Can Crocodile Decoys to Keep Lions at Bay?

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Crocodiles are the the most fearsome predator in the Okavango Waterways. They have been known to kill lions and other species that attempt to cross- even influencing their movements. When the rivers are high and crossings are few, could crocodile decoys deter lions from crossing the river at their favorite spots? We will attempt to find out!  We will review lion movement data from the satellite tracking collars to determine whether there are routine crossing points, then deploy these life-like crocodile decoys to assess the reactions of lions, cattle and other species.

MORTALITY EVENT DETECTED ON COLLAR 19368!

The text came in late at night- "MORTALITY EVENT DETECTED ON COLLAR 19368"- that's Mutlawankanda! The activity sensor in the collar had not been triggered in 24 hours generating a "Mortality Notification". Our field team took the coordinates for the last GPS fix and found the evidence of his final moments. They found areas of grass pressed down with pools of blood leading to another resting spot and more blood. Eventually they found him with a single bullet hole that penetrated his lungs. Mutlawankanda signifies the first lion killed in over 18 months and the first collared animal killed during our study.

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He was a key individual, initially presiding over a pride with two females and six young cubs. In the 20 months of tracking, we've seen Mutlawankanda pushed north (by our newly collared male Gombo). He then developed a partnership with Nduraghombo and likely sired Maleherehere's new cubs. Now these cubs are in jeopardy as Nduraghumbo will have to defend his territory alone. 

The lions, however, are only half the story. In the last 6 months, the communities have absorbed over 80 cattle deaths from lion attacks. To many of these subsistence cattle owners a single loss can be devastating. Frustrations are high. Villagers have started carrying guns and following lion tracks- leading to attack report in our previous blogpost. So, it is not surprising that lions were in the hotseat. Lion populations are growing steadily in our area putting stress on the tenuous relationship between villagers and the big cats.

With all these conflicts, what do we do? Well, we have learned a few things about lion conflicts. First, most of them occur away from the village in the floodplains when cattle are roaming without a herder. Lions encounter these herds when following zebra and find the cattle to be easy prey. Therefore, we are developing our training program based on traditional herding practices. We will discuss the importance of responsible herding in promoting livestock health, rangeland management to encourage healthy ecosystems and predator conflict mitigation. 

We hope that our community partnerships and herder training will mitigate the conflicts at the core of these challenges!

Our Study Mapping Black Panthers in published!

Dr. Andrew Stein was part of a team of biologists who studied the distribution of Black Panthers (or melanistic leopards). Their work sought to find patterns in habitats and geographic locations for these variations of the normally spotted cats.  It is a misnomer to think that 'black panthers' are a separate species- in fact spotted females can give birth to 'black panthers' and spotted leopards in the same litter.  To learn more about the study and the results click on the link HERE

"When Lions Attack People", our newest Nat Geo Blog Post

Between December and January, over 80 cattle were killed lions in our study area.  The villagers have absorbed these devastating losses without killing any lions. In late January the conflict came to a boil with villagers following lion tracks which led to a confrontation. One villager was mauled by a young male lion. Click HERE to about the incident and our approach when lions attack people.

Artwork of the Pharoahs: Persian, Arabian or African leopard?

Photo of a leopard from the Hatshepsut's Temple. Photo provided by Filip Taterka

Photo of a leopard from the Hatshepsut's Temple. Photo provided by Filip Taterka

This week, colleagues studying Egyptology at the University in Poznań (Poland) and Université Paris-Sorbonne (France) have reached out with a question... are the leopards shown in the Ptolemaic Era artwork Africa or Persian?  To answer the question, we need to consider a few key pieces of information. First, with Egypt situated in at the confluence of ranges among three leopard subspecies- the African leopard, Arabian leopard and Persian leopard (also called the Anatolian or Caucasian leopard by some groups). Second, are there physical differences among these sub-species that may make identification possible? Third, what is the likelihood that Egyptian rulers would have captured these animals or received them from neighboring trade partners.

To address the first point, Ptolemaic Empire (around 300 b.c.) expanded across Northern Africa, the Middle East and parts of southern Turkey. This area included the historic range of all three subspecies- the African, Arabian and Persian leopard. Leopards historically only lived in the Nile River Valley and along the coast of the Red Sea. Today, only a small remnant population is thought to exist in Elba National Park in the Southeastern corner of Egypt. This population is connected to the leopard sub-species of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is likely, however, that these populations were never very high.  Same goes for the Arabian leopard that is found along the coastlines in the Middle East including the Arabian peninsula. Arabian leopards are still present in tiny remnant populations in Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia and possibly Israel. Populations here were also likely very low considering the arid habitat. Leopards across southwestern Asia live in a variety of habitats including mountains, forests and the Mediterranean Coast of Turkey.  It is possible that leopards may have come from any one of these locations.

