Protecting Kalahari lions

About 100,000 years ago in the late Pleistocene period, lions were the most widespread large mammal after man. Since that time, lions’ range and numbers have severely declined. Today, they are confined to mainly small and isolated groups in Africa and India because of human activities like agriculture, cattle farming and hunting. Humans pose the biggest threat to lions’ future survival.

PhD scholar Kevin MacFarlane is investigating why Central Kalahari lions enter areas in and around farms and kill livestock. Farmers in the region shoot large numbers of lions, causing serious concerns about the viability of this important lion population. “This community of lions is one of the most important populations left in the world as the Kalahari is one of the few areas where they might continue to survive,” says MacFarlane, who is working under the supervision of Professor Robert Heinsohn.

MacFarlane fitted 12 lions from eight prides with GPS collars to track their movements on a daily and seasonal basis for two years. He is using sophisticated satellite technology to map the lions’ movements in order to understand where lions sleep, forage and socialise. According to MacFarlane’s research, farmers are inadvertently creating perfect hunting habitats for lions.

The scale of farming in the Kalahari is immense with livestock grazing areas increasingly being situated adjacent to game reserves. “Kalahari farmers are continually expanding their farms and turning woody scrubland into grassland for grazing, even though large farms with low numbers of cattle are uneconomical,” MacFarlane warns. He argues that hungry lions would spend considerably less time in farming areas if farmers were to employ land management techniques such as ‘holistic farming’, which aims to use intense grazing in tightly managed units.

In response to occasional attacks on grazing stock, farmers often take measures to remove the dominant male lion whose territory overlaps with their farm. MacFarlane’s findings reveal that by doing so farmers are creating opportunities for numerous younger males to come into the territory and take many more cows. “If I can convince farmers that an occasional cow taken by a single dominant male may in fact protect their stock from much greater predation by competing younger males, they should suffer fewer losses without resorting to killing lions.”

MacFarlane is in consultation with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Botswana who are incorporating his research findings into their Central Kalahari Management Plan. This plan endorses strategies for changing lion behavior, such as conditioning lions to dislike the taste of cattle by using tasteless chemicals in baited beef that induce vomiting but are otherwise harmless. Guidelines and training for park staff and farmers also forms part of the plan, but it may be that well placed government compensation schemes are the incentive needed for farmers to change their practices.