Kenya: Counting Samburu’s vanishing lions

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The East African (Nairobi)
20 September 2008
Posted to the web 22 September 2008
By Rupi Mangat
It is a matter of concern that in only two decades, Africa’s lion population has dwindled from 200,000 to 20,000 today.
For anyone coming to Africa, the big thrill is to see the ultimate king of the jungle, who combines strength with noble looks, who is invincible against all odds.
Strong dynasties in every civilisation stretching from the pharaohs of Egypt to the warrior Sikhs of the Punjab and from the Maasai morans to the Mayans, proudly identified with the lion for its legendary prowess.
Yet today, the lion’s future is threatened by habitat destruction as humanity spreads into the last frontiers in search of space to live.
For scientists and conservationists, it is a challenge to secure safe spaces for the cats, alongside the people who live in close proximity with them.
Without this partnership, the last of the wild cats will soon be assigned to the pages of history. A new study is addressing this conundrum.
“This is the first study on lions in the Ewaso ecosystem,” says Shivani Bhalla, the young Kenyan researcher working on her PhD project in the harsh but undeniably stunning drylands of Kenya’s north. “My study area comprises the Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National reserves, which are protected areas, and the non-protected area of West Gate. It covers an area of 1,000 square kilometres. The project is called the Ewaso Lion Project.
“The focus of my study is to compare the lion population in both the protected and non-protected areas,” adds the researcher, who looks too young and fragile to be roaming around looking for lions in what was once the inhospitable Northern Frontier District.
“We don’t know anything about the cats in this ecosystem because there has never been any research done before. My focus is to determine if the lion population outside the protected areas is unstable,” she continues.
Unstable populations are due to factors such as human-wildlife conflict, lack of prey and habitat whereas in the protected areas, the lion populations may be more stable because there is protection, prey and habitat.
Bhalla Ame to Samburu six years ago, armed with a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences from the United Kingdom.
Back home, she had a short stint as a volunteer at the Kenya Wildlife Service before being offered a posting to Samburu to work for the Save the Elephant programme.
Travelling around the area in her capacity as an educational officer, she became intrigued with the big cats of Samburu.
There was nothing about them save for ad hoc literature, mostly from the writings of the legendary Joy Adamson who at the time of her killing in Shaba National Reserve in 1980, was working on returning Penny, the leopard, back in the wild.
Shivani enrolled for a master’s degree in 2003 to establish a baseline population of lions in Samburu and Buffalo Springs.
The population then numbered 38. This year, the population is only 20, which is worrying, for it represents almost 50 per cent decline in the short span of five years.
“We can only speculate about the decline in population,” she continues. “I suspect that many left the area because when a pride gets too big, young males have to leave to found new prides.
In 2005, there were seven big males in the area and they all left. A few came to West Gate and some went to Kalama (another community conservancy north of Samburu).
“In August, I saw three big male lions in West Gate. It’s the first complete sighting of lions in this conservancy. The community is excited because nobody had complete sightings here. It was always of a lion disappearing in the bush — so one just caught a glimpse of the tail or ear. I suspect that these three could be part of the pride of seven that left the reserve in 2005.”
This Data Collection will help piece together lion movement in the area. With this new sighting, there is keen interest by the community to expand the conservancy. At this point, it covers 8,000 of the 35,000 hectares of community land.
“At first when I saw the three, one looked like a female because it had no mane. But when it stood and started walking, he was unmistakenly a male,” continues Bhalla.
As with the Tsavo lions, being maneless is thought to be a response to the environment.
Supporting a huge mane is fine in the relatively cooler grasslands of Maasai Mara, but it helps to shed the mane where temperatures soar to 40 degrees Celsius. Another theory is that when lions prowl through the dense thickets, it leaves little room for the mane to grow full length.
Bhalla will compare the whisker spots of this population to the 2005 pictures of the cubs in order to be able to make positive identification.
A lion’s whisker spots are as unique as human fingerprints or a zebra’s stripes. Judith Rudnai, who worked on the lion population in Nairobi National Park in the 1970s, was the first to use this technique of identification for lions. Since then, it has become the norm.
“So far, l estimate the lion population in the Samburu/Buffalo Springs ecosystem to number between 15 to 20 lions. In West Gate, which is the non protected area, the estimate is between 10 and 15 and in Shaba, nobody knows,” says Bhalla.
Counting lions in the wild is not an easy job, especially if the terrain is full of thorn scrub and thickets and where the sun bakes the earth dry. For most of the day, lions will stay in the shaded thickets, a necessity since they do not have sweat glands to control their body temperatures. Hence, it’s not uncommon to see lions panting most of the time — it keeps them cool.
Furthermore, there is another challenge in the unprotected areas. “Lions behave differently in these unprotected areaS. They are not habituated to cars and so at the slightest sound, they hide or move away.”
Lions used to vehicles, as in Maasai Mara or Samburu, on the other hand show more confidence, posing for photo shoots and ignoring the vehicles that mill around them.
Accompanied by her lion tracker, Risila Lelengu, a Samburu warrior of the West Gate conservancy, the two leave camp every morning by 5.30.
