By protecting lions from traps and snares, veterinarians, park rangers, and ecologists are working together to restore this feline's population in Gorongosa National Park.
Lions Return to Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park
Published: November 2, 2020
Onscreen: Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique was once one of the most species-rich places in Africa. But like the rest of the country, the park was decimated by a long and bloody war.
Antonio "Tonecas" Paulo: (Translated from Portuguese) The war brought misery and unemployment. Many people died of hunger, because they were unable to grow crops. They were always on the move trying to escape the fighting.
Paola Bouley: Armies had to eat, elephants were killed, tusks were sold to buy guns. So, everything just pretty much got wiped out.
Onscreen: After the fighting ended, some herbivore species quickly rebounded. But the only top predators to survive were a handful of lions. By the time Paola Bouley arrived in 2012, the war had been over nearly 20 years.
Bouley: When I got here, nothing was known about lions. There had never been any formal research on carnivores. So, people had, you know, casual observations about how many lions and where, but we really had no data.
I thought I saw something back there.
The first thing you want to do is count. You want to know how many and where.
Where is everybody?
But we had a hell of a time in the beginning, actually finding lions in this wilderness. It's mostly roadless, it's long-grass habitats, so we worked in the beginning just to be able to see lions.
He’s a beautiful lion…
And then, we took it a step further and began to put GPS collars on prides and coalitions – so, groups of females, groups of males – and those, in turn, took us deeper into the story. And what we quickly found is that lions were still being killed.
People were setting wire snares in the landscape to catch warthogs and waterbuck and buffalo, but they were also, they were catching lions. Lions are by-catch in those traps.
Jinga lost his foot in a gin trap in February.
And the numbers were showing 1 in 3 were either maimed – like losing actual limbs – or killed in these snares. I came here as an ecologist, as a scientist…
Start the timer.
...but quickly had to switch gears, because when we saw the trends for lions here and other species we had to intervene.That was the leap that we made as a team. We went from being scientists – purely scientists just collecting data – to intervening and really trying to get the population jumpstarted.
So, we’ll collar him so we can monitor his progress and keep treating him.
So, we had to stop the illegal hunting. We had to create a refuge for these species to naturally recover.
Paulo: (Translated from Portuguese) When I started working here, the situation with traps was traumatic. It was a very serious problem. The area was full of traps and snares. That’s when we started training our rangers to clean up and remove wire snares and traps from places where the lions roamed.
Bouley: The rangers are the ones on the ground, and we put technology in their hands – high resolution satellite imagery – and we paired their patrols with GPS data we were getting from the collars. So, those satellite collars at our lions send us positions every few hours, so we know where lions are, we know where the core habitats are, and so we know where to focus strategic patrols. In the first two years we saw a complete turnaround in the situation. Lion poaching declined by 95%. We haven't had a lion snared in over a year already and believe me, I look.
Paulo: (Translated from Portuguese) Now, it is possible to go through a whole year without any animals getting caught in a trap. And for us that’s a fantastic result. Now, we have to preserve what we have.
Onscreen: The current estimated Gorongosa lion population is around 150.
Bouley: In the past three years, we've had 13 cubs and seven of those have been female. And that's the beauty of lions. If you give them the opportunity, they grow. They breed almost every two years, the survival is very high in Gorongosa, there's a lot of food, there's a lot of space. So, they've done very well. We understand from the science and the data that we’ve collected that we could have three times as many lions in this park than we currently have and so that’s a target. That’s a goal. And so, we use the science and the data to really guide us towards those. What we're trying to do here is heal the ecosystem. Put the pieces back together.
Onscreen: In 2017, Gorongosa was considered safe enough to reintroduce African wild dogs to the park.
Bouley: Lions took us straight to the heart of a problem, and once we solved their problem, it laid the ground for all these other species to come back too. It really was just a matter of letting nature do what it does best, and we did that by just taking the human factor out of the situation. So, where before humans were having a negative impact on populations – by setting snares, by shooting animals – you remove that, and you just step back and you let nature take its course. And in a system as robust and resilient as Gorongosa, you can let that happen.
PRODUCER / WRITER
Sean B. Carroll
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