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Northern Botswana Summer Field Trip

Post submitted by Andrew Stein

Northern Botswana provides critical habitat for one of the largest remaining intact populations of wild lions in the world, yet regional conflicts between villagers and lions have threaten its viability. Recent poisoning events have indiscriminately targeted lions and killed spotted hyenas, jackals and vultures as well. The ‘Pride In Our Prides’ initiative was established in August of 2014 to learn about the key drivers of this conflict and address those drivers with support from the community. After administering an extensive questionnaire to over 200 households in the region, we started working on the issues of livestock husbandry and indiscriminate killing with support from National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative.

In May of 2015 our team started construction of lion-proof kraals (corrals). These kraals are constructed from local, natural materials using the weaving skills that villagers have perfected over generations. The kraals serve the dual purpose of keeping predators from entering the kraals, but also keeping livestock from bursting out when they hear lions roaring nearby. To date, we have constructed and dedicated 3 kraals in 3 different villages, providing temporary employment and an example to villagers for future kraals.

Courtesy of Andrew Stein
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein

In mid-August, we set out to dart and collar 5 lions with satellite tracking collars. On day one, we traveled northeast from Seronga to Eretsha to inspect a reported lion kill. It was dead cow with clear lion tracks around it, claw punctures, signs of trauma around the neck and some feeding on the hind quarters. There was little doubt that lions were here recently, so we camped out nearby in hopes of darting and collaring one of these individuals for the study. In the morning, we saw no new sign of lions, so they must have moved on. We decided to head to the main study area in the NG12 concession.

As the rivers have started receding, we gained access to NG12, the concession to the south of the villages where ‘conflict lions’ find refuge. Though the river was dropping, we were two of the first vehicles to attempt the crossing. Various reports stated that the water would reach above the windows on the vehicle. We had a diesel Land Cruiser with a snorkel specifically for such occasions, so it was time to test our vehicle and our fortitude. Though the water covered the hood and the current drifted the cruiser slightly, we were able to make it across with a few articles of damp equipment.

Courtesy of Andrew Stein
Vehicle Crossing, Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein

Upon arrival, we contacted area lodges to find out where to set up camp and search for our target prides. We heard that a coalition of young males were feeding on a buffalo in the southwest and a pride of nine lions (one male, two females and 6 cubs) were roaring to the north along the floodplain near a high conflict area. We had a gameplan!

In the morning, we found the boys on the buffalo but did not recognize as resident. There were reports that they had come from an area far from the conflict zone, so we did not readily collar them without more information. We were confident that they would be feeding for a couple days, so there was no emergency. We searched for the pride of nine and found tracks to follow. The following day, our local trackers Pro and Jackson helped us find fresh tracks to follow, but the lions detected us before we could see them and started circling and running away (according to the tracks). We learned that our young boys on the buffalo were now resident and ventured close to the conflict zone, so they were animals of interest to the study- therefore we darted and collared one with our state-of-the-art collars.

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein

These collars not only use GPS/ Satellite technology to locate the lions 5 times a day and beam this data to our laptops for detailed monitoring, but they also send us a text message when the lions venture into the ‘high conflict zone’ located north of the concession boundary. We can then report to villagers when lions are nearby so that they can round up their livestock and place them in protective kraals.
The information from these collars will not only serve as an early warning system, but as we visit homesteads, we will report about the individual lions, their pride dynamics, habits, etc. in order to individualize them. People have a tendency to care about things they know more about. “Lions” are a problem to many villagers, but if they know that some individuals are more or less likely to cause problems, then they should be less likely to indiscriminately kill all lions with poison. Instead, we hope to increase tolerance for lions and target those individuals who do cause conflict for non-lethal management.

Before planning the next day’s activities, we moved camp closer to the pride of nine. The decision was made easier by the wild fire on the horizon quickly approaching. Ash, carried on the wind, was showering us- time to move on!

The following day, we tracked down the pride of nine. The male of the pride was a little weary, but the females and cubs were not particularly disturbed by our presence until the dart hit and the female moved into thick cover. After a little ‘cat herding’ and vehicle maneuvering we got access to her to put out our second collar. Once we backed off the cubs and second female came in to attend to her. That night the lions found our camp and circled in- roaring in the night. They even killed a young zebra in the floodplain, so we could hear them feeding a couple hundred yards away as we ate breakfast.

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein

We still wanted to dart the male and figured that we could find the pride by tracking the female wearing the new collar. That night we got close, missed with a couple darts and thought we missed our chance. We decided on a whim to play a combination of recordings of a struggling buffalo calf and feeding hyenas. With little delay, our male was approaching our vehicle, looking for a feeding opportunity. This time we were able to dart him and as night closed in, we put out our third collar. It was important to collar him as well as the female since these prides do not always stay together. He will likely break off and meet with other females, his coalition mate or stay on his own for short periods.
With the collaring of our third lion, we had two other individuals we wanted to target- a female with a short tail and an older male. The female is named “Mathlahere” by the villagers, which means “sneaky” because of her livestock killing reputation. She often moves with another adult female and they have 4 cubs together. She is likely the lioness that killed the cow we had investigated on the first night. Now we were not sure where she was. The male was in a coalition of three until 2013 when villagers shot his coalition mates. He has been alone ever since- moving between prides of females in the area. Unfortunately, nobody at the lodges had seen tracks of either in several days. Back to scratch.

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein

In the evening, we searched and eventually caught up to the pride of nine. Under the spotlight we saw the cubs play. One individual was trying to catch a ride on her mother’s back. Her uncooperative mother kept walking, so the cub, whose front paws were holding on to her mother, had to walk on her hind legs to keep up. These are the kinds of moments that validate the long days and give you strength to face the daunting challenges in conservation.

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein
Photo Courtesy of Eric LeFlore

After two days of extensive tracking we were coming up empty. Lion tracks were around, but nothing fresh. The female was likely still hanging around the village on the other side of the river based on reports of another livestock kill. The male was around and after 3 days, we cut fresh tracks. With a little tracking, we caught up to him and put out our fourth collar. With a couple days remaining, we never caught up with Mathlahere. She was true to her name! Luckily we will have another opportunity to find her in October when our vet returns. In the meantime, we plan to work with area lodges to organize lion viewing for influential members of the various villagers and possibly small school groups. We want the villagers to see the lions, name them local names and learn about their habits to report back to their neighbors. Having spent time with the pride of nine, I think viewing the playful cubs will help our efforts to generate interest in the prides and personalities therein.

In the coming months, we will learn a great deal about the local lions, introduce them to the communities and hopefully generate investment in the welfare of these incredible predators. Solutions are available with cooperation of interested villagers. We hope that through these experiences, supported by National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative, we can foster a little Pride in their Prides.

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stein