Monday / Tuesday Feb 23 /24
Our final sample processing experiment over the weekend is successful (no more melting plastic!) and we have now settled into a daily schedule. Early in the morning we track lions, then return to the lab for sample processing, recording data and writing. Late in the afternoon, we are again in the field to track the felines. These are long, satisfying days – and hardly what can be considered routine!
On Monday morning, we spend several hours tracking Lena’s group, which consists of 9 adolescents, Lena (the lioness), and her 3 very young cubs. We are privileged to observe lion group dynamics – play, head butting, rubbing, marking, running, and vocalizing! One of the mature males, Rudi, appears interested in the group, following and occasionally vocalizing to them, but keeping his distance.
Suddenly, as we follow Rudi near a herd of water buffalo, we hear a human scream in the distance. James exclaims, “Lena’s killing someone!” and Dr. Siefert rushes our vehicle toward the scream, with James shouting directions. Luckily, when we arrive on the road, at the origin of the scream, three men are standing by their motorcycles, very shaken but unhurt. Apparently, Lena chased them when they drove around the corner – she was hiding in a thicket with her cubs, trying to find food for them. We advise the men not to attempt to pass Lena again and contact the UWA to inform them of the incident in hopes they will close the road to motorcycles until Lena moves away.
Feeling a bit more somber at the reminder of the ever-present potential for lion-human conflict, we continue to watch Rudi and the group of lions until we receive our “black gold” fecal reward! With the morning’s samples safe inside plastic bags, we drive back toward the lab. We have yet to find the other two big males, Papa and Omukama, so Dr. Siefert continues to track. Just as we re-enter the park, we hear a steady beep – Papa is nearby. Buried deep in the thickets and thorns, he is resting, but looks thin, as if he has not made a kill in several days. We drive away and are again rewarded for our tracking diligence – in the fork of a tree sits a solitary, shy leopard!
Tuesday dawns with similar goals: to find some lions, obtain some fecal samples, and process them. We first find Papa near the same spot as yesterday afternoon. No fecal sample nearby, but as we drive out of the park, we find a lion deposit on the side of the road…our luck continues! James pulls out the antenna for tracking and soon we have Sharon’s signal. She has moved to a far corner of the park, in very difficult, hilly, thorny terrain. James feels that this behavior is highly unusual. As her signal becomes stronger, her reasoning becomes clear. The trees ahead of us are full of vultures, obviously hoping for some scraps from a lion’s dinner.
We drive cautiously, windows shut completely, as an eviscerated water buffalo comes into view. Sharon the lioness is hiding in a large thicket just behind the kill, staring at us warily. Her cubs are several hundred yards away, stomachs bulging, relaxing in the warm sun. Unfortunately, it seems that we are too early in the digestive process to obtain samples, so we make a plan to return later in the evening.
It has cooled off significantly this evening, and I must pull out my lucky long-sleeved purple field shirt. James tests our navigation skills as we drive towards Sharon’s group. Using an old tree and a mountain peak, we are able to accurately choose the turn off the road, and follow our path from the morning through the savannah, with a bit of help from James. As the sun begins to set, several of the cubs emerge from their afternoon naps and present us with two more samples. We find Sharon at the kill site, consuming her evening meal, expertly butchering the remaining meat with her razor sharp teeth. My lucky shirt seems to be working…or it’s just another routine day of research!