Lion conservation in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park

Cole du Plessis, Carnivore Conservation Programme, KZN Regional Carnivore Coordinator ColeD@ewt.org.za

The EWT’s Carnivore Conservation Programme has made great effort in assisting Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife with the management of Hluhuwe-iMfolozi Park’s (HiP) Lion population. This entailed doing ‘call-ups’ throughout the park during the month of June. A ‘call-up’ entails chaining a carcass (like an impala, zebra or wildebeest) to the base of a tree and using speakers to play the audio of an animal in distress. If you are lucky, the audio combined with the smell of the carcass, will lure the Lions into the area and preferably, onto the carcass, which allows an opportunity for the qualified vet to dart and sedate the animal. Sometimes, if the Lions are far away, feeling lazy or are just not hungry, they might take several hours to come in or not come in at all. Persistence is therefore key.

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In the last two weeks of June, we managed to successfully call up five prides of Lions (25+ individuals). The purpose for the call ups varied between the prides. With some prides, the tracking collars had failed and new collars needed to be put on. Tracking collars allow monitors to keep up with the changes happening in prides. With other prides, some Lions needed blood samples taken for genetics and disease screening. In other cases, certain individuals had to be branded for easy identification purposes. Lastly, some Lions had to be microchipped. In the event that the Lion dies or is poached and the body is found, the microchip will tell us exactly which Lion it was.

Increasing our knowledge of Lion demographics, movements and feeding ecology is fundamental to understanding how they interact with other species in the ecosystem. Within HiP, there are populations of other large carnivores such as African Wild Dogs, Spotted Hyaenas, Leopards and Cheetahs, which all compete with Lions for the same resources (space and food). The level of competition is increased between these carnivores in an area like HiP that has a boundary. Therefore, only understanding the population of Lions without monitoring the other carnivores will not allow for an accurate understanding of the effects Lions have on the system. In particular, reserve management wants to know the cumulative effects of all carnivores on the herbivore population and without monitoring how Lions and other carnivores affect the prey, there is the danger of prey species being wiped out and the ecology of the park suffering. In addition to this, predation (the killing of other predators that pose competition) will likely increase in HiP as Lions tend to dominate those interactions where often the smaller carnivores such as Spotted Hyaena, Wild Dog and Cheetah can be negatively affected. With years of conservation effort on Wild Dogs and Cheetahs in HiP, the loss of even a few individuals can have a large effect on their relatively small populations in the park.

With a large population of Lions in HiP, there is still a lot of work ahead of us but it is imperative that we persist for the sake of understanding and maintaining the range of all carnivores, including Lions, in one of South Africa’s premiere parks.

This work is conducted in partnership with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and WildlifeACT.

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