By Bridget Conneely - The hot, African sun is rising and Paola Bouley hopes that she can pull this off before sundown. She and park scout Lucas Togarepe zip around Chitengo camp gathering supplies and getting their truck in order. She got news that a lion pride she’s been looking for is nearby and she doesn’t want to lose sight of them before the vet arrives. Hopefully, he’ll make it before sundown because this operation will be much, much trickier once night falls.
Paola is the senior researcher for Projecto Leões da Gorongosa (the Gorongosa Lion Project) in Gorongosa National Park and a research associate at Princeton University working with Dr. Robert Pringle. Their work is to monitor Gorongosa's lion population to better understand how to support their full recovery in this unique ecosystem.
Photo: Working closely alongside Gorongosa law-enforcement and scientific staff, Paola's goal is to document, identify and track every lion encountered. (by Rui Branco)
Gorongosa National Park is a 4,067 sq. km. wilderness at the southern end of the Great African Rift Valley. Its mosaic of savanna, grasslands, forests, rivers and lakes are home to an astounding diversity of life and one that Professor E.O. Wilson recently declared is “…ecologically the most diverse park in the world.”
The Gorongosa of the ‘60s and ‘70s was renowned for its lions. Groups of tourists and celebrities visited Gorongosa in their sedans and convertibles to experience its famous floodplains teeming with large game and, more often than not, large prides of lions eyeing their next meal of buffalo or zebra. Gorongosa’s lions of the past even had a favorite hangout spot - the Lion House (aptly named), an abandoned tourist camp that the lions reclaimed in the 1960s as a perfect spot to rest and oversee their hunting grounds on the expansive floodplains.
Photo: A Gorongosa visitor photographs a lion in the 1960’s (by Jorge Ribeiro Lume)
Then came a 15-year civil war in 1977 and by the time peace returned to the country in 1992 lions were few and far between. Since then a large-scale restoration project in the form of a partnership between the Gorongosa Restoration Project (a U.S. non-profit) and the Government of Mozambique is now restoring the park and its wildlife through a combination of strengthening wildlife protections, scientific research, and reintroductions of zebra, buffalo and wildebeest. While populations are generally struggling across the region, wildlife is actually returning to Gorongosa and researchers are trying to understand the dynamics of an ecosystem undergoing restoration and how the recovery process is affecting both the lions and their prey.
Photo: Sungue cubs with their mother (by Tish Grant, Bushfind)
This is where Paola and her team come in. Documenting each of Gorongosa’s lions is part of a larger effort to understand how factors like prey, genetics, disease, illegal bushmeat hunting, and park boundaries are impacting the population. It's here that science meets boots-on-the-ground conservation to aide in the recovery of Africa's most important – but highly imperiled - large carnivore.
Today she is especially interested in the Sungue Pride. This pride not only brought good news to Gorongosa recently– five healthy cubs were born late last year - but the male (and father of the cubs) is now mature enough to satellite-collar.
Photo: One of the Sungue Pride's 5 new cubs (by James Byrne)
It's now 09:30AM and Paola’s truck approaches the Sungue Pride sheltered from the baking heat under acacias. Her task is to sit quietly with the pride and not lose them until the park wildlife vet, Rui Branco, arrives to meet her. The plan is to safely tranquilize and satellite-collar the male lion nicknamed “M02.” This will allow them to track not only his whereabouts and document his range, but also that of the whole pride. This will be the first lion satellite-collared in the history of Gorongosa’s restoration efforts and it will provide the team with a wealth of information about one of the park’s core prides.
Photo: The Sungue cubs play with the adults as Paola patiently waits (by Paola Bouley)
The sun begins to sink lower in the sky and the lion cubs awake and begin to play and rouse their parents from sleep. Luckily, just in time, a Land Rover rounds the corner with Rui, Greg Carr and the Gorongosa film crew ready to document the collaring operation. The team quickly gathers, forges a plan and cautiously moves into place for Rui to get a clear shot with his dart gun. The sun is just setting as the tranquilizer-dart is deployed.
Photo: Greg Carr stands on watch for the rest of the pride as Paola and Rui work on the tranquilized male lion. (by James Byrne)
A few hair-raising minutes later M02 is safely asleep and the team has secured a safe space to work, separated from the rest of the pride. They work quickly to fit the satellite collar and monitor M02's vitals before he awakes. The team watches over him from the safety of their vehicles as M02 begins to raise his head and slowly regain his footing. Several hours of close monitoring later and just after midnight, the male saunters off into the bush. Rui and Paola are confident that he's doing well and they return to camp exhilarated and exhausted. They have successfully fitted the first collar ever deployed on a Gorongosa lion, and the first of more scheduled in the months ahead.
Photo: Paola and Rui with the Sungue male finally satellite-collared (by James Byrne)
Photo: Finding lions in a wild landscape like Gorongosa requires many painstaking days and nights of searching and listening. Here Fernando Mequicene, Paola and Rui track the newly collared “M02.” (by Anton Crone)
While the collaring operation was one of the team’s main goals in April (along with identifying new lions) there was another impetus for being in Gorongosa so early in the season. Each year, the park’s science department organizes an expedition to a different part of the park to survey the area’s biodiversity. A team of a dozen or so scientists studying everything from dung beetles to lions are flown in from all over the world for a 3-week intensive survey of the plants and animals of the region. This year, the survey took place on the Cheringoma Plateau on the eastern side of Gorongosa National Park and southern-most part of the great African Rift Valley. The stunning limestone gorges that plummet down to lush riverine forest and an unexplored cave system make this place every scientist's dream.
Photo: Paola Bouley sitting atop the limestone gorges during the 2013 Biodiversity Survey (Ilze Wagenaar)
High-humidity, incessant mosquitoes and tsetse flies aside, the timing of the expedition was not quite ideal for studying large mammals. April is the end of the rainy season in Southern Africa and the grass is tall and thick, visibility is extremely low, and wildlife is spread out along the still-flowing waterways. But using a combination of traditional tracking techniques in combination with photos from remote cameras, they successfully documented two-dozen large-mammal species, including lion, hyena, zebra and elephant. No sign of the elusive leopards were found yet, although Paola is confident they are there and it's only a matter of time and effort before they confirm their presence. The team will be back on the plateau over the dry winter months to attempt to collar lions and document hyena and leopard. The grasses will be burnt, affording more visibility and animals will concentrate around dwindling waterholes making them easier to find and observe.
Photo: The first hyena sighting in decades in Gorongosa was captured by a trail camera in August 2012. (Alan Short, Tongai Castigo, Luis Olivera – GNP Scientific Services)
The story of Gorongosa’s lions and the battle to save them is one echoed across the species' entire range. A mere 25-30,000 lions remain in the wild in Africa– down from at least 150,000 only 150 years ago. Recently released studies estimate that 50% of remaining populations could disappear in just 40 years unless urgent action is taken.
The Gorongosa Restoration Project and Projecto Leões is doing their part to try hold the line against extinction in Central Mozambique. You can also do your part by supporting this extraordinary project.