Combining satellite and mobile phone technology with knowledge from nomadic herdsmen in Cameroon will help prevent conflict between livestock and predatory lions.
Every year, lions kill hundreds of cows, sheep and goats in the area around Waza National Park in northern Cameroon. The local community used to accept these kills as part of their working life, but attacks have increased in the last five to ten years, and the farmers are becoming less tolerant. The attacks cost farmers whose cattle live on this prime pasture land thousands of dollars annually. To protect their livestock, farmers are now killing the lions, which are already decreasing in number in the region.
Researchers from the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML) at Leiden University in the Netherlands have been working in the area since 1990 and estimate that there are now only 300 lions in the whole of Cameroon, with around 50 of those living in Waza National Park. The park itself suffers from a lack of investment by the government and very few tourists visit to provide the income necessary to build fences or take other measures to protect the wildlife.
‘It’s a very complex situation,’ says Dr Hans de Iongh, head of the Africa programme at CML. ‘The number of animals inside the national park that the lions would usually prey on is dwindling. This decline is largely due to poaching, but local environmental factors, such as drought, also play a part. As does disease and the lack of funds. In the last for years, for example, there were only five game guards to cover the entire park, a total area of 1700 square kilometres. That has since improved as an extra 14 guards were added to the park staff in early 2008.’
With less natural prey in the park, the lions must explore a larger territory to find enough food. Their search brings the lions closer to the local indigenous communities and the domesticated animals. Strengthening and improving traditional livestock enclosures is an effective solution for sedentary farmers, but for the semi-nomadic Bororo cattle herders, it’s not so simple.
‘We worked with the local communities,’ explains Dr De Iongh, ‘asking them what they know about lion movements and to find out if there were individual problem lions in the area. Unfortunately, we learned from them, and from our own research, that it is a more general problem. Almost all the lions are likely to be involved in livestock raiding at one point or another. So shooting individual lions does not solve the problem.’
Working together with the community and a local university, the CML team decided to carry out detailed research to determine the typical movements of the lions and identify likely zones of where and when conflict between the predators and the herders would occur.
‘We already knew that the lions tend to stay in the park in the dry season,’ says Dr De Iongh. ‘At this time all the animals gather round the few waterholes in the park. The prey is concentrated at these waterholes. It’s like a supermarket for the lions. There’s no need to go out of the park. In the wet season, the prey animals disperse over a wider area, plus the grass is longer and provides more cover for the lions. They stray outside the park. In fact so far outside that attacks have been reported as much as 40 km from the park boundary.’
To get accurate information on the lions’ movement in the area, the team use a system that combines two very different types of technology: a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and mobile phone (GSM) technology. This method had been used successfully in Kruger Park in South Africa where researchers had combined the two systems on a collar that they fit around the neck of a tranquilized lion.
The GPS part of the collar points upwards and communicates with satellites orbiting the Earth. The satellites transmit the exact position – latitude and longitude – of the lion as it moves around. The information is then carried to the GSM part of the collar which, operating like a mobile phone, sends the data as a text message at regular intervals to a preset number.
The area to the west and south of the park, where the study is currently concentrated, is covered by a cellular phone network, and here the GPS-GSM collars can be used. As the lion comes within range of the network, details of its movements – including its temperature and speed – are relayed to the website of African Wildlife Tracking, a South African company specializing in animal tracking technology. Members of the research team can access the website from any computer with an internet connection. The team then gather the data and plot the routes taken by the lion. Long-life batteries fitted to the collar ensure that the system can continue transmitting data for several months.
‘Previously we used very simple radio collars,’ says Dr De Iongh. ‘They transmit a high frequency that can be tracked down with a radio receiver. That’s a lot of labour: you have track down the lion to within 5 km, usually by standing on a high point, such as a hill, to ‘home in’. But if you lose a lion you have to hire an aircraft to fly over the area and try to pick up the signal. This new system is extremely cost effective because you can track the lion the whole year round and download that data directly from the web.’ The team also use a special receiver to download data directly from the collar in areas not covered by the cell phone network.
In the last three years, the CML team has attached collars to five lions in the Waza Park area. The researchers are slowly building an accurate picture of where the lions go when they cross the boundaries of the park. The research has shown that the lions follow regular patterns and tend to stay within certain territories.
The next step is to find out where the Bororo farmers go with their livestock. The herdsmen take their cattle along traditional tracks to graze, moving along so-called cattle corridors. With input from the farmers, researchers have been able to plot the general routes onto maps. To get a more accurate picture of where the cattle travel, the team has now added GPS tracking collars to a number of zebu cattle owned by the nomadic farmers.
It is still too early in the project to provide any definite solutions that would reduce the conflict between farmers and lions but, once more data has been collected, the team, together with the community and local organizations, can start to explore the various possibilities. One idea is to discuss with the nomadic farmers the possibility of changing the path of the cattle corridors. If it is clear that the lions always travel to certain areas, then the farmers can take their cattle along safer routes, away from the lions.
Another idea is to involve conservation organizations who would ‘adopt’ the park and take over the management functions. The data collected by the research would be interesting to conservation groups who, over time, could invest in the infrastructure of the park, employ more game guards to reduce the amount of poaching leaving more natural prey for the lions all year round. Extra income could also eventually pay for enclosures to be built at the villages around the park to keep the lions away from the local livestock during the night. These kinds of schemes have been successful in other parks in Africa and can also help to promote tourism in the area. The extra income generated could then be shared among members of the community to invest in local improvement projects, such as building water pumps or schools.
It is clear that some action is needed to protect the livestock being killed by lions. But perhaps more important and more urgent is the threat to the lions themselves. As Dr De Iongh explains, ‘At a certain point, we will pass a very important threshold in terms of the numbers of lions being killed. With such a small isolated population, they could all be gone in as little as five years.'