The Loss of a Lion
by | January 13th, 2014

Oakland Zoo is proud of and inspired by the work we do with conservation partners dealing with human-wildlife conflict. We are thrilled that our own volunteers have stepped up with such passion to engage in solutions with these partners. Volunteer Carol Moen Wing shares her experiences with one of our current Quarters for Conservation partners, the Uganda Carnivore Program, which helps conserve African lions.

by Carol Moen Wing, Oakland Zoo  and Uganda Carnivore Program Volunteer

                    The news came via e-mail, from half a world away: Fiona and her family were dead.  I felt a deep sense of sadness as I read Dr. Siefert’s message — “Fiona’s group is no more.  We found, after many days and a few nights, her and her cubs’ carcass; most likely poisoned…”  Just a few months earlier, I had been sitting on the roof of the Uganda Carnivore Program’s research vehicle with Dr. Siefert’s assistant James, watching the lioness Fiona and her two cubs as they rested high in the spiny limbs of a euphorbia tree in Queen Elizabeth National Park.  The cubs, Haraka and her brother Saba, had climbed quite a bit higher than their mom and were peering through the thick green branches at us, curiosity evident in the prick of their ears and the flick of their little tails.  Fiona-cub-Haraka

 

From this close vantage point, I could see the soft sheen of their fur and smell the musky warm scent of the big cats.  Finally caution got the best of them and they climbed even higher and deeper into the shelter of the tree, while their mother continued to snooze on a big branch below, hardly bothering to open her one good eye and acknowledge our presence.  Reading the news from Uganda now, it was hard to imagine that they were all gone. Fiona+cubs

And yet, I was not surprised.  Late last summer Fiona had moved her family into one of the most dangerous regions of the national park, where wildlife frequently come into conflict with local people.  This is where we had tracked them, in the Crater region not far from several large villages.  Tough old Fiona was a bit of a legend: she survived the loss of an eye in 2001 while hunting a buffalo, and still managed to be a successful hunter and excellent mother to many offspring throughout the years.  At one point she’d even moved her small cubs into the shelter of an abandoned building, a crumbling structure with decorations around the missing roofline that made it look like a small palace — Dr. Siefert had pointed it out to us on our drive.  For many years she had lived in the Mweya Peninsula area of the park, and had only moved into the Crater region because of increasing pressure to find territory unclaimed by younger lions.  In other words, she was just being a good mom, looking for a safe place to raise her cubs.  Could she have known that another lion pride had been poisoned by villagers in this same area not long ago?

 

This is one of the most difficult challenges in wildlife conservation: human-wildlife conflict.  Animals and people are competing for limited resources, for land and food and water, and too often it is the large predator species such as lions, leopards and spotted hyenas that end up in the worst conflict situations with a rapidly-growing human population.  Queen Elizabeth National Park is not unique in this sense, but it does have an even greater challenge than other parts of Africa because human settlements are located both around the borders and within the park itself.  There are 11 enclave villages with a total population of 50,000 people living inside the park, and many more in towns and villages just beyond its unfenced boundaries.  The depletion of prey species such as antelope (due to habitat loss and poaching) motivates wild predators to seek an easier meal such as a goat or cow.  To make things worse, people unwittingly encourage the predation of their livestock by illegally grazing their animals on park land and building flimsy, easily accessible corrals for their animals to sleep in at night.  Little wonder that a lion like Fiona would kill an easy target like a cow to feed her family.

 

Most local people living in and around the park do not see lions and other predators as beautiful creatures worth saving — rather, these animals are viewed as direct threats to the security and livelihood of human families.  In response to livestock predation, people will frequently retaliate by poisoning animal carcasses and leaving them out for the lions, hyenas and leopards to consume (not to mention other unlucky passersby such as vultures).  For cattle-keepers, a good lion is a dead lion.  On a basic level we all understand it: people want to protect their families, their livelihood and food security, particularly in a place as impoverished as Uganda.  “Not in my backyard,” as they say (even here in California).  But we also know that an ecosystem will suffer and eventually collapse without its predator and scavenger species.

 

The loss of individual lions like Fiona, Haraka and Saba may not seem like much in the big scheme of things, but considering the current conservation status of their species every loss is significant; fewer than 30,000 lions remain in all of Africa, and the lion population has declined by 30% over the last 20 years.  African lions are now officially classified as “vulnerable, with a decreasing population trend.”  In Queen Elizabeth National Park the statistics are even more grim, with fewer than 150 lions present.  Leopards are threatened as well, and spotted hyenas have suffered the greatest population loss of all the large predators in the region.

 

The Uganda Carnivore Program, one of the Oakland Zoo’s Quarters for Conservation partners, has been working hard to find solutions to these problems and mitigate human-wildlife conflict through community outreach and education, as well as using radio collars to monitor predators’ movements into conflict hot spots.  Dr. Ludwig Siefert and his Senior Research Assistant, James Kalyewa, work tirelessly to protect lions, leopards and hyenas by tracking and collecting data on the predator populations, as well as working with local people to find solutions that will protect their communities and their valuable livestock from predation.  The UCP’s efforts have had a positive impact in other areas in and around the national park.  For example, in the past lions had frequently been poisoned near the village of Hamukungu.  The UCP has been working with the village leaders for the past year to design safer, predator-proof livestock corrals, including solar lighting to scare away potential predators at night, and to educate people about the importance of predator species in their environment.  Since this partnership began, no lions have been poisoned in Hamukungu, even though there have been instances of livestock predation.  And in the village of Muhokya, where leopards have been preying on goats, the UCP has worked with the local community to establish a conservation education center and a cultural- and conservation-based tourism initiative called Leopard Village, in thanks for the community’s willingness to learn to live with wildlife and protect it rather than destroy it.  It is significant that Fiona was poisoned in an area that the UCP is not currently working with the community, due to limited funding and manpower… and that other lions are likely to move into this area now that she is gone.

 

The loss of Fiona and her last two cubs is discouraging to all of us who care about African wildlife, but we must keep working toward solutions.  Conservation is not just something that happens somewhere far away, someone else’s problem, particularly when we consider that some parts of the world have more resources and ability to help wildlife than others.  Even if you never met Fiona and her cubs, the Earth is an increasingly small backyard and the loss of a species has an effect on us all, and on future generations.  Conservation is personal.  As for Fiona, despite her tragic end she had a good life for a wild lion, surviving 15 years in a dangerous environment and successfully raising many other cubs to adulthood.  We can mourn her loss, but we must also look to the predator populations of Queen Elizabeth National Park as a whole — lions, leopards and spotted hyenas — and continue striving to find the best possible solutions for the challenges of human-wildlife conflict.

 

Please join us to learn more and support the Uganda Carnivore Program on Wednesday January 15, 2014 at Oakland Zoo’s Conservation Speaker Series Saving the Savannah event.

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