Counting lions in Tsavo

by ZSL on

By Moses Wekesa, Tsavo Field Manager, Kenya

It is more than 30 years ago but I recall it all like yesterday - how my late grandfather defended his 27-acre piece of land from intruding small game hunters in the village! I think two out of six of his sons (including my Dad) emulated him, which is why I occasionally find some hare, aardvark and porcupine signs on our farm today. All other edible diurnal species on the farm were gone by 1990! Dots (if any) are too faint now, but there exists value similarity in grandpa and me. He cherished wild animals then and here I do not just work for wildlife, I enjoy doing so.

Photograph of a young lioness and her cub in grassland

I was on leave last December when I first learnt of the Lion and Predator Survey. It was a national exercise, the first ever, meant to ascertain lion numbers and distribution across Kenya. The Mara and Nairobi ecosystems had just been completed and Tsavo was next. Dr Zeke Davidson, the ZSL Kenya Country Director, had just been approached by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) for help capacity-wise. ZSL had offered a vehicle and my name was put forward for training and field participation as a driver and observer.  I was assigned block seven of eight, lying in ZSL’s focal rhino monitoring area and was assisted by a KWS researcher plus two rangers.

Call-up equipment was scarce, so we initially relied on a combination of  random searches and information from other rangers on patrol and tourists. We sighted eleven individuals - 2 adults males, 6 adult females and 3 cubs - by the end of the first two weeks. Exceptionally, a sister team, working in Tsavo East, had had more than 30 individual lion sightings over the same period! Zero results had also been posted by a couple of teams though! 

Photograph of several lions resting at night

Finally came the speaker, the infra-red torch and the memory stick containing pre-recorded calls thought to attract lions - so we thought it was our turn to top the list for sightings! Surprisingly, lion response was positive only on two of the seven call-back stations! We had played the call of a dying buffalo four times repeatedly at intervals and progressively to hyaena giggles climaxed with lion growls. This is typical noise at kill sites especially in the Savanna.

Photograph of Moses in the truck with a pair of lions just outsideHandling the one individual lion that showed up on the 4th March was easy as this occurred at sunrise and in a relatively open habitat. However, this was fairly challenging on the 6th March, a couple of hours after sunset. The dying buffalo call had been broadcast for barely 2 minutes when 3 lions first arrived and before long we had been surrounded by 14 lions all eyeing the speaker, that broadcast the dying buffalo call from the vehicle carrier!

There was a little panic at first, but it was quickly realized that the 'cats' could not go beyond the vehicle bumper as this was too smooth to allow grip by claws. I wish we had at least 3 infra-red torches and 2 high resolution cameras in hand, we would have captured great identification features (whisker, teeth, nostril and ear images) for everyone! Additionally, this would have aided more accurate sexing of the pride; bearing in mind a record of adult male lions without mane less than 100 kilometers away in Tsavo East National Park and that for maned lionesses in the Okavango delta, Botswana.

The exercise is not over yet, so I have no idea what my encounter will be tomorrow but for now, I will live to remember the buffalo and elephant herd charge in a separate call-in station!  Thank goodness I was behind the steering! so I sped off not minding the speaker that fell off the carrier! We picked this up an hour later while sure we were safe and called off the operation at that. But really, the 50+ buffaloes just wanted to save what they thought was their own (the dying buffalo), little knowing that this was a mere mimic! The 10+ elephants were simply angered by the whole commotion in their territory.

All in all, I am happy ZSL will be contributing to the new five-year Lion and Spotted Hyaena Strategy for Kenya through this work, especially since the current strategy expired in 2014.  Personally, I will be delighted having had a contribution too.

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