Importance of lions
African lions (Panthera leo) are the largest and most imposing carnivore in Africa. They are the only true social cats and have special cultural significance in most countries on the continent. In Uganda, lions enjoy a reputation as ‘king of the beasts’ and are popular symbols of royalty, strength and bravery. Lions live in a ‘fission-fusion’ society which is a fairly rare social system similar to chimpanzees. Individuals have different home ranges that overlap so that they regularly meet and come together. Males are thrown out of the group at the age of 3-4 years by the dominant male(s) and will try to take over a pride when they get to 7-10 years old. Males usually hole a pride for 2-3 years only before being ousted by another male or coalition of males. Females generally stay in the same area as their mothers, occasionally moving to an adjacent pride when subadult, and rear a litter of cubs every two years. The highest mortality of lions is in the cubs with often whole litters being killed by other predators or buffalos.
In Uganda lions are mainly found in the three largest savannah parks: Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), Kidepo Valley National Park (KVNP) and Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). In QENP, the Ishasha lions are known for their unique behavior of climbing trees and have been branded the "Ishasha tree-climbing lions" by tourists. Lions, after mountain gorillas, are the most sought-after species by tourists visiting Uganda. A WCS assessment in 2006 showed that each individual lion in Queen Elizabeth National Park generated about $13,500 USD per year for the national economy in terms of the revenue it brought into the country. An influencing factor was that tourists are willing to stay longer just to see lions. Ecologically, lions play an important role in maintaining ecosystem health and balance by predating on herbivores, often targeting sick individuals and thereby keeping disease down,and disposing of carcasses. This makes lions important to Uganda’s economy and ecology.
WCS initiatives to combat threats to lions
Murchison Falls National Park
Lion monitoring: Very little was known about the population dynamics or threats to lions in MFNP until the start of the WCS lion-monitoring project in 2009. This built upon previous work conducted by UWA veterinary doctor Margaret Driciru in 2001. WCS is monitoring four lion prides on the northern back on Murchison Falls, looking at ranging and foraging habits. We have collected this data using GPS and GSM enabled collars since 2010.
128 individuals have been identified on the northern bank to date. A 2013 census of lions and hyaenas in the savannah of the southern bank, previously under-sampled, revealed the possibility of the south harboring more lions and hyaenas. There are indications that the lion population may not be as small now as it was in the 2009 census. WCS will conduct another census in 2014 to check this.
Reducing illegal traps: Preliminary results of the WCS lion study in MFNP show that most mortality (71%, n=7) in adult lions is a result of human-related incidences, mainly snares and other traps. In two years, five lions were killed in illegal traps (three in wire snares & two in wheel traps), six lions were seriously injured (two by wheel traps & four by wire snares) and required veterinary intervention (three lost their limbs).
Efforts are ongoing to reduce illegal traps in the park. Using GIS and UWA ranger patrol data, snare- prone areas on the northern bank have been identified and zoned according to the type of traps.This was followed by a snare removal exercise in part of the 550 km2wire snare prone area. So far over 2,000 wires snares, 60 spears and 15 elephant traps have been collected and 38 animals rescued from wire snares. Working with the UWA community conservation department, WCS trains and enables ex-poachers to retrieve wheel-traps at homes and in the park. We also paid for the destruction and disposal of all wire snares held at MFNP stores in case of theft.
The snare removal exercises need to continue as more than 80% of the snare zone has yet to be surveyed. In order to do this, WCS and UWA need more resources to pay for the basic supplies the removal team requires in order to conduct frequent snare removal exercises of the entire wire snare zone. Continued monitoring of the lion population is vital to understand the severity of these threats and their impact on the population.
Ranger training: UWA rangers are being trained to assess the health and demographics of lions from their foot patrols. WCS shares the positions of the collared lions with UWA to help them to respond faster and more accurately to incidences of lions moving into community land. This has positively impacted the human-lion conflict.
Oil discoveries: Commercially viable quantities of oil have been discovered under Murchison NP, and the process of further exploration and production will increase significantly over the next five years. This has enormous potential to cause further disturbance to the lion population and its prey basis. Ongoing monitoring of the population will be critical to understand the impacts of oil development,and to provide recommendations to UWA and to the oil companies on strategies to minimize impacts.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Lion monitoring: In 2005, WCS launched a lion project in the Ishasha sector of QENP to monitor lion population dynamics. We hoped that information collected would aid our conservation efforts and intended to monitor the small population of tree-climbing lions found in this sector. This population has been ascertained and varies between 20-35 individuals only. WCS discovered that lions in the Ishasha sector move easily between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo when dispersing and that males have come from the DRC to Uganda to take over prides in Ishasha. Similarly our research shows that lions migrate from the central sector of QENP to Ishasha through the Maramagambo Forest. This migration is critical to the maintenance of a viable population of lions in Ishasha and if Uganda’s famous tree-climbing lions are to survive we need to maintain this connectivity.
Reducing illegal traps:Our continued monitoring of the population has helped to save lions on many occasions. By being able to respond to news of lions’ movements towards local communities, we have worked with UWA to move them back to the park before they are killed.Between March and August 2013, WCS rescued three lions that had become entangled in wire snares that poachers set to trap other wildlife.
Mitigating the human-carnivore conflict: Pastoralists bring their livestock into the park for both grazing and water, particularly in the dry season.WCS is spearheading activities aimed at improving and maintaining grazing grounds for pastoralists outside the park by helping them remove invasive Lantana plants. We have so far cleared over 2 km2 of land covered by Lantana. We are looking for funding to provide cattle watering points outside the park and also are in the process of testing solar lighting in the villages near cattle kraals so that both people and the livestock have better security at night and visibility should lions attack.
Eco-tourism: Over the coming years we will be developing lion experiential tourism with UWA as a mechanism to both increase revenue for UWA while at the same time using some of the revenue generated to reduce the conflicts between people and the parks.
Main threats to lions in Uganda
Globally, large carnivores are facing population declines as the ever growing human population reduces habitable landscapes in which they can live. A 2009 Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) national census of lions showed a decline from an estimated 600 a decade ago to 400 today. Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP) had the biggest decline from about 320 to 130 within a decade. This significant decline can largely be attributed to accidental snaring in traps set for antelopes and conflict with communities neighboring the park.
The lion population in the Ishasha sector of QENP has declined over the years: the number of Ishasha lions per square kilometre declined from 6 lions per 100 km2to 4 lions per 100km2 in the last 10 years. The two main threats to lions in QENP are snaring and conflict with pastoralists following predation of livestock or injury to humans. The majority of livestock keepers do not attend to their animals especially at night, which leaves them susceptible to lion predation. This human-lion conflict often triggers the retaliatory poisoning of the cattle carcasses killed by the lions and death of any animal that then feeds on it. This may often be scavengers such as hyaenas and vultures as much as the original culprit. Additionally, many lions have been speared to death by communities neighboring Ishasha and other parts of QENP.