While wildlife is rebounding in the Park, lion numbers appear to have plateaued. Our lion research team, led by Paola Bouley, is hard at work trying to understand why lion populations are not increasing as quickly as expected. They are trying to understand how factors like prey composition and abundance, genetics, disease, and human impacts (including illegal hunting and park boundary effects) might be affecting the growth of the lion population.
We tracked Paola down and asked her about her work:
Q: How do you track lions?
Lions are notoriously difficult to study, especially in the complex and diverse savannah ecosystem that dominates the Gorongosa landscape. We track lions by sight (on foot or by vehicle, reports from rangers and tourists, vulture activity over kill sites), by sound (listening for their locations at night) and also using technology like satellite collars, which reveal detailed information on the daily movements of lions.
Q: How do you identify individual lions?
Each lion has a unique pattern of whisker-spots on each side of its face. And just like a human fingerprint, no two whisker-spot patterns are the same and they don't change over time. By using photos (including photos taken by visitors to the Park) we are able to definitively identify lions. Park visitors can help me and participate in their own lion research by sharing their lion photos with us. Share your photo to contribute.
Q: How do you tell the age of the lions?
If I am fortunate enough to observe lions from the time they are able to first walk and socialize with their pride, I can track their age accurately over the years. Otherwise, I rely on an array of features such as body size and coloration, mane size, tooth condition and a technique of assessing age using individual nose coloration. A lion is born with a pink nose and as it ages the lion's nose becomes increasingly pigmented (also in a unique pattern for each lion), eventually turning all black.
Paola's Field Diary
"I’ve just completed an intensive round of fieldwork – 51 straight days in the bush, searching out and documenting the seasonally elusive Gorongosa lions and working on a media effort to share this story of these lions and their recovery.
Fieldwork is downright tough, especially this time of year. It’s the peak dry season– no significant rain for >5 months, searing +100F heat and air heavy with smoke and ash from bush fires combine to strain every living creature out here. Then the rains broke, albeit gently, and the smoke gradually settled, fires ceased and Mount Gorongosa crowned the lowlands again, serving as our anchor as we forged into new areas to find the lions.
Our research requires we become nocturnal creatures, fighting our very biology to work alongside Africa’s largest carnivore when they are most visible and active. We work through the night, trying to grab an hour or so of sleep during the heat of the day (when one’s tent has usually reached inferno-ish levels of heat).
Lions appear scarcer now than during my prior trip in May and we are unsure why. Possibilities are: wildfires, drought, seasonal movements, increased presence of bush meat poaching and anti-poaching patrols. Likely no single factor is at play. Whatever the reasons are, our project is charged with trying to understand and tell this story and most of my waking hours I spend trying to wrap my mind around landscape, conditions, the lions and their locations, and information shared and filtered down through guides, tourists, patrols, and ex-poachers.
Among other things, we are in the process of documenting a new pride – one we detected first by helicopter and later by vehicle as we pushed into less-travelled territory. We documented two of Gorongosa’s finest lions: the Brando coalition, dark-maned males who are now ruling over their north Lake territory. Our lone and ambassador, three-footed lioness– Tripod - is still going strong and takes time every few nights to frolic on the floodplain in apparent rebellion against her age (she is at least 12 years old). Our remote cameras documented Gorongosa's first photographically documented hyena in decades, until now just 1 possible fleeting sighting and scat. The search for leopard is still on.
Our team optimistic without fail, we pack up the vehicle hours before dawn or sundown–we all agree wholeheartedly that “it’s going to be today we find more lions”- and roll out of camp. Optimism punctuates every effort we make – big or small - and without it we would be lost."