Hwange lions' success story
Hwange lions' success story
By : Dr Andrew Loveridge
Project Leader Hwange Lion Research Project
In October 1999, I drove a newly acquired, but decidedly second-hand, Land Rover into the car park at Sikumi Tree Lodge, a photographic safari lodge bordering Hwange National Park. I was about to start work as a post-doctoral student studying the lion of Hwange area.
Sikumi was to be my home for the next three years through the hospitality of Alan Elliott and Touch the Wild Safaris. Little did I know this project would still be running in 2015, 16 years later.
I was in Hwange to work with Andy Searle (the Warden of Umtshibi Parks Management Unit), Felix Murindagomo (the Park ecologist at Hwange Main Camp) and Lionel Reynolds (a guide, hunter and passionate conservationist). These three men saw the need to better understand the dynamics, conservation and management needs of the lion population. Each in their own way facilitated the development of the research project.
Surprisingly little was known about Hwange’s lion and there was not even a reliable estimate of the size of the population. A lot has changed since then. From a staff of one and single Land Rover, the project now employs 30 Zimbabweans and has developed a broad understanding of lion ecology and conservation needs.
The Hwange lion project has become one of the longest running lion research projects in Africa. We use cutting-edge technology in the form of GPS satellite collars to monitor our study animals. With our partners in the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) we now know considerably more about the lion population.
We estimate the population holds 550 lion and, since ZimParks introduced more stringent lion hunting quotas, has grown by 50% since the early 2000s. This is a good news story in lion conservation and one of which Zimbabwean conservationists should be justifiably proud.
We understand how lion affect the lives and livelihoods of people living around Hwange. Predation on people’s livestock is a constant source of friction between conservationists and local people. Based upon our understanding of the ecological processes behind this conflict, we have initiated a community conservation programme, the Long Shields Lion Guardians.
The Lion Guardians project now employs nine local men and women in areas around Hwange and aims to work with communities to find ways to reduce livestock losses to predators. Key aspects of this have involved warning people when lion are in their area and encouraging better livestock herd protection when grazing and during the night. This effort has resulted in a significant decrease in loss of domestic livestock.
We also now know that the Hwange lion population is highly connected to other key populations in the region and is in fact an important component of the Okavango-Hwange lion population. This population is one of the largest and most spatially intact lion strongholds in Africa and one that is of huge value in conservation of the species. Our research work has used state of the art analysis to identify important corridors linking up lion habitat across the region, which allows conservation managers and decision makers to prioritise conservation.
While we know a great deal more about Hwange’s lions than we did in 1999, there remain many challenges in lion conservation and many more questions about lion behaviour that require answers. With our partners ZimParks, we hope to build on the success of the last 16 years.