“Carnivore populations are rapidly declining. We are working hard to save them.” — Uganda Carnivore Program
It’s about a day’s journey by road from Kampala to Queen Elizabeth National Park, a drive I had heretofore spent either taking in the views of the Ugandan countryside or catching a quick nap if feeling jet-lagged.
This time, my team and I make a quick stop at Makerere University to pick up wildlife veterinarian and honorary lecturer, Dr. Ludwig Siefert–Lu for short.
Lu is head of the Uganda Carnivore Program. A rugged gentleman–in great shape for 70 sporting thick bush pants and a National Geographic vest that a friend gave him–he reminds me of a German George Adamson, sans beard and mustache.
We spend most of our time on the road discussing the daily challenges he faces working in an African game park where a high human population density, enclave villages, and illegal cattle grazing pose a constant threat for the lions and other wildlife living there.
“Lions aren’t really at the top of the priority list next to the elephants and mountain gorillas here,” he says ruefully.
Uganda is well known for its small but stable number of mountain gorillas (400) and healthy population of around 4,000 elephants; lions aren’t faring as well.
The total number in Uganda may be only 350, although verifying that is difficult considering how fecund and elusive they are. Lu tells me that there are likely 54 lions in northern Queen Elizabeth and some 15 in the south, down almost 50 percent since they first began tallying them 20 years ago.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is a beautiful, diverse natural wonder that sits high atop Uganda’s safari circuit. Yet danger of collapse from forces–outside and within–is ever present.
Africa’s Albertine Rift remains a vortex of conflict: the spillover effects from the Rwandan genocide, the civil war that raged in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (costing the lives of 5 million people), the ADF insurgency, and the overwhelming burden on arable land from an ever-growing human population deploying low-end agricultural production methods.
Conflicts naturally give rise to game poaching, especially when rebel militias are involved. Recent reports indicate that a small contingent of former Congolese M23 guerrillas slipped silently past the border from the park’s southernmost Ishasha sector into Virunga National Park on the Congo side.
All of this makes for a powder keg waiting to explode in what is arguably one of the most beautiful places on the African continent. Yet somehow the lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park are hanging on.
A shy man with a dry sense of humor, Lu lives at a research station on the Mweya Peninsula, located on the northern bank of the Kazinga Channel that connects Lake George with Lake Edward. The landscape hosts elephant, buffalo, waterbuck, kob, hippo, crocodile, baboon, warthog, forest hog, and plenty of different bird species. Lu even tells of a rock python living right outside his home.
Originally from Munich, a Bavarian city near a prime wildlife area in southwest Germany, he has worked in Queen Elizabeth National Park since the early 1990s. Back then, he launched the Uganda Large Predator Project, now known as the Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP).
A small conservation outfit working primarily in the northern section of the park, UCP’s mission includes, “scientific research and monitoring of [Queen Elizabeth’s] resident carnivores,” and bolstering community-based conservation.
Lu’s responsibilities range anywhere from assisting the Uganda Wildlife Authority with snare-removals and other wildlife rescue operations, vaccination and treatment of animals, testifying in forensic cases, and easing local human-wildlife conflict tensions through community-based conservation efforts, especially where predators are concerned.
With around 70 lions living in a space of 764 square miles (around half a million acres), plus 11 enclave villages with a population of 30,000 people, the daily job of working to protect the park’s predators–including hyenas and leopards–is anything but easy.
Whereas the park’s big cats sleep upwards of 18 hours per day, Lu works tirelessly, often starting each day well before dawn and ending late in the evening with no real social life and even less sleep in between.
In fact, Lu has no typical workday. He performs everything from seasonal training for university students (at Vet School and in the field) to conservation education for local communities, livestock husbandry and sanitation, species restoration, forensic work, predator monitoring, and even routine vehicle maintenance.
“I average maybe four hours of sleep a night,” he tells me.
The northern sector of the park is a picturesque amalgam of savanna and grassy wetlands set against a backdrop of the snow-capped Rwenzori mountain range, known colloquially as the Mountains of the Moon. It is perfect hunting grounds for the Pearl of Africa’s lions, though there’s been an unstable prey base of kob and buffalo due to poaching.
I’m off the tourist track in a small, silver Land Rover with Lu in search of his Senior Research Assistant, James Kalyewa, who is somewhere ahead of us in another vehicle, hot on the trail of Lena’s pride, a relatively small coalition located in the park’s Kasenyi region.