Photo provided by Filip Taterka

Photo provided by Filip Taterka

Do they all look the same? Well, not too surprisingly, there are subtle differences among leopards across their range living in different habitats. For example, the Amur leopard inhabits the Russian Far-East and grows a thick, long fur coat to protect against the harsh winters. The Indochinese leopard generally keeps a short, sleek coat as not to overheat in the tropics. The Arabian leopard lives in marginal areas feeding on small mammals in the absence of large prey and therefore has a smaller body size by comparison.  Next the Persian leopards of today have slightly long fur similar to other subspecies in temperate environments.

The African leopard in Botswana

The African leopard in Botswana

After investigating this artwork, we see that the depictions show an large size leopard, that is nearly waist- height to the human figures, disqualifying the diminutive Arabian leopard. Further, there are no signs that these animals have (seasonally grown) thicker, longer fur as the temperate cats would likely have. The artist may not have included this feature. Lastly, the Ptolemaic Empire traded with the Nubians in sub-Saharan Africa, Minoans of Greece, factions in the Middle East and southwest Asia.  There are shrines depicting trade with the Nubians of sub-Saharan Africa and the Minoans of Ancient Greece.  One art piece in particular shows a person walking a small collared leopard next to another man walking a baboon. This would suggest that the Nubians may have traded wildlife to the Egyptians. Further research suggests that Nubians traded much of their wildlife including elephants, giraffes, etc. to Egyptians and European powers at different times. Combined with the known wildlife trading habits of the Nubians, I would suspect that the leopards present in the Hathor Shrine of the Dendera Temple, and Temple of Deir are actually the African subspecies.

Just in case there is any doubt, leopards were also called "abi shema" or Big Cat from the South!

Female leopard in Etosha National Park, Namibia

Female leopard in Etosha National Park, Namibia

Another question- are these leopards male or female?  Researcher Filip Taterka said, "If therefore the leopard in the Hathor Shire is female it would mean that it plays the role of Hathor herself. If, however, he is male, than perhaps he should be identified rather with the king, who happens to be compared to leopard in the moment of his wrath. " We suspect that they are males (60-70 cm shoulder height) because the figures have a more robust and stand at the relative height of male leopards compared to the human figures. These carvings occasionally show exaggerated sizes of animals, so we may be mislead by measuring relative size of animals in the carvings.

Lastly, we were curious about the lack of spots. Initially, we suspected that perhaps the paint had warn off over the years, but it appears that these pieces have been preserved quite well. Leopards and leopard skins in other pieces have spots- so perhaps this was a stylistic choice of the artist. Since the cat does resemble a lioness, but without a definitive tail tuft, this is unlikely. There are still many questions to investigate as part of the project. We wish our colleagues luck in learning as much as they can about these fascinating carvings!

New Nat Geo Blog: Using Tech to Protect Livestock and Lions

National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative has supported our work from the beginning! As our successes mount, so do the challenges for subsistence communities trying to live with lions at the edge of the Okavango Delta. In this recent blog post, Barbara Cozzens outlines our unique approach to sharing information with communities to help reduce conflict and protect livelihoods and lions.  Click HERE for the link!

Cattle in Harm's Way: Learning Their Movements Can Save Their Lives

In our area, many cattle owners only see their cattle in the morning when they are released from their corrals and in the evenings when the cattle return. What happens in between is something of a mystery.  Depending on water and grazing cattle could move in any number of directions, but what we have often found is that cattle head south seeking the fresh waters and green grasses of the Okavango Delta.  These cattle mix with zebra and other plains game that are being stalked by the lions.

Mingling Zebra and Cattle

Mingling Zebra and Cattle

Last year, we put trackers of a few cattle to get a sense of their movement patterns. Our maps showed a straight march into the lion's den. 

Cattle movements (lines) into lion territories (polygons) where the conflict occurs.

Cattle movements (lines) into lion territories (polygons) where the conflict occurs.

This month, we have begun an extensive operation to fit 24 cattle with Satellite trackers. These trackers will enable us to monitor a substantial number the herds and prides to determine the critical distance under which conflict is likely. These analyses will greatly inform our early warning system.

Project Assistant Pro is stitching up our custom made pouch before deployment.

Project Assistant Pro is stitching up our custom made pouch before deployment.

A Happy Cattle Owner proudly displays our cattle tracker unit with our Project Assistant Chris (left)

A Happy Cattle Owner proudly displays our cattle tracker unit with our Project Assistant Chris (left)

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Further, we are working with communities to develop a training system for herders that will focus on traditional livestock husbandry, rangeland health, and predator avoidance. We plan to develop a government recognized certification process whereby our participants will have a valued skill to be proud of and the opportunity for increased marketability. We will support these herders through incentives when livestock are well looked after and predators are not killed.

