April 2014 Newsletter

Long Shields: Defending the Lions of Zimbabwe

Over the course of history, the name ‘Long Shields’ has been used to identify various ethnic groups, communities and organizations in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe. Starting in the late 19th century, descendants of the Zulu Kingdom were first named ‘Ndebele’ (meaning “people of the Long Shields”) in reference to the Ndebele warriors’ use of a tall, rawhide shield for protection in battle.

Once referencing the armor of war, the term ‘Long Shields’ has since evolved, and now represents an altogether different type of protection carried out on behalf of the lions and local communities of southwestern Zimbabwe.

Lobengula Khumalo - the second and last King of the Ndebele people.

Founded in late 2012, the Long Shields project is a critical lion conservation initiative operated by the Hwange Lion Project, in collaboration with Panthera and WildCRU, in two areas bordering Hwange National Park (NP). Nestled in the westernmost corner of Zimbabwe, Hwange NP exists as the country’s largest state park (15,000km2) that supports a healthy population of nearly 560 lions (a substantial increase from approximately 300 lions that existed just a decade ago thanks to the efforts of the Hwange Lion Project).

Without fencing, however, these lions can easily venture outside of the Park’s boundaries, leading to frequent incidences of livestock depredation. In response, the Long Shields project has worked to gain the confidence and trust of local communities, chiefs and rural district councils, and is now well established in two areas of intense human-lion conflict bordering the Park – Tsholotsho to the east and Mabale to the north.

In these landscapes, the Long Shields project has established a community informant network and now employs nine local men and women (many of whom were raised to hunt lions) to serve as custodians for the species – monitoring local lion populations and mitigating human-lion conflict. Upon initiation, the Long Shields receive intensive training in biological research techniques and conflict mitigation, along with literacy skill development.

Outfitted with these skills, a bicycle, GPS receiver and cell phone, each Long Shield monitors local lion populations, collars and tracks ‘conflict’ lions, informs herders of areas occupied by lions, trains farmers in proper livestock husbandry techniques, tracks down lost livestock, repairs livestock enclosures to help prevent carnivore attacks, and discourages farmers from hunting lions in the future.

Now, in just one year since the project’s implementation, we are happy to report that the Long Shields have made great strides in conserving the lions of southwestern Zimbabwe by reducing incidences of human-lion conflict by 50% in both the Tsholotsho and Mabale regions. In each area, approximately 120 early warnings of lion presence near communities and livestock helped to achieve this drastic reduction in conflict.

In the Mabale area, the Long Shields have also promoted collective herding and recently undertook a collaborative effort with the Africa Centre for Holistic Management to construct a mobile boma, or livestock enclosure, which can house nearly 120 cattle for communal herding.

Moving west to the Tsholotsho region, the Long Shields have developed a unique (and courageous) method of conflict mitigation in the area that has involved mobilizing community members on nearly a dozen occasions to assist in chasing lions back into Hwange National Park using drums and vuvuzelas (horns). Four local lions, fondly named Lobengula, Pape, Njabulo and Mankomo by the Long Shields, were also identified as potential ‘conflict’ animals and collared for monitoring within the past year.

Reaching out to the next generation of Long Shields, the staff from Tsholotsho also recently created and distributed a comic book to local schools containing educational information about conflict mitigation (left).

Concilia Tshuma, one of two female Long Shields, shared, “the lions and livestock of my community are now also the children which I must look after.”

The achievements of the Long Shields project to date have not only proven beneficial for the lions of Zimbabwe, but also helped to improve the livelihoods of local villagers by protecting livestock upon which many farmers depend for income, and provided employment, literacy and scientific training to the Long Shields. In particular, our team is proud to have recruited two female Long Shields to the project in the last year, improving collaboration between both women and men on behalf of their communities and conservation, and providing a new source of employment and empowerment for local women.

Donate to support Panthera’s wild cat conservation initiatives in Zimbabwe and around the world.

  • $30 provides a cell phone for a Long Shield
  • $50 provides monthly food rations for a Long Shield
  • $100 provides biological research techniques and conflict mitigation training for a Long Shield
  • $200 provides a bicycle for a Long Shield
  • $300 provides materials for the construction of a mobile community boma or livestock enclosure
  • $500 supports the printing and distribution of conflict mitigation educational resources to local schools
  • $600 provides a GPS receiver for a Long Shield

Stay tuned for information on the launch of a new, trial Long Shields project in the greater Victoria Falls area bordering Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Learn about Panthera’s lion conservation initiatives carried out through Project Leonardo.

