It is human nature to care about things we know about. When we name our pets, they begin to have personalities. They are no longer a generic representation of their species. It is the same for wild animals. Each individual has a different personality that becomes more apparent the more you learn about their habits. It is with this idea in mind that we began a campaign to have villagers in Northern Botswana name the lions in their region and stop the indiscriminate poisoning of lions. The objective was to give the animals names that were culturally significant to the people living with these animals, not folks from far off lands.
In August, we fitted 4 lions with Satellite tracking collars that not only allow us to follow the movements of these individuals, but also provided the backbone of our early-warning system when these cats enter high conflict areas.
The villagers responded by giving our study animals noble names in local languages. We used these names to inform villagers about the habits of these animals and their prides. What has happened since has been fascinating!
First, the cats! At the outset of the study we identified 5 target lion groups including 2 prides and 3 male coalitions that inhabit the village boundary and have the potential to cause conflict. As reported in previous posts, we tagged one adult male lion named 'Eretsha' who was named after one of the affected villages. He is the larger of the two males in a small coalition that has regularly crossed into the conflict zone and even killed cattle in the village. He associates with two females that also use the area. Next we collared a female that the villagers named "Mayenga" which means "Decorated by the Gods". She is the younger of the two females in a pride that is raising 6 young cubs. She associates with a male named "Mwatlakanda" or "One who wanders seeking food". The villagers are particularly interested in the cubs and the men seem to be amused by the idea that Mwatlakanda has two wives. This pride has been found in the high conflict zone, but they have not yet ventured into the village. Lastly, there is "Nduraghumbo" or "Head of the Homestead" who is a lone male that used to be a member of a powerful coalition of three males. One of the males was killed by villagers in 2013 and the coalition disbanded.
The final target individual was named by the villagers well before our study. "Maleherehere" means "The Sneaky One" because she is thought to cause the most conflict without being caught. Much like the villagers, we tried our best to monitor Maleherehere, but she easily eluded our efforts. We are particularly interested in her habits because we want to confirm whether she is causing all of the conflicts she is blamed for and also, we hope to provide early warnings when she is up to mischief. Currently, she is a big worry because she is raising 3 young cubs and the more she kills livestock, the more she reinforces for her cubs that livestock are food. We need to help break this habit before the cubs complete their training.
On our third effort, our field team, including veterinarian Erik Verreyne, found and tagged Maleherehere! We look forward to learning all we can about this lioness that has taken on a slightly mythological air for villagers and researchers alike.
Can we persuade Maleherehere to stop killing cattle? Can we keep the interest of villagers and increase their tolerance of these lions? Will Maleherehere's cubs continue their mother's livestock killing ways? We are under no illusions that Maleherehere will be killed by villagers if she continues to kill livestock, so we will continue to support the needs of villagers and hopefully reduce future conflicts now that we know where and when she is likely to strike!