Green season in northern Namibia
June 8 2014

LARGE CARNIVORE RESEARCH, NORTHERN NAMIBIA

The rains have come and gone.  The plains, which months earlier were lush and green are now slowly drying out back to the rolling yellow savannahs that which Africa is famous for.  Life slowly rises and ebbs throughout the savannah. 

When the rains came, the lion’s prey dispersed over large areas.  And the lions followed.  Water is plenty and abundant in the veldt.  The prey is no longer constrained by available water sources and therefore keeps to the deep cover of the bush.  And the lions must work to find their food to survive.  Some areas have resulted in a large abundance of prey, which the lion prides of those areas have exploited.  New life begins with the arrival of tiny, hapless cubs that appear to frolic and tumble over each other under the protective gaze of their mother. 

LARGE CARNIVORE RESEARCH, NORTHERN NAMIBIA

Every evening, the cubs stay behind as the mother walks off in search of food.  Sometimes a few will rise in an attempt to follow, small as they are.  The mother patiently turns back and chuffs to her cubs, warning them to stay put.  Several of the cubs will invariably scamper back to where their mother left them under cover.  However, one cheeky fellow continues to follow his mother bravely through the high grass, until his mother turns back and appears to be ready to swipe him with her huge paw, at which point the little cub spins around and hightails it swiftly back into cover.  The mother is now free to hunt, and disappears into the setting sun. 

Life is hard for predators in Africa, and many struggle to stay alive.  In some areas the lions sit at available water sources and wait patiently for the rains to end, for the veldt to dry out, and for the prey to return.  The age old human wildlife conflict has reared its ugly head.  Several lions have ventured onto cattle farms in a desperate attempt to find food, and in a two week span, 12 lions have been shot and killed by cattle farmers. 

Lion pride compositions have changed with the onslaught of so many lion mortalities.  Certain individuals have emigrated and immigrated; new individuals have appeared in known groups and known individuals have silently disappeared into the bush, never to be seen again. 

With the changing of the seasons, comes a change in the societal groups of lion prides.  Several prides break up into smaller groups for a time period, before fusing back together into larger groups again.  These fluctuating dynamics present a challenge for the research.  The monitoring of lion prides and their societal groups is inherent to understanding the ecology of lions within an area.  And it is only by understanding the factors which limit and effect the changes in these populations that we can understand how best to move forward in the management and conservation of these species.

LARGE CARNIVORE RESEARCH, NORTHERN NAMIBIA

Somewhere in the darkness a male lion roars, and the sound vibrates through the blood in my veins.  The hunt begins.  Beneath a starry sky, a pride of lionesses begin to move, slowly and swiftly walking across the plains.  I follow in my 4x4 keeping a respectful distance behind, but keeping them in sight as best as I can under the failing light.  The pride splits up, with two individuals sinking into cover in the long grass.  After some time of losing the lions in the bush, only to find and lose them once again, I ended up sitting in the darkness of my silent vehicle trying to ascertain which direction they might have gone through the telemetry beeps of the VHF collar.  An explosion of power and fear comes out of the trees and a herd of zebra rush across the long grass.  A lone lioness leaps from her hidden position in the grass to launch her powerful body onto the torso of the zebra while the second lioness launches herself onto the zebra’s rump.  In a matter of seconds, it is all over with the zebra lying on the ground and a lioness attached to his throat while the pride makes their way towards him.  This zebra, so full of power and speed mere moments ago, feeds not only a pride of lions, but also provides food for the other carnivores of the savannah which play a vital role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem by maintaining a delicate balance.  Although these other animals sometimes compete with the lion for food and resources, they also benefit from the lions' presence.

As hard as it was to watch something slowly being suffocated as the zebra fought for his life, fiercely kicking out with each dying breath, I know and I understand that the dying of this zebra results in the continued living of these lions.  And this, I know, is a natural process that has gone on since the beginning of time.  By investigating and understanding the factors contributing to the continued successes of lion prides in these areas, despite the continued encroachment of human populations onto wildlands, we will be able to allow this natural process to continue.  

This research project is supported by ALERT alongside other organizations.   Thank you to Principle Researcher Nancy Barker for providing this update.

LARGE CARNIVORE RESEARCH, NORTHERN NAMIBIA

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