Updates from the field: The Ruaha Carnivore Project

By Amy Dickman, Director, Ruaha Carnivore Project.

Amy Dickman shares the latest news from Ruaha National Park with us below, outlining the challenges faced with operating in the remote vastness of the park, as well as highlighting the excellent work being done by the Lion Guardians and Livestock Guard Dogs. She also shares some fantastic big cat photos taken by guides and visitors to Ruaha. 

Snared lioness treated in the Park

Poaching is a major conservation issue across Africa, and unfortunately Ruaha is no exception. Recently, the carcass of a male lion was spotted in the Park, and when the Park officials investigated, they found that he had been snared. A lioness was staying close to the male, and it soon became obvious that she was also entangled in snare wire. The Park officials and veterinary team reacted quickly, and managed to dart the female and remove the snare wire. Although she had some serious injuries, she was treated and recovered well from the anaesthesia, even managing to eat an impala later that evening.

We suspect that snaring – both for local meat consumption and sale to other markets – is a big issue around Ruaha, but it is very hard to learn about, as it is very secretive. This is something that we are planning to research more over the coming year, so that we can understand exactly why people are doing it, the impact that it has on both carnivores and prey species, and then develop the best strategies for trying to reduce it.

lioness

The lioness immediately after the wire was removed by the Ruaha National Park team – the blue patches show where wound spray has been applied.

Challenges for the livestock guarding dog programme

Our livestock guarding dogs are still doing well, and are now approaching a year old. To date, they have been fed high-protein pellets, which was excellent for ensuring they grew well, but the pellets are imported, hard to get hold of and very expensive. In order to make the programme sustainable in the long-term, it is very important to switch the dogs over to a more local diet. We have started trialling different diets, and initially we wanted to use maize porridge (ugali) mixed with fish, milk and occasionally meat. However, we learned that amongst the Maasai, eating fish (or even handling or cooking it) is often considered taboo, so most of the families would not consider using that. Instead, we are introducing a mixture of ugali, peanuts, milk and meat, and will also add nutritional supplements as needed. This diet is nutritious and affordable for the pastoralist families, but not all the dogs have taken to it well – Shujaa in particular is not eating much of it so is losing some weight, and we are monitoring him closely.

It has become apparent that all the dogs have lost some weight in the past couple of months, and we think this is because in the dry season, the livestock are taken out further to find good grazing, and this is quite taxing for the young dogs. We are working with all the families to ensure that the dogs get regular rest periods each day, receive enough food in the field, and have at least one full rest day a week. They are so large that they seem to the villagers like full-grown dogs, but it is important to remember that they are still young and are not yet able to go out all day every day. The programme is going well, but it highlights how carefully it all needs to be monitored in order to adapt it best for the local situation, both in terms of cultural beliefs and herding practices.

shujaa

Shujaa and some of his charges enjoying a drink of water

Two lion hunts stopped by Lion Guardians

Predator-proofing bomas (livestock enclosures) and using livestock guarding dogs are both important methods for reducing depredation and therefore retaliatory carnivore killings. However, some carnivore killings have a cultural element, so that young men can prove their bravery, and this is where the Lion Guardians (LG) programme comes in. In partnership with the main Lion Guardians organisation in Kenya, and Panthera, we have employed and trained young warriors as Guardians around Ruaha in order to intervene and prevent lion hunts that they hear of in the community. This programme had further success this month, when two lion hunts were stopped by the Guardians.

In the first instance, two adult and two sub-adult lions approached livestock during the night at a Barabaig boma, and the men from the household went out to try to hunt them. Kiro, one of the Guardians working in that area responded very quickly and went to meet with them. He talked with the warriors for several hours and eventually persuaded them to give up the hunt, and everyone returned home with no lions being killed.

On another occasion, a single female lion killed two sheep in front of a 15 year- old herder girl. She sounded the alarm and a group of Masaai and Barabaig men scared the lioness away from the sheep and then started to track it. Matias, one of the local Guardians, heard about the incident and went to meet with the group. He managed to talk them out of trying to kill the lion, while two other Guardians (Samora and Julius) arrived soon afterwards and helped remove the sheep carcasses to ensure that no poison was set out after they left.

LG4 LG1 LG2 LG3

True conservation heroes: The Guardians who stopped the recent lion hunts Kiro, Samora, Julius and Matias

Although we have had some teething problems adapting the Lion Guardian model to the situation around Ruaha – as local young men here can be very suspicious of any outside intervention – it seems to be working well, and we are now keen to expand our LG zones further across the study area. Promising new Guardians are now being interviewed, with the hope that they will start work in new zones within the next couple of months.

Simply amazing – carnivores in their natural habitat

Over the past month, RCP staff members have captured some fantastic pictures of lions and other species in the Park. It is always lovely to see these animals, as it reminds us what all the hard work is about – doing everything we can to help secure populations of large carnivores, so that future generations can also experience them out in the wild. Sean McEnery, the Ruaha Lion Guardians manager, took some of the Guardians on an educational trip into the Park, where they were lucky enough to spend time watching a lion pride comprised of three adult males, three adult females and a very playful litter of cubs. The cubs were practising their hunting skills on the lioness’ tails, although they seemed less than impressed with the tastiness of the resulting meal!

lin cubs

The cubs spot their intended prey…… © Sean McEnery

lion cubs2

Both manage to successfully catch their prize……  © Sean McEnery

lion cubs3

But it is less rewarding than expected! © Sean McEnery

Monty Kalyahe, one of our senior research assistants, has also been in the Park working with the lodges and camera-trapping, giving him the opportunity to take some great photos of large carnivores.

young lioness

A young female lioness – we can tell that she is young as her nose is still mainly pink, and it will change to black over time, reaching >50% black by around 6 years old. This is a fairly reliable indicator of age in wild lions, but interestingly does not seem as reliable in captive lions

male lion

In contrast, this male is clearly over six years old – his nose is totally black, his teeth are yellowed, his mane is receding and he has several scars from fighting

Meanwhile, the Park drivers are continuing to collect wonderful photos and data on carnivore sightings, so that we can learn more about carnivore distribution, group size and ecology across the landscape. Recently, Lorenzo Rossi from Asilia Africa’s Kwihala Camp shared some of his photos with us, and they really highlight the value of the Ruaha landscape and its large carnivore populations. Thanks to all the drivers and tourists who submit photos and work with us – it is extremely valuable and we really appreciate it.

lion giraffe

This striking image shows that life can be challenging for both predators and prey in the vast Ruaha landscape © Lorenzo Rossi

young leopard

This young leopard seemed perfectly happy to let people watch him while he was relaxing in a tree © Lorenzo Rossi 

cheetahs

This beautiful image shows a brother and sister cheetah approaching the Great Ruaha River for an evening drink © Lorenzo Rossi

One comment on “Updates from the field: The Ruaha Carnivore Project

  1. Georgina says:

    Hello just wanted to let you know the latest issue of the magazine is out with some very exciting stuff http://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-3/a-friend-of-the-enemy/

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