Counting Lions in the Night

August 11, 2010

A WCS carnivore researcher based in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park searches for lions at prime-time for big cats: in the pitch dark.

Tutilo Mudumba pitched his tent in the delta region of Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda, and got into his Land Cruiser. The WCS Senior Carnivore Researcher was headed out to count lions. Atop the car was a pair of speakers that played a tune the big cats loved—the call of a buffalo calf in distress. To a hungry lion, this means dinner.

As the lions approached, Mudumba was prepared. From behind the wheel, he pointed a spotlight out an open window and recorded the pairs of eyes that shone through the darkness. Tomorrow he would return to photograph the lions’ paw prints, which would reveal whether their owners were male or female, and help Mudumba estimate their weight. That's a technique used to census the lions across Uganda’s largest parks, and to identify where in the parks the cats are located. Some may later be radio-collared so the researcher can track their whereabouts; others will be photographed and ID’d by the pattern of their whiskers.

Last year, Mudumba was part of a small team of WCS researchers to conduct Uganda’s first ever carnivore survey. The results were alarming: The country’s lions have declined by almost 40 percent in less than a decade. Only 415 of the big cats remain in the network of national parks, and in the largest of them all, Murchison Falls National Park, just 132 remain.

“Conserving Uganda’s last remaining lions is a global responsibility,” said Mudumba, a native Ugandan who earned his degree in Conservation Biology from Kampala’s Makerere University in 2007. “If we outlive this iconic African species, we will have to explain what has happened to future generations—that lions had no protection, that these wild animals were unfairly judged, and are no more.”

Mudumba is keenly aware of what the loss of this endangered species would mean to his country, and the world. Ask most eco-tourists in Uganda what they have come to see, and—after mountain gorillas—they will likely answer “lions,” according to a WCS survey conducted in 2006. Back then, researchers calculated that each lion in Queen Elizabeth National Park contributed $14,800 per year to the country’s struggling economy.

“The loss of lions in Queen Elizabeth Park in particular could have a significant impact on the tourism industry, Uganda’s largest foreign currency earner," said Andy Plumptre, director of WCS’s Albertine Rift Program. "These animals draw visitors to the country. There is a risk that tourists will come only to see mountain gorillas if lions and other carnivores cannot be seen easily, and visit neighboring countries for the other animals."

In this densely populated country, little wildlife can survive outside protected areas, so the WCS-Uganda team focuses its efforts on protecting the parks themselves, in partnership with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). But even within park boundaries, poaching for bushmeat remains a problem, along with snare traps and poison set out by farmers trying to prevent lions from preying on livestock.

“It is my role, my place, to save lions,” said Mudumba. “Entire livelihoods depend on lions, as do ecosystems and economies. Without them, the savannahs would be silent.”

Mudumba plans to radio-collar four lions in Murchison Falls in the next six months, a technique that will help his team learn more about the big cats’ activities and needs.

“We can then work more closely with local communities on how to live with lions,” he added.

WCS is working to create alternative livelihood opportunities as incentives for poachers to cease hunting and join conservation efforts, and to raise money for more UWA patrols to staff the parks. In addition, in a forthcoming carnivore action plan from WCS-Uganda, plans are afoot to create artificial barriers around a number of villages to keep domestic animals from wandering into protected areas.

View a slideshow of life on the savannah >>

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