Thursday, May 6

How to Spot a Lion

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Visit the Masai Mara, the best wildlife watching spots in the world, and you’ll be told one thing: here, the lions rule. In fact, if you’re flying into Musiara Airstrip, they may even be waiting for you when you land. The strip is a favourite haunt of the famous Marsh Pride – the stars of BBC’s ‘Big Cat Diary’ for over a decade. In the Mara, lions are plentiful, but like elsewhere, populations are in decline. Scientists now believe that there are fewer than 30,000 wild lions left in Africa. So just why is one of the planet‘s most revered species in such grave danger?

Put simply, people and predators just don’t get along, and when lions attack Maasai cattle, they are often killed in  retaliation. With such killings threatening the extinction of lions outside of large protected areas within our lifetime, monitoring their numbers becomes ever-more important. To address this need across the northern Masai Mara conservancies- one of East Africa‘s most vital lion populations – Sara Blackburn, the conservation group Living With Lions and Alex Walker’s Serian Camp began the Mara Predator Project.

Spot the Difference
The Mara’s booming tourism industry created both problems and solutions for lion monitoring. Sophisticated radio collars are best suited for collecting detailed movement data, but some visitors object to seeing collared animals. Luckily, there are other ways of tracking lions. Each lion is individually identifiable by its whisker spot pattern – a set of
spots on the sides of the face as specific to each animal as a human fingerprint. Factor in ear tears, battle scars, age, gender and even nose colour, and you’ve got a whole host of features with which to identify your cat. Add the thousands of tourists that traverse the Mara on the lookout for big cats, and you have the basis for a pretty nifty monitoring system.

A perfect match:
Whilst other features are more conspicuous, only the whisker spots remain unchanged throughout a lion’s life. Furthermore, the pattern shows enough variability between individuals to allow us to identify one individual from the next. Not only does this allow us to count lions, but we can follow each individual from cub to adulthood, despite dramatic changes in appearance.

Simple Science
The project’s key approaches is to engage ‘non-scientists’ in monitoring activities. Sara works to involve lodge guides and guests in lion identification and tracking through simple reporting, effectively increasing both the spread and intensity of lion monitoring. Instead of one single researcher,  she has hundreds. “You don’t need a degree to contribute to real science” stresses Sara. “By harnessing simple methods and technologies – in our case, digital  photography – anyone from a first time visitor to safari guides and professional photographers can take part in our work. We have lodge guides single-handedly tracking lions far and wide, and the best thing about it is that they love doing it. These animals are central to their daily lives and the visitors’ African experience. We’ve now given them both the means and reasons to understand their local lions on a very intimate level.”

Even if one does not identify the lions one is looking at, simply supplying a good photograph of the whisker spot pattern can give the team all the information they need. It’s a simple, yet wonderfully effective way of understanding this vital population.

Not only are we able to track fluctuations in the Mara lion  population and study lion histories, but we are beginning to build a concise picture of lion movements, pride ranges and lion hot spots. “All this information may seem rather basic,” says Sara, “but these simple demographic data give us a deep understanding of how lions are responding to a number of both natural and human factors. With human populations growing rapidly, and human-wildlife conflict the main cause of declines in lion numbers, understanding the effects of human activities within the Mara ecosystem is essential if we are to protect these incredible animals.”

If you are visiting the northern Masai Mara conservancies, you can take part in our lion research simply by photographing the lions you see and sending your sightings and photos to us via our online lion database at www.livingwithlions.org/mara.

Without your support, our work cannot continue. To donate, or for more information, please email us at  info@livingwithlions.org.  Look for Mara Predator Project leaflets and information at participating lodges, which includeSerian Camp, Kicheche Mara, Kicheche Bush camp, Mara Plains Camp and Porini Lion Camp. For more information visit www.livingwithlions.org/mara/lodges/.

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