Two wild animals that are part of two separate National Geographic-funded research studies in Africa crossed paths last week. Only one walked away.
The deadly meeting went down on the savanna in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. The perp: a female lion from the Lua Cheia pride, a group with two adult females and four nine-month-old cubs. The pride is being monitored by Paola Bouley and colleagues as part of Projecto Leões da Gorongosa (the Gorongosa Lion Project, which Bouley cofounded to help lion population recovery and conservation).
The victim: An adult female kudu—one of several species of antelope studied by Princeton’s Rob Pringle, Ryan Long, and colleagues. (They are investigating how the spacing of plant-topped termite mounds—from which antelopes feed—affects the mammals’ movements and numbers. The project is supported by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Expliration.)
The antelope team has put GPS collars on 30 animals so far, just 10 of them kudu, and the lion team is following only 8 collared cats. The odds of a collared lion meeting—and eating—a collared kudu? “Ridiculously low,” Long said.
Long starts his days on the ground in Mozambique going online and checking the latest GPS data from his study animals, to make sure all are still alive. “On the morning of August 7, I was actually blown away to see that I had a kudu collar in mortality mode,” he said. (The collars “know” and report when an animal has been motionless for a certain amount of time.) Kudu are robust and relatively rare in the park. “My first thought was actually that we might have a malfunctioning collar.”
But the collar was working fine, and by the time Long and veterinarian Rui Branco reached the remote site by helicopter, their kudu was just skin and bones.
On the Case
The researchers began trying to piece together what had happened to the victim. There was no evidence that she’d been snared by a poacher, which was good news. But besides the ungulate’s carcass, her collar still fastened around what was left of her neck, the killer hadn’t left much to go on—no claw marks or tooth marks that would unequivocally indicate a lion kill.
“As a result, we actually left the kill site a bit confused about the whole thing,” Long said. “It wasn’t blatantly obvious that she’d been eaten by lions, but there was also no way any other carnivore or scavenger in the park could have consumed her so entirely in so little time.”
Meanwhile, Bouley, director of the lion project, was curious about a cluster of data points from the lions’ GPS collars that suggested the cats preyed on something. On that day she happened to be out tracking the very predators that Long and Rui would soon finger for killing their animal. In fact, the two men were by then heading toward the same coordinates Bouley was stalking. (Read about National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.)
Though the teams didn’t meet on the ground, it wasn’t long before the kudu researchers thought to look at Bouley’s GPS data from the Lua Cheia pride. And there, in dots on a map, was the evidence they needed to solve the mystery. The coincidence was bizarre, but the animals had clearly met face to face, and one or both of the adult lions had then done what hungry lions do best. (Bouley can’t say which lion made the first strike, “but they likely all participated in the takedown.” That would include a cat who previously lost a paw in a poacher’s trap.)
Of 40 documented kills by this pride of lions, this was the first kudu to fall. The incident happened near a large watering hole, the researchers say, which could be why the animals were at that spot at the same time (though no one knows for sure).
Especially for projects with such small sample sizes, losing even one animal is a big deal. Pringle explained that the researchers had been laying the groundwork for the antelope project for more than a year, and had only just this summer gotten collars onto ten female kudu (plus ten bushbucks and ten nyalas). This involves darting them from a helicopter (in the case of kudu), or from a car for the smaller species. “While they are anesthetized after being darted, we collect various information on their size, body condition, reproductive status, etc. Then the collar goes on, and the animals wake up and wander off with their new jewelry.” (It’s the same labor-intensive process to collar lions.)
“Our two projects have been very much aware of each other and collaborative throughout,” Pringle said. “There aren’t a lot of scientists working in Gorongosa, so we’re all good friends and try to help each other where we can.”
But no collaborative spirit could have helped in this case. Wild animals do what they do regardless of protocols, and the researchers know that losses can come at any time.
Of course, there are no hard feelings between the teams.
“Lions gotta eat,” Long said, “and I’d rather lose a kudu to a lion than to a poacher!”