Long Shields Photo Gallery

Glenn Close on a Day in Belize with the Jaguars of Cockscomb - Part 2

By Panthera Conservation Council Member and Actress, Glenn Close

Panthera’s CEO, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, is one of my planet heroes. I first met him when I was on the Board of the Wildlife Conservation Society and we have been friends ever since. I come from a family that has a genetic disposition for wild things and wild places, though much has been a factor of our imaginations rather than a concrete reality. I happen to have married a man who has gone to a lot of remote areas, acting on what I may have only imagined.

Together we have experienced some spectacular places, but I always long for more. I do know that my chemistries change when I am in nature and I find myself needing that change, more and more. I have a deep respect for Alan, George Schaller, Panthera’s Vice President, and all the brilliant scientist-advocates of Panthera. In fighting to save the big cats, they are on the forefront of the battle to preserve wild places.

Meeting Alan, I learned about Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative in Latin America, which he pioneered. And I learned that he had established the world’s first jaguar reserve in the jungles of Belize, which is now called the Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Reserve. When my husband and I decided to go to Belize this past Christmas, going to the reserve was first on my list. Through Alan and Panthera’s Jaguar Program Executive Director, Dr. Howard Quigley, I was put in contact with Dr. Bart Harmsen, Panthera’s Belize Country Coordinator and Research Fellow with the University of Belize.

The day was set and one morning I arrived at the Cockscomb Reserve ready for anything. Bart and I found each other and after a quick tour of the research and tourist facilities—and a glimpse of the rustic cabin where Alan had once lived—we set off down the path that would take us to the camera site that had yielded the most pictures of passing jaguars. I certainly had no expectations about seeing one. I know that they are incredibly elusive. The fact that eighty of them were in this particular reserve was thrilling enough for me.

Bart was a gallant and fascinating guide and the number of tracks we saw certainly did not disappoint us, tracks of not only hefty jaguars, but of pumas and tapirs as well. It was raining, meaning that any tracks we saw were very fresh. My sandals were sturdy and impervious to water so I didn’t care how muddy they got.

Cockscomb is a gorgeous jungle full of chaotic diversity on every level. From the lines of leaf-cutter ants, struggling across the muddy path, their quivering bits of bright green leaves looking like the sails of a tiny armada, to the jungle canopy—a riot of trunks and vines and foliage, of shapes, shades of green, textures and movement. We passed by a swamp-like area that looked positively primordial. I trusted Bart completely when he said we could drink out of a jungle stream. The water was cool and lovely.

A 12 year old male jaguar, known as M04-21, is one of the oldest wild jaguars ever recorded in Belize. Panthera Conservation Council member, Glenn Close, was photographed in the same location within a 24-hour period of this image being taken.

When we got to where the two digital cameras were set up, Bart insisted that I be in a picture. He then promised to send me pictures of whatever jaguar had been most recently caught by the same camera. The idea that I was on the same path regularly frequented by jaguars-the third largest great cat after tigers and lions-made me feel as if I were on hallowed ground.

It brings me great comfort to know that the jaguars are there in Cockscomb when I walk across a congested city street, feeling the unforgiving concrete beneath my step, being jostled on crowded sidewalks and bombarded by the sheer noise of our civilization. I think of the silence of the jaguar as it pads through the jungle, hardly visible in the dappled light. We had nothing to do with the miracle of the jaguar’s creation, but have everything to do with its survival. The world needs the jaguar’s majesty and mystery. We are better because the jaguar exists.

Donate to support the future of jaguars and other wild cats around the world.


Following Glenn’s visit, Panthera, the government of Belize and the University of Belize signed a Memorandum of Understanding pledging to collaboratively implement science-based conservation initiatives that secure and connect jaguars and their habitats in Belize and beyond its borders, facilitate land development that is both ecologically sustainable and economically profitable, and mitigate human-jaguar conflict throughout the country.

Read Panthera’s press release – New Protection for the Jaguar: Belize and Panthera Sign Critical Conservation Agreement.

Belize Photo Gallery

F51 – Honoring the Life of a Female Cougar

F51, an adult female cougar tracked through Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project (TCP), meandered toward the eastern edge of her range, her two female offspring bouncing like electrons in orbit around her. Who can say what a cougar thinks, but from our perspective, life seemed good for F51. The family had fed off a series of elk in quick succession, and then successfully dodged a local wolf pack that stole F51’s last kill. Her kittens were fat, healthy and growing fast.

M85, an adult male also tracked through the TCP, sat on his own kill at the base of spectacular red cliffs. He heard F51 and her kittens approach as they dropped through a narrow cleft in the rocks above his position, and he set out to intercept them.

This much was clear, written out in the snow, but the next part involves some speculation. Perhaps M85 approached aggressively, perhaps F51’s kittens were exposed in front of her and she charged, but whatever the scenario, she engaged him. The pair met in a storm of claws and fury, packing the snow as they wrestled. They slid down the hill again and again, rolling 60-70 feet, and leaving behind great tufts of fur. In the last great tumble, the pair slammed into a young fir tree, snapping off its lower branches.

