Nancy Barker is the lead researcher for the program (pictured above) Her research is being funded and supported by the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the University of California at Berkeley, Lotek Wireless Solutions, Inc., and the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust (ALERT).
On arriving at the study area in northern Namibia, field work commenced immediately by attempting to locate the various lion prides which inhabit the area. You can read more about the aims of this project here.
I also visited the local communities to get a better understanding of the extent of human-wildlife conflict in the region. I met with the Chief of the local conservancies and discussed with him the problems communities faced. Lions often walk through their village, and will sometimes raid their livestock which presents a security problem for the local people and threatens their livelihood. Efforts are being made to implement a 6 foot high predator proof fence, topped with razor wire and embedded in concrete to prevent the lions from climbing into the cattle kraals where they can find an easy meal. After I had spent some time with the Chief, I learned from ALERT of the relatively new predator deterrent system which uses a form of flashing lights and was invented by a young boy in Kenya. I believe that this flashing light predator system may work very well with these communities and I would like to try to have this system implemented as a trial run to see whether it works in keeping the lions away from the villages, and thus less likely to be shot and killed by the local people in order to protect their families and livestock.
Searching for the lions proved to be very difficult at first because there seemed to be none around, and none had been sighted for several weeks! Then, slowly and surely, one by one, I finally sighted the first lions hiding in the long grass. They are so well camouflaged that I had nearly missed them. Had it not been for the tufts of black fur behind their ears which were somewhat conspicuous as they stuck out of the long grassy plains I would have missed them. After I had spent some time familiarizing myself with the pride locations and the types of habitats they frequented, I was able to repeatedly ascertain where these lion prides could be found and could now find them on a nearly regular basis.
Then began the slow and time-consuming work of getting the lions habituated to my vehicle and to my presence within their pride territories. Also began the daunting task of trying to identify individuals. If only the CSI technology actually existed in the field that I could easily present some photographs of several lion individuals only to have the facial recognition program pop out a life history detailing all the important information about that individual. Unfortunately that technology only exists in the movies and on television, so I had to spend many hours poring over thousands and thousands of photographs of lions from many different prides to determine which individual belonged to which pride. I used whisker patterns, which act as a unique fingerprint for each individual, as well as facial markings and scars, since lions do often fight with one another and will sometimes get scratched up by the prey they hunt. I also spent a considerable amount of time monitoring the behavioural dynamics of these groups to single out which of the animals were the higher ranking individuals. It was my objective to collar the highest ranking individuals of each pride, as these individuals would be most likely to remain within the pride territory and less likely to emigrate to a new location and possibly to a new pride.
I only searched out and located individuals from large prides for identification, which by nature of their large numbers would render the pride’s social structures to be more stable than those of smaller prides. Once I had identified the various lions and lionesses from distinct prides to collar, I then organized a wildlife veterinarian and teams of people to assist with the immobilization and capture of these animals. After many long nights and much patience, I and my team successfully immobilized and collared every individual from each of the prides I had designated as valuable to the study.
Now that the collars have been outfitted onto the animals, the monitoring and tracking work begins! I am hopeful that the information we obtain will assist us to better understand the movement patterns that these predators exhibit and, from that, how we can better manage the pride populations with the ever-increasing threat of conflict experienced with humans in their territories. I am optimistic that with more funding and more collars we will be able to clearly delineate the specific areas these prides utilize and can thus render this information to the people of the local communities in an attempt to alleviate the stresses on these dwindling lion numbers.
(Above) Romeo - so named as he was courting a female when he was identified for collaring. (Below) Umaymah - meaning "young mother".