Post submitted by Shane O’Neal
“I think she’s dead.”
Dr. Stuart Pimm made the grim diagnosis as our helicopter descended toward the site where the lion’s tracking collar said it should be. Paola Bouley, who had been anticipating her reunion with the first lion she ever collared, was crushed. “Please don’t let it be too late,” she pleaded.
The sight of the lion’s mangled paw in the trap was enough to turn even the stomachs of experienced field biologists like Stuart and Paola. Although the lion wasn’t dead yet, the unfortunate cat was gone within three days.
It’s an outcome that Paola Bouley, director of Projecta Leoes da Gorongosa (PLG) within the Gorongosa Restoration Project (GRP) has seen all too often.
A native of South Africa and a two-time National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grantee, Paola knows firsthand the challenges that conservationists in southern Africa face. Her mission is to help the lions and other large carnivores of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique recover from the effects of 17 years of civil war. The group aims to increase the numbers of lions to levels that will create a sustainable population in the Park.
Accidental snaring events like the one that we witnessed happen all too frequently these days to the lions that Paola is working to protect. As she says, “the major issue for lions right now is incidental bycatch by snares and gin traps, or what we call steel jaw traps in the US.” She and her team attempt to administer veterinary care to the injured lions, and to locate and remove the traps before they have a chance to do damage, but it can be a difficult task.
Gorongosa used to be considered a global lion hotspot. Although the number of cats in the park has severely dwindled, Paola and her team have already managed to identify 76 lions across only 30% of the park’s area, a huge increase over the number that were previously estimated to live in the entire park.
These findings have shown that the lion population in Gorongosa may be doing well enough to recover naturally, and they deserve as much protection as possible so that they have this chance.
One of the hardest things to do in the park is to manage the human-lion conflicts that are happening more and more frequently as this area becomes increasingly developed. Paola herself has been living and conducting research in the area for 4 years, and with the support of the Big Cats Initiative she has been working tirelessly on the ground in Mozambique to help reverse their decline and ensure the survival of the local lion population.
Some of their efforts have focused not just on the animals themselves, but on the human populations that surround the Park. The Gorongosa Restoration Project launched a program in 2015 called WildCam Gorongosa, a project that involves the local people in Mozambique with the group’s conservation work. WildCam allows citizens to contribute directly to animal identification efforts, using camera images and videos directly from the field.
Getting local people involved with their conservation efforts is one of the main goals of Paola’s work. In fact, her team includes the first two ever Mozambican women to work with lions in the wild! Celina Alfredo Dias and Domingas Aleixo were born in a nearby village to the park, and through their involvement with the group, they help spread awareness of the challenges facing lions today.
“The conditions of lions here reflect societal conditions. We’re experiencing conflict, we’re experiencing drought, we’re in one of the poorest countries in the world, and so these are really complex issues to tackle,” Paola told Dr. Pimm during their travels around the Park.
But the difficulties they face have not lessened her enthusiasm and drive to see this project through: “We’re in this for the long haul, we’re here to do our job, and we’ll stay here as long as it takes. We’re going to hold the line.”
The efforts to remove snares, engage the local community, and identify as many individual lions as possible are not easy tasks, but Paola Bouley and her team, with the support of National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, are working hard to make sure these beautiful creatures can continue to live wild lives for years to come.