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Why zebras matter to lions

Why zebras matter to lions

A lioness and cub of the Nxai Pan National Park, Botswana
A lioness and cub of the Nxai Pan National Park, Botswana
Dominik Bauer



Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, UK.

 Why do zebras matter to lions – well, aside from the fact that lions eat them, both these species may use the same corridors to move about the region.

In Botswana, Dominik Bauer and Kristina Kesch of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit have been dedicated to identifying corridors of protected habitat through which lion could travel and disperse within the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. In this project, we are collaborating with Elephants Without Borders which has been striving to identify elephant and, indeed, zebra, corridors since 2004.

 Historically, Botswana had a number of different migration routes for zebra, wildebeest, springbok, buffalo, elephant and other species. Many of these migrations have ceased, disrupted by agriculture and fencing. However, zebra and wildebeest still migrate on several different routes within the country, including what may be the longest herbivore migration in Africa.

Our Botswana team has equipped lions with satellite collars. Several of these tagged lion have made excursions beyond their home ranges at just the time when large numbers of migrating zebras have been passing by.

Interestingly, in 2003, WildCRU’s Graham Hemson, then also working in Botswana, found that lion living along the Boteti River in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park switched their diet to livestock when migratory zebra and wildebeest left the area with the onset of the rainy season.

Perhaps in the same vein, farmers living on the edges of herbivore migration routes in Botswana have told us that their problems with lion killing their stock come and go seasonally. We began to see a picture where zebra migrations and lion movements may be closely linked in this landscape, and that’s where the collaboration with Elephants Without Borders came in – because they’ve been studying zebra migrations.

The WildCRU team aims to determine the impact of long distance zebra migrations on lion and on levels of lion conflict with local cattle farmers – since it looks as if the two could be linked. By charting the routes of zebra and lion, we are exploring the possible consequences of these migration routes being lost, and in particular whether this prompts lion to kill more livestock.

Of course, once we have the evidence in hand, we will be knocking on the doors of governments in the region, for example in Botswana and Namibia, offering them our findings and assistance in the challenging task of protecting corridors and the animals that use them.