Collaring the Lions in KAZA
Fear, anxiety, and excitement are the hallmark of emotions churned together during a large carnivore collaring expedition. As you get goosebumps thinking about being in proximity with dangerous carnivores such as the lion, it is only natural to wonder about the lives of people living on the fringes of national parks or the forgotten wildlife corridors. These are some of the harsh realities of people living in parts of KAZA.
The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) hosts about 15% of Africa’s lions. Though KAZA covers an area of 520 000 km2 (almost the size of Sweden), lions and other large carnivores have enough space to roam freely, until they come in conflict with the people living on the outskirts of the national park. The conflict is equally damaging to everyone involved – the lions, the people, and eventually the entire ecosystem.
Living Amongst the Lions
Lions are one of the world’s most majestic animals and are symbols of bravery, courage, and might. However, sharing the land with this big cat has challenges of its own.
For Shadrach Mwaba, the conflict between lions and people remains an everyday reality. It has been the same story for all of his life. The lion encounters humans, which leads to loss of life and livestock, and because of this, it gets killed in retaliation.
“Growing up in Zambia, I have seen the slow demise of the wildlife at the hands of humans. I saw poached animals including lions being sold for bushmeat and their parts. That is the reason why I opted for a career in conservation. I remember thinking that we, humans, have created the conservation crisis, and we are the only ones who can solve it,” added Shadrach.
Shadrach joined WWF Zambia as a research intern in 2020 to assist the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and biologists from Panthera to locate and collar lions. This was not the team’s first attempt, as they had been trying to collar large carnivores for years, with no success. Lions in Sioma Ngwezi had been elusive and very shy-thereby making collaring almost impossible!
Large carnivores such as lions are collared to understand their movement, the range they occupy, and to gather knowledge about uncollared carnivores and other wildlife in the protected area. This data helps guide law enforcement efforts in the park to protect the wildlife, as well as the people and their livestock.
In September 2020, WWF, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), and Panthera collared three large carnivores including a female wild dog, a male lion, and a lioness in the Sioma Ngwezi National Park of Silowana Complex. Situated in the lower west of the Zambezi, Sioma Ngwezi, like many African national parks, shares the story of once abundant wildlife and a turbulent past of unsustainable demand for the park’s natural resources (such as bushmeat, ivory, and timber).
As it slowly reclaims its past glory, an increased understanding of carnivores living in KAZA is crucial. The collaring will provide new information about the large carnivore guild, predator-prey and spatial dynamics, prey preferences, threats, and limiting factors.
Once the animal was located, the veterinarian immobilized it with the help of a dart gun and it took 5 to 10 minutes for the animal to become recumbent and immobilized. Once immobilized, its eyes were covered with a blindfold, the collar was fitted around the neck, samples (blood, hair, fecal) were taken, and body measurements were done
The collared lion was named Jackson after the Veterinarian from DNPW who darted it. While, the lioness was named Lady Silowana, after the Silowana Complex where she lives.
Putting the Pieces Together
Now that the lions are collared, Shadrach and his team will continue to collect the data on their location, movement, etc. This information is critical to the development of conservation strategies to protect Jackson and Lady Silowana, as well as the other lions in the area.
But collaring lions is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.
Shadrach has been involved in several other initiatives that will ensure a better future for lions in Silowana. He conducts genetic sampling, provides support in building predator-proof kraals, educates locals to resolve conflict with lions, collects data about human-lion conflict, and supports setting up of camera traps to the Department of Wildlife and National Park (research) to further bridge the knowledge gap.
Some of the studies they are conducting will help Shadrach and his team better understand the nature of the human-lion conflict in Sioma Ngwezi. He also plans to pilot a project to test the effectiveness of using donkeys in the mitigation of human-predator conflict in Sioma.
“The roar of lions across the vast Liuwa grassland plain, where I worked for many years as a Senior Field Ecologist before joining WWF, and nights of following them are some of the best memorable moments in my career. My dream is to see the number of lions increase and repopulate their former lost home ranges. It might be an ambitious goal, but I am getting closer to achieving it each day.”