At the end of the battle, F51 lay dead – a case of intraspecific killing, in which an animal kills another animal of its own kind. F51’s kittens fled at the first sign of trouble. At seven months of age and without a mother, their futures are bleak. Kittens typically need to be older than a year to survive on their own (Elbroch and Quigley 2013).

While a blow to the Teton Cougar Project, F51’s death has triggered a variety of questions about cougar behavior, including why this clash occurred and whether solitary cougars are always so aggressive toward each other. Infanticide involves the killing of young offspring by an adult animal of the same species, which, some evidence suggests, might induce estrous in females and create future mating opportunities for males. Cooley et al. (2009) proposed that infanticide of cougar kittens by adult males increases in hunted populations, where there is regular male turnover, and in leopards, males have killed females defending their cubs (Balme and Hunter 2013).

F51 and her kitten 'Lucky'

In this case, M85 was west of his usual haunts and in an area typically defended by M29, the resident male that had been legally killed by a hunter several months earlier. M29’s territory has remained open, and in his wandering, M85 encountered F51, who we believe he’d never met before. This might offer a partial explanation.

But why a male would kill an adult female is more difficult to explain with biology. Thus, we expect it had something to do with F51 defending her kittens. This, in turn, leads us to another question: is it common that clashing cougars results in the death of one or the other?

According to 13 years of research, the answer is yes and no. Yes, in that we have documented cougars killing other cougars of every age. Over 13 years, the Teton Cougar Project has documented 2 of 68 kittens killed by cougars, and 2 more killed by an unidentified predator, which could have been cougars. Three sub-adult cougars were killed by other cougars, and now five adults we’ve tracked were killed by their own kind.

So yes, it happens, but it’s also rare. Our research has revealed that adult cougars interact with far greater frequency than we ever imagined, and that only 5-10% of interactions involve aggressive physical contact. Cougars, we have found, are surprisingly tolerant of each other. While this makes F51’s death more of an anomaly, our team continues to work to answer even more questions that have arisen - Will F51’s kittens survive on their own? Will the female cougar glimpsed in F51’s range set up residency there? Will a new male move in to fill M29’s territory, or will M85 migrate west into the open territory?

Panthera’s team placed the first ever cameras in a cougar den and witnessed amazing intimacy between F51 and her kittens, never before seen in the wild.

F51 was an icon for the Teton Cougar Project, providing Panthera’s scientists with invaluable insights into cougar social systems, movements and fecundity. While making a vital contribution to the health of the Tetons’ cougar population, F51 also served as the star of National Geographic Wild’s American Cougar.

Led by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project Leader, Dr. Mark Elbroch, our team began tracking her at the beginning of 2011, just before she gave birth to her first litter (5 kittens!). In 2012, she separated from her three surviving kittens and gave birth to three more just 16 months after her first litter. Wolves killed two of these kittens, and when F51’s last remaining kitten was just nine months old, they went their separate ways. Baffled as to why such a young cougar set out on her own, our team quickly learned that F51 was pregnant yet again, giving birth to four more kittens in 2013. Since last fall, F51 lost one kitten to winter exposure and a second to unknown causes (potentially wolves).

The life of a cougar kitten is fraught with challenges, including other predators and frostbite, but our team is hopeful that two of F51’s kittens from her first litter successfully set out and now have territories of their own. Given that F51’s death is considered “natural,” our team will watch and document the survival of her two remaining kittens.

While sobering, the documentation of the loss and survival of cougars is vital in explaining the threats facing these cats in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and to create better conservation plans for the species. To do so, our team is documenting cougar territories, habitat and prey selection, foraging ecology, population dynamics and interactions with other carnivores. Over 13 years, the Teton Cougar Project team has monitored more than 120 individual cougars. And today, while we lament the loss of F51, our scientists push on, striving to protect and unveil the secret life of the American cougar.

Read posts by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project Leader, Dr. Mark Elbroch, on National Geographic’s Cat Watch Blog.

F51 plays with her kitten, nicknamed ‘Lucky’ by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project scientists.

F51 exhibits a low contact call-- a low rolling rumble--to call her kittens.

F51 caching, or covering, her kill. Note that she appears to have a saggy stomach because she was nursing at the time.


Friedman Conservation Grants Program for
Wild Cheetahs Launched

In partnership with Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies, Panthera is excited to announce the launch of a grants program dedicated solely to the conservation of the wild African cheetah – the Friedman Cheetah Conservation Grants Program.

