Author Archive

Fragile Felines!

by | July 9th, 2015

world lion day3


Lions are the top predators within their territories; however, even they are not exempt from the pressures of the changes taking place in the world. As human encroachment into nature’s last wild places continues, the everyday struggles for lions increase. While some game parks in Africa appear to have thriving lion populations, spotting a lion in Africa outside one of these areas is increasingly rare. Without extensive human management of lion populations, these iconic cats will disappear.

Uganda Carnivore Program, located in Queen Elizabeth National Park, is one organization that is fighting to preserve African lions. Dr. Ludwig Siefert and his research assistant James use radiotracking collars to keep tabs on the small population of lions remaining in the in park. They also work with local villages to mitigate the human-lion conflicts that arise from cohabitation of lions, humans, and the cattle they both use as food.


world lion day2


Here in California, “America’s lion,” the mountain lion, continues to be a misunderstood and feared predator. However, recent legislation is beginning to positively affect mountain lions. Now, with the help of Oakland Zoo, the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife may be able to relocate some mountain lions from urban areas to remote wilderness locations. Oakland Zoo’s Veterinary Hospital is approved as a temporary housing location for such mountain lions, and the veterinary staff works closely with officers when “nuisance” mountain lions are spotted.


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On Saturday August 22, Oakland Zoo will celebrate World Lion Day with our own special Lion Appreciation Day. From lion keeper talks to lion paw prints, there will be a myriad of activities to help you appreciate and learn more about all lions! For a preview of World Lion Day, visit






Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Conclusion

by | March 3rd, 2015

March 1 and 2


Parting thoughts…


The journey home from QENP and Uganda takes three days, which gives me ample time to reflect on all I have seen and learned in the past 16 days. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to travel to Uganda, work in the field alongside conservation experts, discover exotic cultures, and begin a project that may ultimately aid in saving a critically endangered ecosystem. Dr. Siefert and James will continue the fight for tomorrows, while we help from home until we return. I hope that my words from Uganda have been educational, entertaining, and maybe even a little inspirational for those of you who have followed our journey. If that’s the case, or even if it’s just because lion cubs are one of the cutest things on the planet, please be sure to visit UCP’s webpage often – maybe you, too, can give them a chance for tomorrow. Until the next visit…Cub with kob

Papa resting

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 6

by | March 3rd, 2015

Thursday / Friday Feb 26 / 27


Lights out, Africa time…


There is a bit of a time delay for this blog. As of Wednesday evening, electricity became variable: in fact, mostly non-existent, especially after dusk. No problem, I thought – my computer is fully charged and illuminated, so I can still write in the evening. Enter those pesky little insects called lake flies. The tiny, buzzing critters don’t bite or sting, but they fly around in packs of thousands, are attracted to the slightest bit of light, and are apparently generally meant to cause extreme annoyance to any human caught nearby. I dove under the mosquito net surrounding my bed in hopes of fending them off…alas, they were persistent and soon my computer screen was covered. Thwarted by microscopic insects, I gave up and attempted to fall asleep to the symphony of whirring wings around my head!


letterEven during the day, the lack of electricity renders sample processing impossible, and prevents Dr. Siefert from printing the letter of support for the community Chairman to sign. Africa time again. Nobody knows when the electricity will return, so Dr. Gottfried and I spend Thursday at the lodge, taking advantage of its’ electricity (the lodge is the only building nearby with a generator). After several hours of surfing the web and reading, we begin chatting with Ugandan waiters Morris and Daniel. They are interested especially in the American system of government and American marriage customs. We learn that there are many language dialects spoken in Uganda, each so unique that tribes living only a few miles apart cannot understand each other. Marriage is a bit different as well. Apparently if a woman in a marriage is infertile, the man immediately takes a new wife!


At 5pm, James calls. “Where might you be?” he asks, as he is suddenly ready to go lion tracking. This evening, we track in the burned crater area and, not surprisingly, find no lions. With nothing to eat, the lion prey have vacated this large part of the park. James again discusses Ugandan politics as he drives toward a village. Apparently we are meant to look at crafts in the village this evening. We are ushered into a small, dark brick building containing several women, a sewing machine, and yards of beautifully patterned cloth. The women here are also partially supported by UCP, so we purchase 12 yards of fabric, at the bargain price of 35,000 shillings ($13). At least we have made a monetary contribution to the community today, despite the electrical setback!lots of crafts


We think we know “Africa time,” by now but Friday redefines this phrase. Dr. Siefert and James arrive at 9:30 with grand plans for the day. We are to pick up crafts from the women’s group, take the letter to the Chairman to sign, take another letter to the UWA Conservation Manager to sign, run a few errands in Kasese town, and try to get some more lion and kob samples. Simple, right?

