waiting for the conclusion of these battles before committing to mating with any one group.
Photo of Lentswe Dead (photo by Florian Weise)
We are working with members of the community and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to determine what happened, and the best course of action to take. Lentswe is gone, and likely his entire cohort of cubs is lost. We will carry on our work, waiting for the full impact of that single bullet.
ABOUT ANDREW STEIN
Andrew Stein has 15 years’ experience working on human-carnivore conflict throughout East and southern Africa. His work draws upon his interest in wildlife ecology, culture, and engaging with communities to develop pragmatic solutions to challenging issues in the field. His previous work includes studies of African wild dogs and lions in Laikipia, Kenya, and leopards on farmlands in the Soutpansberg, South Africa, and Waterberg region of Namibia.
After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Stein headed a field camp overseeing ecological research on lions, leopards, cheetahs, African wild dogs, and spotted hyenas in northern Botswana. In 2015, Dr. Stein founded the CLAWS Conservancy (Communities Living Among Wildlife Sustainably), a nonprofit organization established to provide innovative approaches to promote human-wildlife coexistence. His current research initiatives include Pride in Our Prides, a human-lion conflict study in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, that engages the community in lion-monitoring. By informing communities about the habits of individual lions and providing real-time text alerts, the program has helped to stabilize and increase the lion population and halt the use of poison to kill the big cats.
In 2016, Stein led an international team of colleagues in making the case to change the conservation status of leopards to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Additionally, CLAWS is developing a program to use scent-marking to reduce wolf conflict in the western United States. Prior to his African carnivore focus, Stein studied by-catch and distribution of Atlantic sturgeon, explored bowhead whale migratory patterns in the face of sea ice melt in northern Alaska, moose movement patterns in western Massachusetts in relation to major road crossings, and nesting success by grassland/shrubland birds under powerline clearcuts.
Stein is currently an Assistant Professor of Natural Sciences at Landmark College, based in Putney, Vermont. He has received support from National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative since 2014.