Recently unveiled, the Friedman program awards one-year grants of up to $15,000 to support conservation and research projects on wild cheetahs across the species’ range in Africa. Seeking out the best and brightest cheetah conservationists in the field, as well as the most promising and innovative projects, this program aims to increase and connect healthy cheetah populations across the African continent and build the scientific capacity and expertise of the next generation of cheetah conservationists.

Taking a long term, range-wide view of cheetah conservation, the Friedman Grants Program focuses on conservation and research initiatives that survey the cheetah’s range where little data exists, including Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Sudan, Zambia, West Africa and North Africa; identify critical connections between viable cheetah populations; and apply interventions that mitigate threats to cheetahs.

Today, the threats facing the species are numerous. Primarily living outside of protected game reserves, cheetahs are often killed by humans over the loss of livestock, especially when natural prey has been depleted due to overhunting by people. The cheetah is also literally losing ground to Africa’s burgeoning human population, which is converting extensive swaths of natural savannas to community, agriculture and livestock landscapes. A prime target of the illegal wildlife trade, cheetahs are additionally hunted for their furs and their cubs, which are sold as pets to buyers primarily in the Middle East.

Together, these threats have taken a drastic toll on the populations of cheetahs remaining in Africa. Once reaching nearly 100,000 individuals a century ago, just 7,500-10,000 cheetahs are estimated to remain in Africa today, with an isolated population of no more than 70 Asiatic cheetahs left in Iran. Extirpated from 76% of its historic range in Africa, the species is listed as “Vulnerable” across its range on the International Union of the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, and as “Critically Endangered” in North Africa and Asia.

Click the map below to view the cheetah’s current range in Africa and Asia.

While formidable, these threats can be mitigated by the Friedman Cheetah Conservation Grants Program. The Friedman Grants Program will not only create a long-term, range-wide strategy for cheetahs throughout the continent, it will also foster dialogue among existing cheetah projects and conservationists across Africa and cultivate these conservationists to become leaders within their own countries – allowing for local communities and individuals to protect their wildlife and ensure that the cheetah lives and thrives in Africa for centuries to come.

Learn more about the Friedman Cheetah Conservation Grants Program* and Panthera’s other grants and prizes.

Learn about Panthera’s cheetah conservation work in Asia through the Iranian Cheetah Project.

*This year’s Friedman Grants round is by application only. Starting in 2015, the cycle will begin with an open request for Letters of Interest (January 1-February 1), followed by invitations for full applications.

More on Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies

Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies supports innovative programs that change the world, with four priorities: saving the cheetah from extinction, improving pediatric asthma care, ensuring the continuity of the Jewish community in the Washington, D.C. region, and improving education outcomes for District of Columbia public school students.

Learn more about Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies.

Pre-Order Panthera CEO’s First Children’s Book:
A Boy and a Jaguar

Panthera is excited to share that the first children’s book written by CEO and wild cat scientist, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, entitled A Boy and a Jaguar, is now available for pre-order through publishing house Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Featuring beautiful and vibrant illustrations by Catia Chien, this children's book shares Dr. Rabinowitz’s story of the childhood bond he formed with a jaguar at the Bronx Zoo, the solace he sought in speaking to animals to overcome a severe stutter, the promise he made to one day use his voice to protect animals, and his lifelong work to fulfill this vow by conserving wild cats around the world.

Feeling more alive and at home with animals in the wild than anywhere else, Dr. Rabinowitz takes readers on a journey to Belize, where he was the first scientist to study and collar the country’s jaguars. Against the illustrated backdrop of Belize’s jungles, Dr. Rabinowitz describes how he worked closely with the government to establish the world’s first jaguar preserve – the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary – and live up to the promise he made to use his voice to protect animals.

Dedicating the book “to all those who have found their voice, and who use it to speak for others in need,” Dr. Rabinowitz’s story is one of struggle and triumph not only for himself, but for the jaguars of Latin America, and stutterers around the world. Both candid and moving, this book will resonate with people of all ages.

In less than a month on May 6th, A Boy and a Jaguar will be available for purchase in hard cover and as an e-book. Learn more about A Boy and a Jaguar.

Pre-order A Boy and a Jaguar

Watch an interview with Dr. Rabinowitz on A Boy and a Jaguar.

Send an e-card to let your friends and family know about A Boy and a Jaguar and learn more about the book.

Learn about Dr. Rabinowitz’s jaguar conservation work through Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative.

Interested in educational conservation media for children? Check out Panthera’s film, My Pantanal, produced for children and adults alike on Panthera’s jaguar conservation efforts in Brazil.

More Resources

Photo of the Month

Two tigers – one drinking and another quizzically investigating a camera trap – in India’s Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary in March 2013. Along with Lansdowne Division, Sonanadi acts as a critical corridor connecting tigers and other wildlife between Corbett Tiger Reserve and Rajaji National Park.

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