I’m finally back from three weeks in the wilderness of Gonarezhou. As you will see from the last two posts, I did actually have a few days at park HQs in the middle of the stay, so this is the story of what happened in phase two of the trip…
After a few days of ‘admin’ at HQ, I set off once again with Rueben and a National Parks research assistant Julius, for the three hour drive across the park into the eastern area where we were hoping to find signs of wild dogs, and if we were lucky to get a collar on to a lion. The first evening we were there, we drove out to a stunning water-filled pan full of birds and surrounded by groups of impala, warthogs, baboons, zebra, wildebeest and even the rare and spectacular sable antelope.
We saw no fresh lion or wild dog spoor, but it seemed like a good place for predators, so we decided to set up a calling station in an open area nearby and see what came. To attract predators, the usual method is to play the sound of a dying buffalo calf over loudspeakers and see what comes to investigate. In this instance, however, instead of attracting predators, we attracted a large and rather anxious herd of buffalo, come to save their calf!!
They were very persistent and we could do nothing for the next hour or so, until they moved off to drink. After that, our call-up attracted 3 black-backed jackals and a civet, but no larger predators…
At least until I changed tactic and played a lion roar, at which point an immediate and very load answering roar told us there was in fact a lion not too far away!! Although the moon was only half full it was bright enough for me to make out the lion through binoculars – a beautiful male with a half-black mane. Great! It was wonderful to know he was around, and we decided we would try to lure him to bait the following night to try to collar him.
As it turned out, he could not have been more co-operative! Early the next morning, I was woken up at 4:30 by the sound of a lion roaring. I got up to investigate, and there was the lion strolling along past the camp (maybe 150m away)… So I flung on some clothes, jumped into the car, prepared the drugs and a dart and went after him. We followed him for a while but then lost him in thick bush, so decided rather to wait for the evening when lions become active again. We called him again, and he came to the bait around half past eight. I managed to dart him, and discovered (to my great surprise to say the least!) that he already had a very old, dysfunctional collar on. Bizarre!! This turned out to be from the wildlife reserve neighbouring the park, in which he had been collared in 2002, and from where he went missing in 2005! It turns out he is 10-11 years old, which is OLD for a lion, and evidenced by his very worn teeth.
Despite this, he was in good condition, albeit slightly thin, and it will be great to be able to keep an eye on him now that he is collared. The collar will hopefully also prevent him getting shot on one of the hunting concessions outside the park. We also took some blood samples to be able to test for various diseases – Bovine TB is a particular concern, and for genetic analyses to help us establish whether there is any inbreeding in the lion population in the park.
We are doing all this work (by the way) because there are worryingly few lions in Gonarezhou National Park, which should be a prime area for the conservation of the species, and we need to find out what factors are keeping their population so low, so we can try and do something about it. Lion and wild dog populations are also linked in many ways, so getting an idea of the abundance and distribution of the lions in the park also has key significance for understanding wild dog populations.
On that note, we also found evidence of more wild dogs in the park, which was extremely encouraging, and which I will report on in a separate posting.