Thank you communities for working with us and the INNO Fund (WWF Netherlands) and SPOTS foundation for your support!

Look Whose All Grown Up: Our First Cubs Begin Mating

"Is this the pride we've heard so much about?"

"How many cubs do you count?" "one, two... I've got 6! The future is looking good if they can hold on".

That was August 2015, when we started our lion collaring operation. This pride became our top priority and they had been quite a challenge to track down.  With two adult females and one adult male, this pride was overrun with cubs. This pulse of cubs was the response of these females to the retaliatory killing of the previous year- when nearly 60% of the lions were killed through poison and shooting by villagers that had lost significant numbers of livestock.

The Pride females were later named Mayenga (Decorated by the Gods) and Mamalapo (Lady of the Floodplains) by the community.  Mayenga was collared so that we could monitor their joint-parenting skills. We knew that even under the best of circumstances lions can lose 50% of their cubs before adulthood, so when we caught up with Mayenga and Mamalapo in early 2016 it was not surprising to see that their litters were reduced to only 2 female. Though it was unfortunate to lose 2/3 of these cubs, these two addition females represented a doubling of the pride!

Recently our team collared a large male lion named Gombo (Gombo is the name for the region of his territory) who happened to be mating with one of these subadult cubs on January 22nd.  As you can see from the photos she still has pronounced spots on her legs and belly. Lions reach sexual maturity around 2.5 years old and only typically begin mating with any success after 3. This subadult is likely approaching 2.5 and seems eager to contribute to an already bursting lion population. With no recorded lions mortalities in 2016 and 5 other females giving birth to at least 13 cubs, we suspect that our population is on pace for a dramatic rise.  

We are grateful to our partner communities who have asked about Mayenga and her cubs over the years and shown commitment to protecting lions while facing the costs.  

It seems that our first cubs are all grown up! 

Xakampa Pride has two cubs too!

Yesterday our field team got our first view of the Xakampa pride's cubs. This is the last remaining uncollared pride in our area and a primary target for our collaring effort next month. Xakampa (pronounced with a soft click 'tssa-kampa')  was unknown to our project until earlier this year when we stumbled upon them while looking for the other cats.  These two cubs represent another growing lion pride in our area.

Flo Weise, Eric LeFlore and Pro Tomeletso passed on these photos!

Pride in Our Prides- News to Roar about!

Our lion population is GROWING! Both Mayenga and Maleherehere are both showing signs of denning.  Maleherehere or "Shy One" has been denning for several weeks. Though we have not confirmed the number of cubs yet, we excited about the prospect of her pride growing.  When we first started our program, Maleherehere was in a pride of two females with 4 cubs. In 2015, her pride mate was killed and only two of the cubs have made it to sub-adulthood. In May there were reports of her mating and denning right on schedule.

In early August, Mayenga or "Decorated By the Gods" was seen mating with an unknown male.  Recent movement patterns suggest that she has begun denning as well. Lions are pregnant for approximately 3.5 months, so her denning behavior confirms that the observed mating was successful.  Mayenga and her pride mate had 6 cubs when we started our tracking in 2014. Four of their cubs have died, but two females cubs are nearly adults now- doubling the size of the pride.  With the new cubs, we hope that their pride continues to grow as the region starts to show signs of stability after the devastating poisoning events of 2013.

In other very exciting news, we have received our new satellite tracking collars. Next month, we will deploy all 6 collars (4 on our current study animals and 2 newly identified lions).  As part of the darting effort, we will be working with colleagues from National Geographic to video lion behavior with CritterCams. The CritterCams are small, lightweight cameras that are secured to the lion's collar to give a "lions-eye-view". We will use this footage to show villagers a new perspective on the lions living in their area.

With the new cubs in the area, we are also hoping for accurate litter count and exciting footage to share with you all! Stay tuned.

A Big Thank You to the communities of Gunotsoga, Eretsha, Beetsha, and Gudigwa for collaborating with us to help protect their livelihoods and the regional lions. Our work would not be a success without their active interest and support.

Thank you National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative, WWF Netherlands INNO Fund, SPOTS Foundation, Experiment.com and all of our donors for helping us purchase these collars to continue our vital lion tracking and early warning system.

National Geographic Continues Support for Pride in Our Prides

Today we received our second grant from National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative! This grant is integral in supporting our efforts to help communities and conserve lions! It will specifically help pay salaries for our local assistants, builders of the lion-proof enclosures and keep our vehilcles on the road.  Thank you BCI scientific advisory board and their supporters for keeping our program on track!

Leopard's Vulnerable status requires greater protection- CLAWS Founder quoted in Africa Geographic

Leopards are elusive but recent surveys show they are doing worse than previously thought.

Leopards are elusive but recent surveys show they are doing worse than previously thought.

