Last Night with the Lions

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Last night after dinner I found myself eagerly heading out into the rain with raptor expert and Kenyan native Simon Thomsett, to assist the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) with capturing and relocating some “troublesome” lions. Simon and I had already gotten soaked to the bone in the sudden downpour on our walk to exercise his rehabilitated tawny eagle a few hours before, but I was undeterred.

You may be asking, “What constitutes a ‘troublesome’ lion?”, and you are correct in being confused. Although tourists flock to East Africa for a chance to view lions in person, the world’s second-largest cat has long been a cause of conflict for people here who own livestock. Soysambu Conservancy, which is adjacent to Nakuru National Park, also functions as a ranch, home to thousands of the most valuable cattle in the country. Although there is a fence between Nakuru NP and the Conservancy, it has some weak points, and because the national park is continuously encroached upon by development, more and more park lions have made their way to the conservancy for easy meals. The ranch here at Soysambu has been working toward building more secure fences for the nighttime cattle enclosures, or bomas, but, for complex reasons, any boma improvement initiatives have been advancing extremely slowly. Thus, lions can easily pick off the cattle here at the ranch.

As you might imagine, Soysambu Conservancy leaders are interested in the return of more lions, especially since it appears the national park does not have the resources to support its entire burgeoning lion population, so the Conservancy has been working hard to encourage the ranch to build better bomas quickly. However, bureaucratic and, perhaps, monetary concerns are considerable roadblocks. It is no surprise that bureaucratic and political conflict go hand in hand with human-carnivore conflict. As a result of this slow process, KWS has been compelled to constantly come to the conservancy at night and use considerable resources and manpower to bait, dart, and trap “troublesome” lions and return them to the park. Because these operations can last well into the early hours of the morning, the significant loss of sleep for KWS staff is one of many side effects.

Simon and I met KWS at one of the ~18 bomas here on the Conservancy, chosen because lions had been seen there recently, and had been targeting the cattle. When we got to the boma, it was obvious why: the boma was enormous, with the hundreds of cattle only taking up 1/4 of the space, and the fence was constructed of flimsy wire and wood posts. As we drove up, I used an army-grade thermal scope (borrowed- a luxury not usually used in these operations) to see the lay of the land, and saw several calves standing vulnerably outside of the boma- a testament to the insecurity of the structure.

There are a few struggles with capturing wild lions. First, if you don’t tie down the bait (in this case, a calf they had already killed this evening), they will quickly dart in and grab the bait and run away, completely foiling your efforts. In fact, they will often manage to do this even if it is tied, but its a bit more difficult for them. Secondly, and most importantly, lions will flee if you shine a light upon them. Yet, you need light in order to see when to dart the lion, and to make sure it doesn’t steal the bait, and, of course, to make sure you know where its fallen once the drug takes effect. This need for light, more than anything, is what makes these night time relocation operations so longwinded for KWS. So it was that when we arrived with the thermal scope, we were a great asset.

There were four lions for us to dart and bring back to the park. Three members of KWS piled into our car- the one in charge of darting was in the passenger seat, Simon had the spotlight ready in the driver’s seat, and I was crouched out the top hatch with the thermal scope, watching the lions’ every move. I would use the scope to see when one of the lions broke from the group and stalked, ever so slowly, toward the bait, which was under a large acacia tree. All was pitch black except the brightness of the lions and other carnivores lurking around (hyenas, jackals, etc.), which I could see with my scope. As the lion got close enough to the prey, and to our car, at my signal Simon would suddenly shine the spotlight at where I said the lion was, giving KWS the visibility to dart the lion. The KWS officer’s accuracy was on point for each lion, and I used the thermal scope to keep track of where in the bush these lions ended up as they fell. With the accelerant in the drug, it only took 2-10 seconds for the lions to fall, so this part wasn’t very difficult. Occasionally, if the lions were laying down and not making moves toward the bait, we would play hyena calls from our car radio (yes, Simon does have this recorded… don’t even get me started on the pig slaughter screams…), which would lure the lions to action with the risk of their prey being stolen by hyenas.

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Friday, a young male

 

All in all, it took 4 or 5 hours to complete the operation. We took identification photos of the first two lions, and loaded them into the trucks for relocation, then had to wait at length for KWS to return from the national park before we could begin baiting the other two lions. (Side note: lions are as heavy to lift as you think they are…) The last lion seemed sick of it all, and lay down in the bush refusing to take the bait, so I guided the KWS officer to her location with the scope, and, luckily, he managed to make the perfect shot in a difficult circumstance.

Although it was an interesting and exciting night, in the end I felt quite conflicted about the whole thing. With better bomas, its likely that none of this darting and relocating would have to happen. KWS wouldn’t be spending all of their time and resources removing lions from the conservancy, the lions wouldn’t be darted and moved constantly (which, perhaps, is stressful for a lion- its unclear), and the conservancy would be able to act as the wildlife corridor they are so beautifully suited to be. And, with countless herbivores (zebras, impala, etc.), the lions would have plenty of other prey to hunt instead of cattle.

Currently, there are still “approved” lions on Soysambu, as part of the Soysambu Lion Project, which is piloting the effectiveness of boma alarm systems connected to collars worn by the lions. So far, the system seems to be having success, but many more alarms and several more collars are needed for it to scale up to the whole ranch. Coupled with better boma fences, perhaps the Nakuru NP and Soysambu lions will be able to move freely in the not-too-distant future.

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