Saving Queen Elizabeth National Park Lions One Radio Collar At A Time

Saving Queen Elizabeth National Park Lions One Radio Collar At A Time

Uganda is well known for its small but stable number of mountain gorillas (400) and healthy population of around 4,000 elephants. But it’s the gorillas that really draw the tourists.

Lions aren’t faring as well. The total number of lions in Uganda may be only 350, although verifying that is difficult considering how fecund and elusive they are.

According to wildlife veterinarian and honorary lecturer, Dr. Ludwig Siefert–Lu for short, also the team leader of the Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP), there are likely 54 lions in northern Queen Elizabeth and some 15 in the south, down almost 50 percent since they first began counting them 20 years ago.

UCPs mission includes, scientific research and monitoring of Queen Elizabeth’s resident carnivores, and bolstering community-based conservation.

Queen Elizabeth National Park may sit high atop Uganda’s safari circuit, but in many ways, it’s struggling to keep up with changing times. The park remains a beautiful and diverse sight for sore eyes with its breathtaking landscapes and diversity of wildlife, but the danger of collapse from forces–outside and within–is ever present.

 Albertine Rift remains a vortex of conflict: the spillover effects from the Rwandan genocide, the civil war that raged in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (costing the lives of 5 million people with skirmishes still ongoing), the ADF insurgency, and the overwhelming burden on arable land from an ever-growing human population deploying low-end agricultural production methods.

Conflict gives rise to poaching. Recent reports indicate that a small contingent of former Congolese M23 guerrillas slipped silently past the border from the park’s southern most Ishasha sector into Virunga National Park on the Congo side.

All of this makes for a powder keg waiting to explode in what is arguably one of the most beautiful places on the African continent. Yet somehow the lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park are hanging on.

With around 70 lions living in a space of 764 square miles, plus 11 enclave villages with a population of 30,000 people, the daily job of working to protect the park’s predators–including hyenas and leopards–is anything but.

A juvenile male climbs the arms of a candelabra euphorbia tree in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The northern sector of the park is a picturesque amalgam of savanna and grassy wetlands set against a backdrop of the snow-capped Rwenzori mountain range, known colloquially as the Mountains of the Moon. It should be perfect hunting grounds for the Pearl of Africa’s lions, but there’s been an unstable prey base of kob and buffalo due to poaching.

Unlike the much larger Serengeti prides in Tanzania, a Ugandan pride typically includes several maternal groups, and, a [small] male breeding coalition shuttling among them to find females in estrus and prevent other males from mating and hunting in their umbrella territory, shielding female territories from competition.

Though the tourists come to see the lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park, locating them is challenging. It requires a keen eye and the ability to listen to the antennae and receivers with what Lu describes as “a musician’s ears.”

Radio-tagging helps to track and monitor the movements of individual lions, properly maps their home ranges and social relations with one another, and identifies risk determinants to assist in the prevention of conflicts with people.

A darted male lion UCP unofficially refers to as “the Big Guy.” Photo by Michael Schwartz.

With the collar securely fastened, researchers also collect blood, saliva, and ectoparasite (tick) samples, all while performing a routine clinical exam to evaluate his health status. Part of this involves checking the teeth, paws, and other areas where lions are prone to injury or infection. The entire procedure takes about one hour.

Intravenous and intramuscular injection is used to reverse the anesthesia. Finally, the lion is moved into a safe position in the shade before he wakes up.

Leaving a lion alone while it recovers from a sedative can be dangerous if an elephant or buffalo happens to pass by. So the team has to wait till it gets up.  

Craig Packer, one of the world’s foremost experts on lions, often talks about the finances involved in supporting Africa’s remaining protected ecosystems. In his view, conserving large carnivores and their prey effectively costs many times more than what is currently being spent.

Lu shares Packer’s opinion. Without adequate funding from other outside sources, Uganda’s lions face a huge uphill battle, as do all wild lions remaining in Africa. But he tells me that despite his own lack of sleep and the many battles lost, every win makes it all worthwhile.

“We’re making a difference here. Many [local] people are learning to live with predators, and hopefully we can keep that momentum going through continued education efforts.”

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