Sosian Ranch, Kenya
Living with Lions & the Laikipia Predator Project
Across Africa lions and other great predators are disappearing.
Until recently scientists believed that there were 100-200,000 lions living in Africa, but current information suggests that the number has dropped dramatically to approximately 30,000. Most of these are in protected National Parks or managed hunting areas, but elsewhere lions are being killed at an alarming rate. Unless urgent action is taken, they may be completely wiped out from the unprotected areas lying between parks.
Living with Lions is a conservation research group working in non-protected areas of Kenya to save the remaining wild lions and other predators outside of National Parks.
One such area is the Laikipia District in northern Kenya comprising of two million acres of semi-arid grassland and bush savannah and is one of Kenya’s largest livestock farming areas. Laikipia’s biodiversity is globally unique, yet remarkably it is not a protected area. Despite the government owning all wildlife in Kenya, in Laikipia this wildlife must be sustained by private landowners if it is to flourish. In order to fund this wildlife conservation, ranchers have turned to tourism. However, for political and economic reasons, livestock ranching must continue to be the primary land use in Laikipia. As a result, human-wildlife conflict is high particularly when it comes to lions who often predate on the cattle, sheep and goats. For their crimes these lions are then shot, speared, snared or poisoned….and so their numbers are rapidly dwindling.
Finding a balance is paramount and together with Living With Lions, The Laikipia Predator Project (LPP) is studying the lions here to develop practical measures to encourage this coexistence between people, livestock and predators. By understanding how lions, livestock and people are able to coexist in Laikipia, the project is developing strategies for lion conservation applicable to other areas in Africa that do not have any formal wildlife protection.
The three main goals of the project are:
· To devise lion conservation strategies
· To protect livestock from predators
· To ensure that local people gain significant economic value from lions and other wildlife, to offset the cost of living with them.
Tracking data has shown that the population of lions in Laikipia is approximately 230. The lions live mainly in small groups, made up of pairs of females and their cubs, with males moving between several groups. LPP has found that some lions are chronic livestock killers, while others rarely, if ever, attack cattle. Whenever an attack occurs, it is usually possible to identify the lion responsible, because of the large number of collared individuals. The LPP are building a record of the characteristics of lions that become ‘problem animals’ and the conditions under which lions are most likely to prey on livestock.
Sosian Lioness with collar, and her cub
For the past 15 years Sosian Ranch has supported the LPP by providing vital information and financial contributions for the much-needed VHS and GPS collars. Sosian have also adapted their way of cattle ranching to benefit lions. Both the commercial ranchers like Sosian and pastoralists use ancient traditional herding systems, developed to protect livestock from predators and cattle rustlers. During the day, herders closely tend the cattle and at night they are brought into enclosures known as ‘bomas’. Traditionally these boma’s are made from cut thorn trees, which lions have learnt to spook cattle out of. Sosian has led the way in utilizing a new stronger metal-framed design of mobile boma that has reduced the number of cattle lost to lions by more than 90%, thereby making it difficult for even the most determined lion to become a ‘problem animal’. By avoiding the eradication of often, key members of a pride, Sosian now has stable prides of lions who are able to effectively hunt wild animals, as opposed to killing livestock.
With 2 new males recently arriving on Sosian Ranch the LPP were keen to get a GPS collar onto one of them and keep an eye on his movements. Some lucky guests staying in the lodge were able to witness the event…with some unexpected happenings!
“On the 16th July 2015, we were fortunate enough to be involved in collaring a big male lion. A bait was set up and the researchers began playing a recording of a distressed buffalo calf, to draw the lions in for darting. Within 2 minutes there was action, but not what we had expected! Instead of lions, the car was immediately surrounded by Sosian’s resident African wild dog pack. 12 wild dogs proceeded to feed on the bait. Within minutes one of the male lions was attracted by the commotion and the sounds of the wild dogs feeding. He approached cautiously and pushed the dogs off the meat. We thought that the dogs would now retreat, however they plucked up the courage and chased the lion away. For the next half an hour the dogs fed on the meat and we watched as they fought amoungst each other for the choice cuts! We were so absorbed by their interaction that we failed to notice that a large bull elephant had approached the car and started to feed on an Acacia 20 yards to our left. Suddenly chaos erupted! The elephant started to charge through the bush, trumpeting, at an unseen lion and to our right a lioness had appeared, who in turn began to chase the wild dogs. For a couple of minutes bedlam ruled and there were lions and wild dogs running in all directions with the elephant not knowing who to chase! The 3 lions, 2 males and a female, drove the wild dogs right off and returned to the meat. We could hear the dogs calling to each other as they reassembled and disappeared off into the dusk. All this excitement and we hadn’t even collared a lion.
We now waited patiently for the lions to relax so that we could dart the male. Steve Ekwanga, the resident lion biologist, lined up the big male and expertly darted him in the shoulder. He ran off but 10 minutes later was fast asleep. Steve and Simon, Sosian’s head guide then took all of his measurements and fitted him with an energetics collar. With all his defining features like whisker spots and ear notches recorded. The sheer size of these beasts is truly awe-inspiring. Steve then revived the lion and he woke up and joined his companions.
This was without doubt one of the most action packed afternoons at Sosian, which we shall never forget! Over the following days we continued see this male who was in fantastic condition. He and his brother have set up their territory in the area surrounding the lodge and we could hear them roaring most nights.”