In an article in this month's web-based Africa Geographic magazine, Cheryl Lyn Dybas spoke to various experts to discuss leopard distribution.  On the heels of the recent manuscript published in the journal PeerJ, leopard experts have been speaking out about the estimated 75% reduction to their range and what that means for the species. Dr. Andrew Stein, founder and president of CLAWS, lead an international team of scientists that recommended a change in leopard status from Near Threatened to Vulnerable.

Stein's stated, “The change signals to leopard range countries that the cat’s status is more grave than previously understood,” he says. “It begins a process of deeper evaluation, including calls for greater protection and intensified regulation of trade and trophy hunting.”

Click on the LINK to read the full article!

Pride in Our Prides: Lions Mating and More Livestock Protection!

This month, we have made major strides with our lion work in Northern Botswana. The lion population is showing signs of stability and growth while we modify our approach to livestock enclosures with strong results.

Mayenga with a male from the Vumbra area Photo: Sam Callee

Mayenga with a male from the Vumbra area Photo: Sam Callee

First, the lions. Mayenga was seen mating with a male from the Vumbra area in early August. We are excited about this for two reasons. Mayenga and her pride-mate have successfully raised two females to subadulthood! Although the females had 6 cubs at this time last year, natural cub mortality is high even in productive regions.  Considering the constant influx of unknown males, we are excited to see that she has defended the lives of two females that will stay with the pride and double the breeding potential in the upcoming year.  These subadults will soon find mates of their own!

Also, our two collared males- Nduraghumbo and Mtulawankanda- have joined forces! You will remember that Nduraghumbo is an old male that was part of a larger coalition that was targeted and killed by villagers in 2013. He has been traversing the region on his own trying to avoid confrontation with territorial males. Mutlawankanda is the younger male that was holding Mayenga's pride.  It is unclear whether there is a blood relationship between these two males, but the pairing is unexpected. In previous studies, we have seen younger males pair up with older males to form new coalitions, the advantage being that two males can defend a pride better than a singleton. This is likely what brought these two together. We will monitor their movements to see how long the remain together.

Next, we have finished out 10th livestock enclosure and this one is a monster! Our previous livestock enclosures were square in shape and large enough to keep fewer than 100 head of livestock. They were for use but also a demonstration of how enclosures could be built.  To date we have not recorded a single head of livestock killed in any of our enclosures yet as we started building more and more, community members with larger herds asked for larger enclosures. With limited resources we could not build an enclosure twice the size, but in Moyagogo we decided to discuss the matter directly with the owner. He wanted a larger, round enclosure and we said that we could only do it with his help. He spent nearly every day with our team, chopping and weaving branches to make the enclosure exactly to his needs. In the end it was twice the size of our normal enclosure, but strong as all of the previous.

Moyagogo enclosure halfway through construction. Check the difference!

Moyagogo enclosure halfway through construction. Check the difference!

Our new approach has many benefits. First, the enclosure is exactly what the owner needs. Second, he was true to his work and helped in construction so he is invested in its success. Third, he knows exactly how it was built and how to repair it. Fourth, he can explain to his neighbors the benefit and he has pride in his work.

We will take this approach to our next enclosure in Jungwe and beyond!

Help support our efforts to monitor these persecuted lions and build sustainable livestock enclosures across the region- visit our donation page today!

Leopards listed as VULNERABLE by IUCN Red List

The leopard has been upgraded to VULNERABLE by the IUCN Red List. Dr. Andrew Stein, founder of CLAWS Conservancy, led an international team of scientists to evaluate the global status of leopards. The effort included input from scientists across more than 60 countries from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, southeast Asia, China and the Russian Far-East. It was determined through habitat destruction, prey depletion through the bushmeat trade and illegal harvesting of skins, that leopards are significantly under threat and require increased protection. Previously listed as Near Threatened, leopards were not thought to be under threat because of their adaptable behavior and secretive nature, however, improved field techniques and widespread surveys helped determine that leopards are not as well off as previously thought.

As a Vulnerable species, leopards are one step closer to Endangered, requiring special protection and management considerations. It will likely impact trophy hunting regulations and problem animal control responses.

Have a look at the official document HERE!

Matching Contribution as Crowdfunding Closes!

Our crowdfunding campaign has come to a close and we surpassed our goal of raising $3,000 towards a new lion collar. This satellite collar will help us expand our lion work in Northern Botswana. At the conclusion of the campaign an inspired donor came forward to offer a matching donation- so our total for the campaign has reached $6,130! Now your initial contribution has double the impact and we plan to purchase another collar and help support our field operations in Lion Camp! So thank you to all who contributed to our campaign by donating or sharing the link to our website. Also, a tremendous THANK YOU to Rocky Casillas who helped keep our campaign organized with Florian Weise and Eric LeFlore adding stories and photos along the way. This was a huge success and we look forward to keeping you all involved and informed as the project develops!