Unlike the much larger Serengeti prides in Tanzania, a Ugandan pride typically includes several maternal groups, and, per Lu, “a [small] male breeding coalition shuttling among them to find females in estrus and prevent other males from mating and hunting in their umbrella territory, shielding female territories from competition.”
Though tourists come with high hopes of seeing the lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park, locating them is challenging. It requires a keen eye and the ability to listen to the antennae and receivers with what Lu describes as “a musician’s ears.” He flips on the receiver to show me and after a few minutes I hear the faintest beeps against the noisy crackle of static, meaning we’ve picked up Lena’s signal.
James likewise spends countless days monitoring predators. Today he’s hoping to find two male juveniles, both members of Lena’s maternal group, while Lu hopes he’ll be able to dart the bigger one to fit with a radio collar.
Radio-tagging helps the team track and monitor the movements of individual lions, properly maps their home ranges and social relations with one another, and identifies risk determinants to assist in the prevention of conflicts with people.
“Supplementary ecological data of other large carnivores, prey, and local human ecology offer us insights in their viability based on a compound cost and benefit analysis,” Lu states.
We eventually locate James, who has a reading on both Lena and her sister, Bridget. He points us toward a grove of candelabra euphorbia trees where a flock of vultures are busying themselves with the remains of a buffalo calf and a warthog, both victims of the previous evening’s hunt. Suddenly, a young lion emerges from the nearby undergrowth.
James points toward another nearby thicket. Sitting inside the dense cluster of thorns is Lena, her relatives sprawled out in nearby trees and hiding in various bushes around our vehicle. Not long afterward, Lu spots a large male that James refers to as “the Big Guy,” heading toward a thorn bush where Bridget, his grandmother, is resting.
We drive to a safe location nearby, where Lu can prepare a chemical cocktail that will sedate a lion anywhere from four to eight minutes after delivery by dart.
Successfully darting a 400-pound male lion is about as easy as sweeping leaves on a blustery day. Already we’ve been sitting for more than an hour in the scorching heat, waiting to see if Big Guy will leave the thicket, but he’s much too comfortable. To make matters worse, Bridget is sitting directly in Lu’s line of site.
“Throw that water bottle over there,” he instructs me, pointing roughly 20 feet in front of the thicket. “Maybe we can draw her out.” I toss one from my seat on the roof of the truck to no avail. I throw another. Nothing. It seems we’re out of luck. But Lu has the patience of a saint. I foolishly ask him what we should do about the water bottles.
“Maybe you should go out and get them,” he jokes with a smile, nodding his head toward the two lions resting nearby. “Then I think maybe I’ll have to dart you.” I can’t help but chuckle foolishly at how stupid my question just sounded.
Lu directs James to drive over to the warthog remains, where only a lifeless head sits. We pick it up and drive back toward Bridget and Big Guy. I’m handed the head by the tusks, and Lu warns me to mind how sharp they are.
“Toss it in that direction,” he says, pointing out the right side of the Land Rover toward a smaller bush not far in front of the lions. I take a deep breath and throw.
It does the trick. Bridget instinctively rushes out to investigate and Big Guy stirs, backing out from his den to see what the commotion is about. But he’s smart. Realizing the trick, he moves his head back into the thicket. James quickly throws the Land Rover in reverse before it’s too late.
“Stop, stop, stop,” Lu yells, and James hits the brakes. With only a split-second decision, he aims the CO2-powered dart gun and fires. Big Guy growls in surprise, bolting from the thicket, the pink-tailed dart protruding from the left side of his rump.
Now the real work begins. The lion saunters off to the shade of a nearby thorn tree with Bridget following closely behind. It takes about five minutes for the anesthesia to work its way into his system. In the meantime, we must see Bridget off without hurting her.
“OK, we’re going to have to head toward her,” Lu says. “I need you to make loud noises and bang on the truck.”
Before I have time to process this, we’re driving toward the thorn tree. I bang my arm and yell, but the lioness doesn’t stir. We circle around and give it another try. This time she runs off to a nearby grove of thorn bushes.
After securing the area, we park the Land Rover and hop out. Big Guy is lying beneath the tree, out cold. Lu empties a bottle of water onto an old rag and carefully wraps it around the lion’s eyes to protect them from sunlight and prevent them from drying out. Then he calls us over to assist in re-positioning the big cat. Finally, he gets to work fastening the collar.