James calls a representative of the women’s group, “the old lady,” who tells him that the crafts are in the village. Meanwhile, Dr. Siefert speaks with a different representative of the village, Jane, who says they are at her home. Several more phone calls ensue, agitation becoming evident, and it is finally decided that we are to meet in the village. Crafts are finally picked up and bought…2 hours later. And thus the day will go. By 4pm, the outside temperature has risen to the mid-90’s and we have been in the vehicle for 6 hours, still awaiting the two letters of support for UCP grant funding. There will be no lion tracking today.


At the end of the day, exhausted, dusty, and sweaty from 8 hours in a truck, we have accomplished most of the objectives and feel thoroughly indoctrinated into Ugandan cultural habits. Our hostel waitress, Kyria, serves us our final Ugandan meal of grilled whole fish, matoke (plantain), posho, boiled potatoes, rice, and tomato sauce, a perfect end to an imperfect day…then, surprise… the electricity is off and the whirring wings begin again…

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 5

by | February 27th, 2015

Wednesday Feb 25

Communication challenges…


This Wednesday morning we accompany a young American couple on their lion tracking adventure. Dr. Siefert is not available for this trek, so while Dr. Gottfried and I narrate and answer questions, James looks for the lions. Obviously we have learned much about the lions and the park ecology – maybe we have a future in eco-tourism?Cub and yawn


We return to the sight of the water buffalo kill, where we have again picked up Sharon’s signal. The buffalo carcass is reduced to mere bones with tiny bits of flesh, and no fewer than 15 white-backed vultures are scavenging the remains…there is no waste here in the park. Sharon and the cubs have moved up the hill and are out of sight in the thick tangle of thorns and low brush. It has become too treacherous for navigation by 4-wheel drive and we must turn back.Vultures


Though the morning has yielded no samples for our study, we have successfully located several more lions. More importantly, we have conveyed a wealth of information to some very receptive park tourists. Hopefully this morning has had an impact on them – now they can not only say they have seen lions, but they understand a little more about complex conservation issues.


This afternoon’s communication challenge seems more daunting. We return to the community visited a few days ago, where we paid part compensation for a calf killed by a leopard. Today, Dr. Siefert will present his ideas to move the community forward, and solicit a letter of support from them to apply for grant funding for these improvement projects.


The community meeting takes place on a few rickety wooden benches placed on the dusty ground underneath a tree. The chairman of the community, Eliphaz, and 10 other high-ranking community members are present. Several other men wander in and out, standing quietly behind the benches as Dr. Seifert talks. He attempts to establish himself as “not the police, not the UWA,” but someone who has the interests of wildlife and the community in mind. He describes how his own family in Germany re-established their financial stability following the “misery” of WWII using a combination of agriculture, animal products, and forest eco-tourism, including a pub and restaurant. His point is that this community can also be more successful financially by utilizing similar ideas.


The most pressing need is for construction of proper corrals for the livestock – made 9 meters tall, with wire fence material and weather-resistant poles, surrounded by a second bio-fencing barrier made of the invasive thorny bushes so prevalent throughout the park. Dr. Siefert introduces the concept of “zero grazing” by which livestock are fed on smaller fenced pastures with grasses cultivated by the community, leaving the park grasses available for wild prey species. Not wanting to leave anyone out, he proposes creating sport-fishing eco-tours for the fishermen in the community, and describes accommodations necessary for that industry.


