While conservationists work to protect the last free-roaming lions of Africa, rural communities living in areas where these lions exist continue to fear for their lives and for their livestock. Now, new research funded by the University of Pretoria (UP) may offer a way to improve human-lion co-existence – with the help of cell phones.

Post-doctoral researcher Dr Florian Weise, in collaboration with Michael Somers of the Eugène Marais Chair of Wildlife Management, part of UP’s Mammal Research Institute, is leading a multidisciplinary international study on sustainable co-existence that seeks to “provide relevant information about lions to the people who live with them and to provide this information quickly”.

Making the community part of the solution

Weise says African communities rarely have direct access to lion monitoring information and are often marginalised during conservation development processes. “African rural communities bear the risks and costs of co-existence, which is why they should be key stakeholders in lion conservation outside protected areas,” Weise said.

Human-lion conflict typically occurs in settlements along unfenced, protected area boundaries. The killing of livestock places a huge burden on the livelihoods of community members, and lethal human retaliation which often takes the form of poison also kills non-target wildlife species.

This new research comes at a critical time since lion numbers, and species distribution, have significantly declined over the past century, with many regional populations already extinct. These big cats play key roles in a healthy ecosystem, but with rising international demand for their bones, used in some cultural practices, populations are increasingly threatened.

Expert team and tech tools

Weise coordinated a team of researchers from Claws Conservancy, the University of Siegen in Germany, the University of Newcastle in Australia, and others, to work on achieving the sustainable co-existence of rural communities and free-roaming lions, something that is yet to be realised in Africa, rather than the lethal and permanent removal of lions from an area.

The team, made up of experts in the fields of ethnography, ecology and socio-informatics, designed and developed an alert system that informs communities when big cats move into their vicinity, using a tool that many in Africa have – a cell phone.

The ICT-based alert system enables the instant processing of lion movement information, collected via GPS tracking collars. It also allows for community participation through interactive interfaces on various phone devices and a community portal. The early-warning alert system uses geofences (virtual boundaries that trigger alerts when transgressed) programmed into GPS-tracking transmitters.

Prime research area in the Delta

The pilot study took place over two years (May 2016 to May 2018) in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. “This area’s lion population represents one of the last strongholds for the long-term survival of the species,” says Weise. The delta also has important dispersal linkages with other big cat areas in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. However, the area’s anthropogenic landscape is increasing, and it is known for ongoing conflict and widespread persecution of lions. Extreme seasonal changes in the delta, which force lion and livestock populations to move around in search of food and water in the late dry season, contribute to the conflict. These unrestricted movements significantly increase predation of livestock, which is why this area was a prime location in which to conduct the study.

Collars were used to track nine adult lions from different prides. Researchers received geofence breach alerts from these GPS units via SMS notifications as soon as the lions entered specific areas such as villages, livestock grazing areas and subsistence activity areas. The alerts were then passed on to village and cattle post headmen, and other members of the community, who distributed the message. People were told which lions were approaching, when and approximately where, which enabled community members to protect themselves and their livestock.

“Early warning significantly improved livestock protection because it facilitates the informed risk management required for sustainable co-existence, such as active herding and kraaling at night rather than leaving livestock free to roam,” explains Weise.

Greater awareness of the location of the lions meant that communities felt safer. In fact, 91,8% of people who participated in the study found the alert system to be beneficial and wanted it to continue and expand. Empowering people in this way and making them stakeholders in lion conservation, gives them a better understanding of the ecology of lions. This is slowly starting to change negative perceptions that co-existence is not possible.

Weise credits community participation and feedback as a reason for the success of the pilot study and the development of the alert system. Researchers spent time consulting communities directly about the system’s design and performance and were constantly present to gain important insights. They consulted with men and women of all ages, with various levels of education, technological abilities and language proficiency. “For a grounded understanding of human-lion interactions, researchers needed to grasp the complexity of social circumstances that influence community life, interactions with predators and conflict,” says Wiese. Co-designing a conflict mitigation method such as this gives people an opportunity to influence the process as they can adapt the system’s components according to their specific needs.

While the system presented a few challenges that are still to be overcome, continuous improvements in modern animal tracking methods means that such a system is feasible where conflict antagonises communities to the point that they indiscriminately persecute lions. “However, one should not see early-warning alerts as the big solution to human-wildlife conflicts,” Weise cautions. “Such systems have a long way to go before they are feasible and practical on a large scale.”

The alerts improve the co-existence of people with dangerous wildlife because they put people back in control. “Alerts are really an effort to increase safety and enhance local management of natural resources,” Wiese explains. “By reducing encounter risk, we hope the tolerance of lions and other dangerous species in increasingly human-dominated landscapes will also be improved.” – University of Pretoria