Radio collars saving lions in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park

Lions straying from protected areas and killing people’s livestock lead to retaliation including being poisoned

Tuesday 19 March 2019 22:02
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Lions rest in euphorbia trees in Queen Elizabeth National Park
Lions rest in euphorbia trees in Queen Elizabeth National Park

By Pamela Amia for Chimpreports.com in Uganda

Human-wildlife conflict has been escalating for Ugandans living in and around conservation areas, including Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Authorities put this escalation on encroachment by members of the community, clearance of natural habitats and the gripping poverty in the area.

These conflicts often stem from the fact that wild animals have been constantly attacking neighbouring communities.

Farmers here often count losses when their crop gardens are raided by the herbivorous wild animals. Herdsmen also incur losses when their livestock is attacked by the carnivores.

In retaliation, the aggrieved members of community also orchestrate revenge killings through acts such as poisoning while other opt to set up traps.

In 2018, a pack of 11 lions was killed near Hamukungu fishing village, one of the 11 fishing villages near Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda’s most visited game reserve. It was confirmed by authorities that all these lions had been poisoned.

This provoked worldwide criticism condemnation from conservationists and people in tourism circles. The incident also heavily highlighted the increasing friction between the people and the animals in this part of the world.

According to the latest census by the Uganda Carnivore Program, an organisation that is working to protect the lions, Queen Elizabeth National park has about 250 lions which are also the main attraction to this park.

Hamukungu Fishing village on the other hand has had an unprecedented spike in its population currently estimated to be at 30,000 people.

Apart from fishing, residents here practice animal husbandry with many of them owning lots of cattle, goats and sheep which sometimes veer off to park in the search for pasture.

These animals are preferred by the predators because they are easier prey than antelopes, waterbucks, and the kobs that have learnt the art of evasion.

The increased attacks on livestock, undoubtedly are turning the villagers against the lions that are not only a great asset to the country but also the pride of Uganda’s wildlife.

Recently, journalists and I with the support of Space for Giants and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) participated in a fact finding mission to understand the methods that have been employed to protect the lions in their natural habitat.

Accompanied by 29-year-old Innocent Turyamuha, an experienced ranger who is part of the team that monitors the lions with radio collars. He explained why UWA chooses to use the radio collars to monitor lions.

“A radio collar is a wide band of machine belting fitted with a small radio transmitter and battery. They are electronically configured with a transmitter that emits a signal at a specific frequency that can be tracked when trying to locate a particular collared lion. We dial the appropriate frequency every morning and locate where the lions are,” Turyamuha said.

On which animals are chosen to be collared, Turyamuha elaborates that a dominant lioness in a pride is selected and its history is then traced. Once it qualifies, it is darted with a tranquilizer.

When it is unconscious, a collar is then fastened around its neck and it is left in their view until it wakes up two hours later.

“We choose dominant lioness because they make up a social structure of like 10 to 15 lions meaning the rest of the lions depend on her unlike the male lions that sometimes wander off alone,” he revealed. Turyamuha added that the veterinary doctors also use the chance to collect biological samples of the blood, urine, saliva, ticks to measure physiological status and to record the DNA of the animals.

Lions range a lot and can be very difficult to find. Research shows that their pride territories may be as large as 400 square kilometers.

“It’s dangerous when they approach areas of the fishing villages since they are not in the know of their boundaries and when they want food they look for vulnerable individuals, in this case domestic animals like cows and goats,” Turyamuha said.

On a drive through the park, we sighted four lions snoozing off in a candelabra euphorbia tree. A cub was on the ground finishing up the hunted meal of the day which was an old buffalo according to our ranger. This was just one kilometer away from the Hamukungu fishing village.

“We also collar the lions to monitor their movements, map out their territories, detect when they are sick, know which ones are in danger and protect them from being killed by the natives,” he expounded. When asked if collars bother lions, Turyamuha revealed that it takes them around two days to get used before eventually ignoring them.

They make sure the collar is loose enough to be comfortable and snug enough to prevent the wild animals from getting stuck in vegetation.

The collar, he says, has been proven to be of no negativity to the lifespan of a lion or its reproductive health. “In most cases we get lions that cannot get pregnant any more, are old enough and have proven to be healthy,” he said.

At Queen Elizabeth National Park, warthogs are seen snorting their way into peaceful phase of freedom, the buffaloes here also go on to bathe in the mud as a technique to get rid of the ticks that taunt them in the bright sunshine.

The graceful glide of the antelopes and waterbucks also shows the beauty of these herbivores especially as they graze on grassy joyfulness of the Savannah.

Park fees for Ugandans to do a game drive are only £4.50, and for foreign tourists the fee is £30 and an extra £40 if you want the rangers to track the lions especially for research and conservation purposes.

This article is reproduced here as part of the Giants Club African Conservation Journalism Fellowships, a programme of the charity Space for Giants and supported by the owner of ESI Media, which includes independent.co.uk. It aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa, and bring more African voices into the international conservation debate. Read the original story here.

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