The Lion Demographic Study (also known as ‘The Lion Project’) represents one of the most extensive lion research studies undertaken to date. This flagship project is the result of the increasing concern over the prevalence of Bovine Tuberculosis (BTb) in lion populations within the reserve. Over seven years, key researchers has focused on the transmission and impact of diseases, such as Bovine Tuberculosis, feline Aids, and canine distemper in wild lion populations. These topics are of concern because, in time, these diseases could lead to the localised extinction of lion prides. In other words, lions are potentially at risk of becoming extinct in this geographical area! Concerns arose when Kruger Visitors began reporting mangy-looking lion members within a pride – principally within the Southern Region and then the Central regions of the Park.
The Study’s Achievements
- The darting of entire prides in 35 regions of the National Park (over 2,2 million hectares)
- Fitting state-of-the-art GPS radio tracking collars to the Alpha female. To date, a total of 10 prides have been darted and GPS radio tracking collars fitted to representative females in each pride.
- DNA sampling of all pride members as well as stomach sampling of selected carnivores.
- 32 blood vials per lion were taken for both an initial study as well as providing the world’s largest laboratory library of lion samples.
More About This Study
This six yearlong study investigated the intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) factors influencing carnivore dynamics. The extrinsic factors focused on artificially introduced diseases to lion populations, which have the potential to induce localized extinctions. It is now commonly believed that bovine tuberculosis (BTb) was first introduced into Kruger National Park in the 1950s by domestic cattle that, in turn, infected regional buffalo populations. Interestingly, buffalo herd dynamics have not been significantly affected and are regarded as BTb hosts. As a result, lion predation on buffalo has spread the disease into lion prides predominantly in the south of the Park.
Phase II of this project will involve a 5-6 year monitoring period during which time, focal sampling will be undertaken across all study zones of varying BTb prevalence in prey and prey biomass. The final phase of the project will focus on a survey or focal sampling to re-estimate lion populations and structures within the defined study zones.
What Did Lion Darting Involve?
Lion darting is no easy task and is fraught with danger! The ‘Lion Project’ involved extensive teams of researchers working in the open and unpredictable wilderness of the Kruger National Park. Lions are lured into the study area by chaining a prey carcass (often antelope) to the tree and playing the sound of a distressed animal (e.g. baby buffalo) around ±20h00 in the evening. While waiting, the capture team (incl. darting team and rangers) would prepare the darting vehicle or off-road caravan, and ensure that all scientists and veterinarians remain together and within a safe distance from the carcass. Usually within 30 minutes, the first lion will appear – moving silently up to the carcass to feed on the kill. Once all lion pride members are present, the lead vet will begin darting the animals (can be up to 15 lions in large prides). All the while, the team would contend with “stray” carnivores coming to the scene, mostly hyena, who would not hesitate to kill a darted lion if the opportunity arose. We have also had elephant enter the fray in certain instances.
Nevertheless, once the pride had been inspected and samples were collected, the alpha females were fitted with tracking collars and the reversal drugs were administered. Thereafter, the lions recovered quickly and continued to feed on the prey carcass. The radio telemetry equipment contained in the collar was then programmed into laptop computers and a small tracking team was assigned to the pride. The team was required to follow the pride for up to three days and nights at a time, observing all habits, feeding, and noting the condition of pride members. All in all, the data was collated over a 7-year period and over 2,000 samples are held in the vaults of Skukuza Veterinary Services. Once the project had reached its successful conclusion, all radio collars were also removed to not compromise the animal during its daily routine.
Overall, this study allowed scientists to evaluate how lion dynamics have changed across varying areas of BTb prevalence and to introduce appropriate management plans accordingly. This project is quite vital to the greater ecology of the Kruger National Park and your support in both observation and funding will go a long way in ensuring the future preservation of the African lion within the greater Kruger National Park.