Jacob, a seven-year-old male lion was caught in a trap that severed his left hind leg. Fortunately, he had been fitted with a satellite collar that enabled Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) together with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) rangers in the Southern sector — popularly known as Ishasha Sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) — to locate and save him from losing his life.
In 2018, eleven lions in Ishasha sector, Kyambura Wildlife Reserve and the Northern Sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda were fitted with satellite collars embedded with a Global Positioning System (GPS) to enable WCS to monitor their movements in real time and minimize fatalities caused by poaching and human-wildlife conflict. Jacob was one of the lions that received a collar.
Jacob belongs to a small population of 100 rare tree-climbing lions popular in QENP. These are the most sought-after tourist attraction species after mountain gorillas, making Uganda a popular destination. However, lions face enormous threats, including retaliatory killing in response to livestock depredation, poaching for their body parts such as teeth, tails and fat for cultural and traditional practices and possibly for illegal trade. These parts are used as a source of medicine by traditional practitioners, and are treated as a source of power, charm and luck by communities for businesses and wealth acquisition.
While a few lions break free from poachers’ traps, their hope is often short-lived. This is due to the injuries they sustain that weaken and make them vulnerable to large prey or aggression from other males of their own that come to take over their prides or territory. Such was the case of Jacob when he crossed the Ugandan border to Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during a hunting experience, and accidentally stepped into a poacher’s trap that snapped off his hind leg.
Monitoring and tracking radio signals transmitted by Jacob’s collar
In June 2020, remote transmission of coordinates from Jacob’s collar captured his movement to Virunga National Park in DRC. The area falls within Jacob’s home range — supporting his normal activities of hunting, mating and possibly in the future, caring for his young. While the rangers continued to receive coordinates from Jacob’s collar, they could not undertake a rescue mission even after coordinates from his collar showed limited movement for three months. According to the rangers, no action could be taken to rescue Jacob without a formal transboundary collaboration mechanism between UWA and Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) of DR Congo to allow them to cross the international border easily. To their relief, in August 2020, a slow-moving Jacob was sighted crossing into Uganda. The relieved team of rangers and WCS field staff immediately set out with a hand-held receiver connected to a directional antenna to track him, and picked up the radio signal transmitted by Jacob’s collar. They found Jacob gravely injured and exhausted.
The rescue mission and rehabilitation of Jacob
The park rangers immediately alerted the QENP rapid rescue team — Bazil Alidria, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Carnivore Conservation Officer and Dr. Siefert Ludwig, the Honorary Wildlife Veterinary Doctor and Founder of Uganda Carnivore Program, who darted Jacob with a tranquilizer. Jacob’s leg had been severed by a wheel trap, commonly used in DRC to illegally hunt buffaloes and hippopotamuses. After Jacob’s wound was washed with an antiseptic, he was given an antidote vet drug to reverse the tranquilizer. Jacob also received antibiotic capsules (that were placed in a chunk of game meat), to avert further infection and promote faster healing.
Six months later, Jacob has improved greatly and is occasionally seen by the rangers with prey. Bazil has cited Jacob with his mother (Jessica), his two sisters and two brothers who help to keep him alive by bringing him food to eat and providing him with social comfort.
Rehabilitating lions in the wild is a practice that Uganda has adopted because it does not have a rescue station other than the Uganda Wildlife Education Center at Entebbe, which is crowded with other rescued wild animals. “Our rehabilitation code of practice stems from not having a rescue station, but it has enabled us to help injured animals to retain their survival skills. It has also prevented their aggression towards human beings, often meted out by animals that are rehabilitated in enclosed spaces and later released into the Wild,” says Dr. Ludwig. While Jacob has been reunited with his pride of 13 lions, his future is still uncertain. “We have only helped to extend Jacob’s life and we hope that he can escape from his adversaries — the elephant, hippopotamus and buffalo,” adds Dr. Ludwig.
Collaring promotes lion conservation and prevents human-wildlife conflict
Unlike Jacob, many other lions have lost their lives because they could not be closely monitored. Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in collaboration with Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP) and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) with support from The Lion Recovery Fund have collared 11 lions (five in the southern sector and six in the northern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park) that were constantly being monitored. The lion rapid response and rescue unit supported by monitoring technology has reduced the number of annual lion fatalities from 11 known individuals in December 2017 to December 2018 to only three recorded in January 2019 — January 2020.
In addition, WCS has raised the awareness of over 4,000 frontline communities about lion conservation, lion recovery and park management. WCS has also engaged eight scouts to respond to lion community alerts, and has equipped community members with skills to construct 13 bomas (lion-proof pens and kraals) to prevent livestock loss to carnivores. As a result of these varied efforts, the number of livestock depredations have reduced from 53 reported in 2018 to 4 reported in 2020.
It is evident that the implementation of multidimensional efforts by WCS and its partners has contributed to the reduction of lion fatalities caused by poaching and human-wildlife conflict in both the Northern and Southern Sectors of Queen Elizabeth National Park. This, however, needs to be strengthened by transboundary natural resource management of the two adjacent national parks: Virunga (DR Congo) and QENP (Uganda)to ensure that these critically endangered species are preserved and protected.