31 January 2009
Kampala — IT started like a wild search by lions expert Ludwig Siefert. However, two days later, on a dark night, he ended up with an unbelievable discovery.
Siefert encountered one of the three lions that have resurfaced in Lake Mburo National Park, after a decade of apparent extinction.
"I saw him on the second day," says Siefert, his face lighting up. "He got so close he could be recorded on a night-vision camera some 50 metres away, but the thickets prohibited it."
Siefert was called for an unusual operation after a report that aid workers had seen two lionesses on the eastern ranches around Lake Mburo National Park last month.
A rancher had also claimed loss of a cow, reporting a typical lion-kill outside the park.
Soon afterwards, two rangers spotted lion footprints inside the park close to a hyena den. Siefert confirmed this, too.
"I saw the foot and hand of an adult male when I went around Mantana inside the park," Siefert told Sunday Vision in an interview at Makerere University.
After discussions with top officials of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) in Kampala, Siefert went to the park to verify the reports. He was assigned to explore possibilities of putting a radio collar on at least one of the lions, to monitor its movements, particularly in relation to the local communities and livestock in order to reduce or prevent conflicts.
Radio collars are gadgets that send images to satellites. The images are then sent to cellphones, radios or computers for analysis.
Siefert used a popular large predator search method in which a public address system was fitted to a car, which plays interactive sounds to attract the lion, between 9:00pm and 3:00am.
On the night of December 15, a lion passed about 150 metres away from the vehicle. "It was still too shy to come closer," Siefert notes.
He said his team caught up with the lion on the second day, but could not dart it. "The terrain and the thickets made it difficult to dart the lion," he explains.
Although their hunts were fruitless, as the lion kept the same distance in four subsequent encounters during a week of camping in the park, Siefert and his team refused to give up.
However, they noticed repeated and consistent responses of a lioness' call from Merithi swamp. "It could be an indication of at least one lioness preparing to deliver or having delivered in that safe and prey-rich habitat," says Siefert.
He adds: "There could be another lioness, too."
So far, Siefert says the option of either killing or relocating the lions to another protected area have been ruled out. "If lions remain in that core home and pastoral people stay outside, there should be no immediate worry of future conflicts," says Siefert.
He points out that the lions have camped where there is plenty of prey and the animal base is rich and varied. He also says that there is relative safety for the park authorities, visitors and pastoralists if they comply with UWA regulations.
Siefert says this particular group of lions has the unique trait of avoiding dead animals and that is why they survived being poisoned when they were migrating to Lake Mburo.
Among conservationists, Lake Mburo is better known for its sad history. It is a park that was freely roamed by lions, but they became extinct about a decade ago.
Siefert suspects that the new group could have come from the expansive grasslands, swamps and forests of Sango Bay in Rakai District, which still hosts endangered forest elephants.
Other reports say the lions could have migrated from Kikagati Wildlife Reserve, which is under encroachment from refugees, or from Akagera National Park in Rwanda.
The three protected areas: Lake Mburo, Sango Bay and Akagera National Park in Rwanda, were part of a much larger ecological system known as Akagera. It covered expansive grasslands, woodland and wetlands around a number of smaller lakes and Lake Victoria in Uganda, northern Tanzania and Rwanda.
Siefert says cattle ranching gained more prominence with the establishment of the Ankole-Masaka Ranching Scheme during the 1950s and 60s, which was a result of the modernisation drive launched by pre-independence and post-independence governments. It was supported by USAID.
This was not without a shortcoming. "It caused the elimination of lions, African wild dogs, elephants and African forest hogs from the former controlled hunting areas within the Ankole-Masaka Ranching Scheme," says Siefert.
However, the political turmoil and civil unrest of the 1970s and early 1980s led to the collapse of the modernisation approach.
To control the wanton destruction of resources, the former controlled hunting area was gazetted as Lake Mburo National Park in 1983, according to Siefert. This, too, caused problems because the local people interpreted it as oppression rather than a genuine resource conservation move.
However, Uganda National Parks partially degazetted half of the park in 1986. UWA also introduced enterprises for the local people to benefit more from the park. This led to a drastic improvement of Government-community relations over the years.
In contrast to herbivores, which have been increasing in number, the population of predators is going down, Siefert says.
The population of hyenas (estimated at six) and leopards is dropping through poisoning by livestock owners.
Besides, a small migrant population of seven lions was eliminated between 1994 and 1997 after 17 cattle were eaten in Lake Mburo National Park.
Siefert also says the migration of lions across Akagera is not unusual, as pockets of prey animals are remaining in protected areas (Sango Bay, Akagera, Kikagati wildlife reserve).
Siefert also still remembers unsuccessful attempts to capture two lions that had reportedly killed livestock south of Lake Kacheera in Rakai District at the turn of this decade.
As the human population grows, most of the animals have been killed and the migratory corridors have given way to human settlements, Siefert says.
Having ruled out killing of the lions or relocation to another park, Siefert recommends radio tracking of the lions to continue in order to obtain data on the lions for increased security.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org