Just a few months before Belant wrangled wolves in the snow this past spring, he was seeking lions in the Serengeti, a few miles south of the equator. For the past four years, he and his collaborators have been working to reduce conflicts between lions and people — and better understand lion population ecology. Because of land use changes, lions are found in less than 10 percent of their historical range. And yet in the past, Belant said, accurately counting the populations has relied on less than optimal methods. His work aims to solve this problem and provide the conservation community and local governments with accurate and precise numbers.
Every trip to the Serengeti is different, he said. Once, he and his team got in their Land Rovers and drove several thousand kilometers, spotting just four lions and snapping two pictures. More recently, during the season of the “little rains,” he and his team drove across the endless plains and through the acacia tree woodlands. A spotter found a lion, then a vet darted it. The team moved in with its gear — stethoscope, pulse oximeter, needles, an umbrella, water — to take measurements, collect blood and hair samples, and fit the collar. Then they set up a huge tripod and lifted the animal in a sling, with a block and tackle, to weigh it.
“When you go through the effort and expense and have the animal in that vulnerable state, we want to maximize potential research value while minimizing potential harm,” he said.
In total for this project, Belant’s team has captured and collared 20. The goal is three-fold: collect data to refine population estimates, help local governments establish appropriate hunting quotas, and identify potential human-lion conflict in real time — and intervene before a problem becomes catastrophic. So far, Belant has found that the lion population is larger than previously thought, at least in the area where they are working.
“That doesn’t mean lion conservation isn’t important or that there isn’t a decline compared with past levels,” he explained. “But in some areas where lions occur, it may not be as dire as currently thought. So with the work we and others are doing, we can now get accurate data, scientifically credible data, and better prioritize our efforts to benefit lion conservation.”
Alison Fromme is a science writer based in Ithaca, New York.