By Luke Andrews
What do lions get up to in their spare time? A conservation team studying a group of lions in Zambia has been finding out. They are observing the behaviour of a group of lions under an ex-situ reintroduction programme to ensure that they are behaving naturally. Several of these big cats are due for wild release as part of a Conservation Trust’s project to boost declining lion numbers.
The African Lion Environmental Research Trust (ALERT), located in Livingstone, has over 40 lions. One of their groups of lions, or prides, called the ‘Dambwa Pride’, consists of 12 individuals, six adults and six offspring. The six cubs will be released into the wild as they were raised without human contact. This makes them ideal candidates for wild release.
The parents, on the other hand, cannot be released into the wilderness. They have lost the fear of humans, having experienced regular contact with people as juveniles. Trained Lion Handlers took them on walks in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.
Losing the fear of humans is dangerous for big cats. This could result in individuals being bold enough to approach and enter villages or preying on livestock when released. This is problematic and counter-productive as it may lead to them being killed by local communities and attitudes that lions are dangerous remaining entrenched. ALERT wants to increase the lion population and reverse anti-lion attitudes.
The release programme aims to reverse the decline in wild lion numbers. Over the past 21 years their population has declined by an estimated 42%, according to the 2015 International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) redlist. This is an enormous reduction that, if not slowed or reversed, will lead to the species becoming extinct in the wild.
The ‘Dambwa Pride’ lives in a whopping 2.9 km2 release site. It is designed to facilitate natural lion behaviours through the provision of several habitats, prey species and minimal human interference. It contains grassland, wooded areas and several herbivores. The only man-made disturbance is an occasional Land Rover full of researchers, interns and volunteers.
The Dambwa pride did share the area with many prey species including zebra, impala, puku, waterbuck and wildebeest. Most have now been hunted out leaving just a few impala, puku and and duiker remaining.
ALERT visits the lions daily to study their behaviours and social structure. This is to develop an understanding of lion activity patterns and pride relationships. Comparisons are then drawn with wild prides to ensure that the lions are exhibiting natural behaviours.
A day with the Dambwa Pride often begins at 7am. A drive to the release site is followed by a quest to locate the lions. In such a large site, this seems like a challenge. The lack of herbivores and the ever tall spear grass has resulted in visibility being obstructed beyond a metre.
To assist in the search ALERT has fitted the adults of the pride with telemetry collars. These send out a signal with a range of up to one kilometre. When the Land Rover is within range, the waves are picked up by a receiver box which emits a beep indicating that the lions are nearby.
After driving through the release site for ten minutes, the beeping began. The driver turned and headed towards a known favourite lion place within a kilometre. Sure enough, there they were, lounging against each other.
There are several places in the ‘release site’ which the lions favour. The most memorable being the aptly named ‘B****** Corner’. In this area the terrain is so rough that it is near inaccessible for a Land Rover, especially during wet season. Researchers and volunteers are reduced to staring through thick bushes at the pride.
When they are in more visible locations, observations of behaviour can be made. The team starts by noting down the weather, time, location, and a pride dynamic, which involves recording the closest neighbour of each lion. Then, the volunteers are given instructions for an activity budget, which is an hour long observation vigil.
Each volunteer is asked to monitor one lion. Every two minutes they write down what this individual is doing. Behaviours recorded include resting (a favoured lion past time), grooming, visual (which often means looking), and social interactions.
The first time I visited the Dambwa Pride I was asked to observe Zulu, the adult male. He spent most of the hour resting, and about five minutes staring blankly at other lions.
Through these observations, researchers are beginning to learn what lions do during the day. The data is analysed by behavioural ecologist and Principal Researcher for ALERT, Dr Emma Dunston, and ALERT’s Director of Research Dr Jackie Abell.
For about 80% of the day the lions rest, that’s 20 – 22 hours! This is because they are a gorge feeder, which means they eat as much as they can at once. Due to this feeding behaviour, they need time to sleep off their large meals, just like us at Christmas. Behaviours observed over the remainder of the day include locomotion, hunting, playing, grooming and social interactions.
The data has also revealed individual lions characters. Zulu, despite being the dominant male, can be a bit of a scaredy-cat. When Zulu was first introduced to his cubs, he was observed to run away.
The dominant and largest female, Rusha, has been shown to be a unifying character. She maintains interactions within the pride and keeps the whole thing together. She is also a relaxed and surprisingly playful character, still asking the offspring for a game, even though they are now sub-adults approaching adulthood.
Another female, RS1, will make a good hunter. She is very bold and inquisitive, often inspecting any movement or change in her environment.
ALERT may have successfully prepared several lions for wild release. Through hours of research the trust has gathered data on what lions do in their spare time. They have also ensured that their captive-origin pride is behaving naturally, and would therefore be suitable for release. ALERT has published numerous research articles in international peer-reviewed journals on the behaviour of their lion prides, indicating they are behaviourally apt for survival in the wild. They hope to release the offspring of the Dambwa pridein the next two years.
Dr Emma Dunston’s piece on the ALERT project: http://www.lateralmag.com/articles/issue-22/the-pride-of-africa
The ALERT website: http://www.lionalert.org