Our latest darting expedition was very successful! Though a short (2 week) trip, we managed to hit our target of putting new satellite tracking collars on 3 cats!
We had a small field crew for this trip including myself, Dr. Florian Weise (field program coordinator), Dr. Erik Verreynne (Botswana registered vet), Tomeletso Mathata (Field Research Assistant), Christopher Dimbende (Field Research Assistant), Dr. Stephanie Periquet (field ecologist), Krystal Wu (friend).
We set up our camp at a location called "Fallen Baobab" which was a central location for finding the lions we planned to target for the trip. After camp was set, we loaded up the darting equipment, immobilization drugs and speakers for doing 'call-ins'. Since we were planning to target males, we used the roaring call of a lone male- expecting that this would attract territorial males indignant at the intruders call. During our first set of calls, we had two young females approach. We were surprised to see them but quickly recognized them as the young adults from Mayenga's pride. They are just coming into breeding age and likely were looking for a mating partner. No luck tonight!
The next morning we were up early, scouting for tracks and setting up a second 'call-in' station. This time we did not get a response. Our track scanning came up empty as well. Where were these cats? Last week our target males were nearby and the lodges had been keeping tabs on them. This week nothing.
We developed our routine from there- waking up at 5am to look for tracks at sunrise, before the lodges could drive the roads and crush the evidence under tire. If we came up empty, we'd return to camp by 10 as the mid-day heat was reaching over 110 degree F! We'd try in vain to sleep in our tents until around 4 pm when the temperature started to cool enough to make dinner, repack the vehicles for evening call-ins.
By the third night, we had a little action. An adult male came into our calling station in the morning and we were able to put out the first collar. He was named "Lentswe" or "Stone" in Setswana. Lentswe seems to have moved into our area and potentially pushed out the previous territorial males Ndhuraghumbo and Gombo.
In the following days we found little evidence of lions until our final day of darting. In the morning we found fresh tracks of a male and female lion walking in the sandy road. We returned in the evening to call-in the cats. We heard a male responding to our calls nearby and a garbled roar as well. This was a very odd response. The lions did not approach, however, so we went to find them. One of the males had a collar. We found a second male mating with a female. We knew that this was a tricky situation because males can become aggressive with female if they are acting odd (i.e. recovering from chemical immobilization). So we darted both cats, placed collars on each, then transported the female 200m away for recovery. We had one vehicle sit with the male and another with the female to ensure that they each woke up safely. We sat with them all night. In the morning, the female woke up successfully in the morning. She got up, and walked back to the males to resume mating.
In the end, the darting was a success! We approached the Volunteer Wildlife Officers to name the female. They named her “Wetu” which means “Ours”, showing that they feel a connection and “ownership” of her well-being. We are still awaiting the naming of the second collared male. All three cats will be part of expanding our alert system! We hope to add further collars to create a comprehensive system where we can provide warnings from individual cats streamlined through cloud-based algorithms that calculate distances between cats and cattle posts! We plan to implement this system this year.