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Rapid-Response Unit Saves Lions

By Tonga Torcida & Paola Bouley

Lion Rescue Unit: Rui Branco, Paola Bouley, Antonio Paulo, Tonga Torcida, Alfredo Matevele, Louis van Wyk.

We found our lioness, Rosa, on the edge of the lake and close to a community inside the Park. Not having seen her for a few weeks, we approached slowly to where she was hidden deep in a palm thicket.  Something was wrong, she wasn’t moving.

Rosa is well known to us, a tree-climbing lioness that raised two cubs right behind Chitengo Park Headquarters. But over the past few months — as her cubs grew to maturity — she made a long trek to the river and an area where we are constantly working to control illegal poaching for bushmeat.

After several attempts to find Rosa deep in the long-grass and a sector with no roads and high grass, her signal popped up on a road one morning and we quickly diverted from our current mission to check her.

As we approached the thicket we couldn’t see her, but we were close enough to hear her shallow breathing.  No movement except for a cloud of buzzing flies. We had to launch a rescue. But now the challenge was to reach in to her safely.  A lion — no matter how injured or sick — is still a lion.

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Rui Branco trying to reach in and remove her from a deep palm thicket. Photo: P. Bouley.

Despite no clear path to fly a dart loaded with sedative, three of us working together managed to painstakingly open a small window in the scrub using long bamboo poles. One dart made it. Relief. Once we were sure she was safely sedated, we moved in to pull her out. Her body was severely mauled by other lions and her left paw was snared.  She was beaten.  We immediately began a medical intervention to attempt to save her life that at the time we thought would amount to a small miracle if we succeeded.

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Wire snares set by bushmeat poachers are indiscriminate and lions like Rosa are often bycatch. Photo: P. Bouley.

We treated multiple deep lacerations from the claws and teeth of other lions and removed the snare. We left her with a small amount of food, hoping she’d eat overnight, but not really believing she would be capable of even that.  So much of the success of these medical interventions efforts hinges on the particular animal;  like people, individual lions respond to treatments in different ways. And here in Gorongosa lions remain wild;  there are no vet clinics, no fenced enclosures… only wilderness and our mobile response unit working wherever we can reach.  Rosa for sure would have to do her part to pull through, and we’d have to track her closely over days if not weeks to help her make it.

None of us really thought she’d pull through the night, but that’s where we had greatly underestimated her.

Returning early the next day we began to witness a small “miracle” unfold. Surprising us all, Rosa had eaten some of the meat we had left for her and moved out in to the open.  A glimmer of hope.  OK, but still a long way to go.

Monitoring her GPS signal from camp the second night, we watched her move out on to the floodplain to drink at a pan on the edge of the lake. That following morning we arrived to find vultures feasting at that location on a warthog carcass. Had she killed it herself, or had she scavenged it?  We couldn’t be sure, but her belly was full, and more importantly she was behaving like a lioness… she eyed us steadily as we approached each time, not letting down her guard.  Our confidence in her survival grew — but now we got to work to save  her paw.

Tonga and Tonecas monitored her daily, and our vet team sedated and treated her twice over the next three weeks. Safely immobilizing her, cleaning and disinfecting her wounds, and initially providing her with food to give her a boost. We carefully documented each step.

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Second treatment of Rosa. Photo: Kyler Abernathy.

Barely two weeks into treatment she began making her own kills. And so it began, every 3-4 days she began feasting on adult, male warthogs. She’d stealthily pluck them from their paths in and out of their deep earthen burrows.  She fattened up, the scars began to heal and she began walking on her front paw again.

Rosa represents one of our more intensive interventions. With a few weeks of care for her under our wings we witnessed first-hand the immense potential these animals have for recovery. Lions define what it means to be resilient, and they’re way beyond being just survivors — they’re fighters.

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New lion anti-poaching scouts join a medical intervention and last treatment of our lioness. Photo: P. Bouley.

Rosa was a victim of the illegal bushmeat trade, a little know yet relentless and growing pressure facing lion populations across their range in Africa. Bushmeat is the next big conservation challenge in Africa, after the illegal ivory and rhino-horn trade.  Although currently poorly understood and mostly hidden from the world’s eyes,  the drivers of this conflict represent one of the most challenging and complex issues to resolve. Poverty, conflict, escalating demand and a strong traditional culture of hunting for wild meat are all contributors.  Lions are hit most of the time as by-catch. Teams like ours across the continent remain on the ground to intervene, to try to save lives.  Rapid-response vet units, anti-poaching patrols – all synchronized – can stem the losses while larger human development programs take root.

To show for all these efforts, a lioness like Rosa, who is a critical part of a recovering population, today lives strong. Just two weeks ago she began socializing with the Senator Coalition of males.  Soon we hope to welcome her new cubs to the Gorongosa family.

To support the Rapid-Response Unit please visit www.Gorongosa.org, and www.lions.gorongosa.org