Finally, one man breaks his silence, and Eliphaz translates for us. The community members would like to comment and are becoming impatient! I have the impression that Dr. Siefert’s ideas are a bit overwhelming. They agree that proper livestock pens are essential, but balk at the idea of shared community pens. They argue that people need to be able to check their livestock throughout the day while at home, there is too much potential for disease transmission, and someone would have to be paid to maintain the outside perimeter wire and bio-fence. Dr. Siefert nods, as if understanding, but reminds the group that community pens are more reasonable given UCP’s limited funds.Tail


After a lively discussion, the community decides that they will only agree to support construction of a separate pen for each family, even if that means waiting indefinitely until the funding is available. Dr. Siefert reluctantly consents, requesting cost estimates to be available tomorrow when we return with a letter of support for them to sign. We close the meeting with my statement as a representative of Oakland Zoo, and shake hands again. A woman who has been silent throughout the meeting speaks up, saying that she is happy for the help, unless we are the ones who brought the leopard to the village.


We drive away with mixed emotions. Dr. Siefert’s ideas have been received and discussed honestly, yet in the end, there is always suspicion. He is baffled by the accusation that he (or we!) moves leopards around the park. I try to understand the resistance to change and improvements in the community, and wonder how best to resolve this communication challenge…

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 4

by | February 24th, 2015


Monday / Tuesday Feb 23 /24

Research routine…


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!Cub on back


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.Cub posing


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.


Sharon on killWe 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!



Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 3

by | February 23rd, 2015

Weekend Feb 21/22

No rest in research…

Well, a little rest this Saturday morning. We meet James at 7am instead of the usual 6:30am for the next sample collection endeavor. We need samples from prey species (kob and waterbuck) that live very close to human settlements, in order to compare their stress levels with those in more remote sections of the park. James takes us to multiple places near the hostel, and we spend several hours deciding which piles of feces are fresh or old (yes, I really went to vet school in order to do this)!

A few hours into sample collection, James receives another disturbing call from Dr. Siefert regarding a local pastoralist. Early this morning, the man’s dogs alerted him to a predator in the area. Unfortunately, a leopard was attacking and consuming one of the man’s calves. We arrive at the village to inspect the dead calf. The left hind limb has been skinned as if with the sharpest of butcher knives and much of the meat has been removed. James confirms that this is the typical pattern of a leopard kill. The resident is kind, saying that he believes that all animals belong in the park, but is visibly troubled that his expensive asset is now gone.


Providing compensation to the owner of the calf that was killed by the leopard

Providing compensation to the owner of the calf that was killed by the leopard

One mitigation technique UCP uses in situations such as these is partial monetary compensation, in hopes that villagers will not retaliate and kill the predator. From donations given to UCP, we offer this resident 250,000 shillings ($90), which is approximately half of what the calf is worth. The man is grateful for this money, and plans to sell the remaining carcass to another village to help recoup his loss. (As pastoralists, these villagers will not eat meat.)


As we drive away, luck strikes again…on the road in front of us is a distinctive pile – a predator fecal sample. The green glove goes on, and I pick up the little present that the leopard left behind. On the way back to the hostel, James pulls out the antenna in case there are any lions nearby. The luck continues! We find Sharon’s group of females and cubs lying near a thicket, one cub still gnawing on the fresh remains of a kob. We observe for a while, and notice another prized fecal sample. When Sharon walks away, we slowly close in, cubs no more than 5 yards from the truck. James leans out of the door, scoops up the sample as we keep eyes on the lions, and we escape with our smelly reward!Cub with kob


OvenBack in the lab, yesterday’s sample dehydration challenge awaits. Dr. Seifert has procured the hot plate, but problems persist. We spend the afternoon creating a hot plate oven; re-wiring the European plug to a Ugandan plug, buying a pot from the lodge, locating non-melting plastic cups in which to place our sample cups, and finally finding a working outlet in which to plug our creation. With a test sample in place, we break for a late dinner, planning to check on it in a couple of hours. By 9pm, our efforts seem to be paying off. The test sample is 2/3 evaporated with no sign of melting plastic. We place the real samples in the oven and call it a night.


After our usual breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast, Sunday morning we walk to the lab to check the samples. Thankfully, they dried overnight, so we load the last samples, including the precious lion feces, into the oven to dry for the day, weigh the recently dried ones, and make preliminary calculations. Later in the afternoon, we return to check the last samples. Another setback. Our small Eppendorf tubes have melted into the plastic holder, ruining several samples. Feeling a little disheartened, we set up some more experimental tubes and decrease the oven’s heat. Hopefully tomorrow will be more successful. Thus are the trials of science and conservation.