There are more chances of seeing the cats during the coolest part of the day — early morning and late evening. If not, then the lion tracks are a welcome sighting, which Risila is an expert on.
For the past few months, Shivani Bhalla has operated out of West Gate conservancy with the full support of the community. She winds up work in the conservancy shortly before moving on to Shaba.
By 8.30 am, with the sun in full spate and temperatures reaching 35 degrees Celsius, it’s time to head back to camp, enter the day’s sightings, tracks and examine the cat scats found.
The lions’ scats are carefully stored in plastic bags to be examined to see what passes through the animal’s digestive system.
“In March this year, there was a lot of conflict in the conservancy,” says Raphael Lekuraiyo who in charge of the conservancy. “There were several cases of lion predation on livestock, though we suspect most were by leopards and hyenas. The hyena is an opportunistic predator and will kill even during the day. But the leopard will hunt mostly during the night.
“There is a proliferation of firearms in the area as the Samburu and Somali fight over livestock. One consequence is that when livestock is killed by the cats, people shoot them with their guns,” continues Lekuraiyo.
“We now have awareness programmes about how and why we need to conserve the wildlife, how to improve bomas and protect livestock from predation. But the idea of the conservancy started in 2004 with Ian Craig of Lewa Downs. We were just using our land for grazing our livestock. Ian said that the community could benefit more if we conserved the wildlife on the land. At first, we were wary. We thought it was a way of taking our land away from us.
“But now we see the benefits. We have a small exclusive lodge built by investors, thereby earning revenue from the tourists. Jobs have been created for the community, our women make jewelery and there are other socio-economic benefits.”
Lekuraiyo continues: “So we want to see more research, the protected area increased and more tourists visiting.”
The lion is a keystone species. If it were to disappear, the ecosystem would be thrown completely out of sync. The prey species would increase dramatically, which would mean competition for browsing between livestock and wildlife.
“The predators are crucial for maintaining an ecosystem,” stresses Bhalla.
But even with protected areas, there are issues of misguided construction. Although tourism is a lucrative trade and the revenue earned is vital for conservation, it is a double-edged sword.
Investors with little understanding of wildlife habitats build lodges, and in many cases, huge structures in places that are best left to wild animals.
Today, there are a number of lodges on what were once elephant migratory corridors, forcing the megaherbivores to look for alternative routes. In many cases, the elephants are forced to pass through farms, destroying everything in their way.
In other cases, lodges have been built in lion breeding areas directly affecting the survival of the pride and the species at large. The pride either moves out or does not breed at all. Lions are also very territorial.
For the cats outside the protected areas, there is no space inside because all the territory is taken up. It usually also means when there’s no other recourse, lions will fight to the bitter end in order to claim a territory or to defend it.
Environmental impact assessments fall short of many requirements in deciphering animal behaviour or issues of fragile lands; when it is a question of money versus wildlife, money almost always becomes the deciding factor.
It is not that construction cannot happen elsewhere where it would impact less on wildlife — it can. Unfortunately, from the point of view of investors, the “best” sites are where the animals are — which unfortunately drives the animals away.
The Ewaso Nyiro is a key dry season refuge for all animals. Yet there are far too many lodges along its shores. The droughts of 2002 and 2006 were devastating for all the animals, leaving thousands dead and lying everywhere.
Upstream developments affect the water level and with more horticulture farms coming up, there’s less flowing downstream. Where once the Ewaso Nyiro flowed all the way to Lorian Swamp, it now disappears way before that.
“We need to strengthen our conservation efforts,” says Daniel Letoiye, the manager of West Gate conservancy, who is starting on his master’s degree on hyena populations in the conservancy. “Nobody likes them,” he laughs, “but they are very important for the ecosystem. And that is why l chose to do research on them.
“We also have almost 1,200 Grevy’s zebra here,” says the manager. “Our long term plan is to improve the conservancy. During the drought, there’s no pasture outside, so everyone comes into the conservancy. We then have to work with the committee of elders to talk to the community because, in our culture, the elders’ word is respected. We need to work on a proper land management plan where pastoralism and conservation are compatible.
“Our traditional ways are changing because children are now going to school. We need to merge both the modern and the traditional to move forward.
“Research and heritage,” chips in Lekuraiyo, “are very important for survival.”
Wildlife research is not an inexpensive affair. The Ewaso Lion project runs into millions of shillings, which means much of Shivani Bhalla’s time is spent writing proposals and looking for donors.
The West Gate conservancy is for now being supported by a San Diego zoo. The long-term plan is to be self-supporting. Bhalla’s hope is that the Ewaso Lion Project will attract more researchers and eventually enable her to open a research institute in Samburu.
One of the Ewaso Lion Project’s supporters is the African Wildlife Foundation, which supports the lion researcher by awarding her a Charlottes Fellow scholarship.
Driving though the conservancy, we stop by one of the schools where Bhalla has set up a tree planting project.
For the young Roy Juma, who is in Standard Four at Lpus Leluai, guarding his tree is a way of bringing rain to the land in future. He is the face of the next generation in conservation.

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