Meanwhile, I’m busy thinking how easy it would be for Bridget or any other member of Lena’s pride to charge out and severely injure or kill one of us.
Our Western perception of lions is of their nobility. Or perhaps we think of them as cute, cuddly cats. The reality is that lions are ferocious carnivores that kill livestock and injure people throughout Africa, something they’ve been doing since the dawn of humankind.
It’s the African people, in fact, who–despite the sad stories of retaliatory poisonings and spearings occurring all over the continent–have a better understanding of lions than we do.
Africans living with lions can’t always call wildlife authorities when one strays from a reserve and attacks. So they naturally take matters into their own hands, which unfortunately often ends up with not one, but multiple dead lions, especially when inexpensive poison is involved.
The sad reality is that people living near lions don’t have the luxury of simply avoiding them. Lions, meanwhile, will target livestock when they’re hungry enough, or out of feline curiosity. They also go after people if feeling threatened. It’s an issue that the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Uganda Carnivore Program are constantly working to resolve.
I’m reminded of all this as James continually scans the brush for Bridget or any of the other lions around us during the collaring process. Fortunately, Bridget stays put as Lu finishes fastening the collar around Big Guy, while I keep him cool by emptying my water bottle onto his coat.
With the collar securely fastened, Lu and James start collecting blood, saliva, and ectoparasite (tick) samples, all while performing a routine clinical exam to evaluate his health status. Part of this involves checking the teeth, paws, and other areas where lions are prone to injury or infection.
The entire procedure takes about one hour. Then Lu reverses the anesthesia with an intravenous, intramuscular injection. Finally, we get to work moving the lion into a safe position in the shade before he wakes up.
Leaving a lion alone while it recovers from a sedative can be dangerous if an elephant or buffalo happens to pass by. And so we wait not far off for Big Guy to recover, our day’s hard work proving to be a great success.
As we watch Big Guy from a safe distance, I can’t help but dwell on the fact that Lu is one of the only wildlife veterinarians out here. One man, a small handful of assistants, 70 lions in a park that’s almost the size of Rhode Island, many impoverished communities, and plenty of other wildlife that needs looking after.
This is the billion-dollar problem that comes with protecting wildlife in Africa. Between the rampant poverty and not enough manpower or funding, conservationists like Lu and state wildlife agencies can only do so much to hold back the floodgates.
Craig Packer, one of the world’s foremost experts on lions, often talks about the finances involved in supporting Africa’s remaining protected ecosystems. In his view, conserving large carnivores and their prey effectively costs many times more than what is currently being spent.
“The money that’s coming in from photo tourism’s hardly enough–only in a few places. Sport hunting, no. It’s just not happening…but there are organizations that have the kind of funding that could do it. There is the United Nations Environmental Programme, there is UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization]. If they could distribute some money out to these places it would make a difference.”
Lu shares Packer’s opinion. Without adequate funding from other outside sources, Uganda’s lions face a huge uphill battle, as do all wild lions remaining in Africa. But he tells me that despite his own lack of sleep and the many battles lost, every win makes it all worthwhile.
“We’re making a difference here. Many [local] people are learning to live with predators, and hopefully we can keep that momentum going through continued education efforts.”
It may be difficult for some to share in his optimism, but as I watch Big Guy wake up, his gaze fixed carefully on us in the heat of midday, I realize that, so long as there are people like Lu out here in the thick of it, there will always be reason to hope.
To learn more about Uganda’s lions and other predator species, please visit the Uganda Carnivore Program at http://www.uganda-carnivores.org
“If wild lands and lions are lost because of our carelessness and greed, then Africa will lose her identity, and with her loss, all of us will lose our collective memory of where we originated from. Hearing and feeling lions’ roar next to you in the dark switches on that ancient, ambivalent gene of flight or fight…it still exists–the short history of civilization couldn’t eliminate it. That experience, fairly shared with tourists, but more so with local community members, finally after the assimilation of attitudinal change, is the reward despite all the many frustrations that come with it.” — Dr. Ludwig Siefert, Uganda Carnivore Program
Michael Schwartz is a journalist and African wildlife conservation researcher. With field experience across the continent since 2005, his passion for Africa’s wildlife is matched by his compassion for the people who live there. A significant portion of his field work is carried out in Uganda.