While conservationists work to protect the last free-roaming lions of Africa, rural communities living in areas where these lions exist continue to fear for their lives and for that of their livestock. But new research funded by the University of Pretoria (UP) may offer a way to improve co-existence – with the help of cell phones.
Post-doctoral researcher Dr Florian Weise, in collaboration with Michael Somers of the Eugène Marais Chair of Wildlife Management which is part of UP’s Mammal Research Institute, is leading a multidisciplinary international study on sustainable co-existence that seeks to “provide relevant information about lions to the people who live with them, and provide this information quickly”.
Dr Weise says African communities rarely have direct access to lion monitoring information and are often marginalised during conservation development processes. “African rural communities bear the risks and costs of co-existence, which is why they should be the key stakeholders of lion conservation outside of protected areas.”
Human-lion conflict typically occurs along unfenced protected area boundaries where there is human settlement. The killing of livestock places a huge burden on the livelihood of communities, and human retaliation is often lethal, frequently in the form of poison, which also kills other wildlife that comes into contact with it.
This new research comes at a critical time: lion numbers and their distribution have significantly declined over the past century, with many regional populations having already gone extinct. These big cats play key roles in a healthy ecosystem, but with rising global demand for their bones, which are used in some cultural practices, population numbers are becoming increasingly threatened.
Dr Wiese coordinated a team of researchers from CLAWS Conservancy, the University of Siegen in Germany, the University of Newcastle in Australia, and others, to achieve the sustainable co-existence of rural communities and free-roaming lions – something that is yet to be realised in Africa – rather than lethally and permanently remove lions from an area.
The team, comprised of experts in the field of ethnography, ecology and socio-informatics, designed and developed an alert system that informs communities when big cats move into their vicinity, incorporating something that many in Africa have – a cell phone.
The ICT-based alert system enables the instant processing of lion movement information, which is collected via GPS tracking collars. It also allows for community participation through interactive interfaces on various phone devices and a community portal. The early-warning alert system uses geofences (virtual boundaries that can trigger alerts when transgressed) programmed into GPS-tracking transmitters.
The pilot study took place over two years (May 2016 to May 2018) in the Okavango Delta of northern Botswana. “This area’s lion population represents one of the last strongholds for the long-term survival of the species,” says Dr Weise. The delta also has important dispersal linkages with other big cat areas in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. However, the area’s anthropogenic landscape is increasing and is known for its ongoing conflict and widespread persecution of lions. Extreme seasonal changes in the delta, which forces both lions and livestock to move around in search of food and water in the late dry season, contributes to the conflict. These unrestricted movements increase the depredation of livestock significantly, which is why this area was a prime location to conduct the study.
Nine adult lions from different prides were tracked with collars. Researchers received geofence breach alerts from these GPS units via SMS notifications as soon as the lions entered specific areas such as villages, livestock grazing areas and subsistence activity areas. The alerts were then passed on to village and cattle post headmen, and other members of the community, who distributed the message. People were told which lions were approaching, when and approximately where, which enabled community members to protect themselves and their livestock.
“Early warning proved to significantly improve livestock protection because it facilitates informed risk management which sustainable co-existence requires, such as active herding and kraaling at night rather than leaving livestock free to roam,” explains Dr Weise.
Communities felt safer as a result of the study, due to better awareness of the whereabouts of lions. In fact, 91.8% of people who participated in the study found the alert system to be beneficial and wanted it to continue and be expanded. Also, by empowering them as stakeholders in lion conservation, they have a better understanding of the ecology of lions. This is slowly starting to change negative perceptions that co-existence is not possible.
Dr Weise credits community participation and feedback as a reason for the success of the pilot study and the development of the alert system. Researchers spent time consulting communities directly about the system’s design and performance, and were constantly present to gain important insights. They consulted with men and women, people of all ages, from various levels of education and technological abilities as well as language proficiency. “For a grounded understanding of human-lion interactions, researchers needed to grasp the complexity of social circumstances that influence community life, interactions with predators and conflict,” says Dr Wiese. Co-designing a conflict mitigation method such as this gives people an opportunity to influence the process as they can adapt the system’s components according to their individual needs.
While the system presented a few challenges that are yet to be overcome, the continuous improvements in modern animal tracking means that such a system can be feasible where conflict antagonises communities to the point of indiscriminately persecuting lions. “However one should not see early-warning alerts as the big solution to human-wildlife conflicts,” Dr Weise cautions. “Such systems have a long way to go before they are feasible and practical on a large scale.”
But one thing is certain: the alerts certainly improve the co-existence of people with dangerous wildlife because they put people back in control. “Alerts are really an effort to increase safety and enhance local management of natural resources,” says Dr Wiese. “By reducing encounter risk, we hope the tolerance of lions and other dangerous species in increasingly human-dominated landscapes will also be improved.”
This study is the result of the collaboration of UP with Dr Andrew Stein and CLAWS Conservancy (http://www.clawsconservancy.org/), who continue to test and refine the lion alert system in Botswana.