In addition to its notoriety for three spectacular volcanic craters and the Olduvai Gorge archaeological site where the unearthing of hominid fossils helped to establish Africa as the ‘cradle of mankind,’ Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is particularly renowned for its ubiquitous wildlife. Drawing in thousands of tourists from around the world every year, the Ngorongoro region hosts one of the world’s most superb natural phenomenons – the annual great migration of over 1 million wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and other herbivores, which graze and bear their young across Tanzania’s Serengeti plains, to Kenya’s Maasai Mara region, and back.
With ungulate prey abundance of this magnitude, the Ngorongoro region currently supports a healthy population of lions. For this reason, the Serengeti Lion Project (SLP), directed by Panthera’s Cat Advisory Council Member, Craig Packer, has been studying and working to conserve the lions of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area since 1966. Today, this work continues through biologists like Panthera grantee Ingela Jansson, who are tasked with monitoring the numbers and well-being of the NCA’s lions, and their interactions with local Maasai communities.
Several years ago, close monitoring of the ‘Thin’ lion pride, which inhabits the NCA’s Ndutu region, revealed that 11 new cubs had been born, including a handsome cub nicknamed ‘Young Tom’ by locals. Soon after this discovery, however, Ingela and her team learned that ‘Young Tom’ was the only cub out of the 11 to survive past the age of one.
Typically, under such circumstances, a sole cub like Young Tom would fall victim to infanticide – a behavior through which male lions kill cubs in a pride to hasten the onset of oestrus in female lions, and thus spread their genes. However, perhaps because his ten-year old father was the only male siring cubs within the Ndutu region’s three prides (the Thin, Masek and Big Marsh prides), Young Tom was accepted by the Thin pride. Once he reached physical and sexual maturity, Young Tom joined his father in defending and siring cubs within the three prides, including seven cubs born to the Masek pride in early 2012.
In mid-October, however, Ingela and staff from the local Ndutu Lodge were notified that an injured, male lion had been spotted lying under a tree in the Ngorongoro’s Hugo Valley area. When they arrived at the scene, Ingela was disheartened to find Young Tom lying under this tree with a large gash in his stomach. When they approached him from a distance, the severity of Young Tom’s wounds became apparent as he struggled to get up, shakily walked in the opposite direction and sunk back down to the ground.
Acting quickly, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area authorities were alerted, who sent a veterinarian to anesthetize Young Tom and treat his wounds, assisted by Ingela, the Ndutu Lodge staff and NCA rangers. Once he was immobilized, Ingela saw that his wounds had undoubtedly been caused by a spear, which had cut all the way through his back, piercing the other side of his body. Unfortunately, by this time, the wounds had become infected, and therefore dangerous to stitch up.
Instead, the vet administered an antibiotic injection, and cleaned and applied broad-spectrum antibiotic spray to his injuries, including puncture wounds on his hind legs caused by other predators. The team took blood, saliva, tissue and fecal samples to test for Young Tom’s exposure to various diseases and parasites, measure his hormonal levels and examine his DNA. Ingela also took photographic records of his teeth, and measured his body length, shoulder height, neck circumference and heart girth to add to the SLP’s lion demography database. After weighing Young Tom at a hefty 146 kg (321 pounds), Ingela fixed him with a GPS collar and waited for him to wake from the anesthesia.
See photos of Young Tom’s rescue below.
After a three day recovery, the SLP team was happy to track Young Tom as he slowly made his way back to the Masek pride. Since October, Young Tom’s wounds have healed with no sign of infection, and he and his father now primarily travel with the Masek pride, guarding their youngest offspring as new male lions enter the Ndutu area and attempt to overpower the Thin and Big Marsh prides.
In the months ahead, the Serengeti Lion Project team will continue to monitor the activities of Young Tom, now nearly four years old, and will collar and track five additional lions in the region to learn more about their range use and interactions with local pastoralists. In particular, these data will demonstrate whether the Ndutu region’s high-density lion populations are breeding across the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, including into the Ngorongoro Crater and the larger Serengeti National Park - genetic exchanges thought to have expired. (See map above)
The SLP is also working to build collaborative relationships with local Maasai communities to ensure they are part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area’s lion conservation strategy. Today, the SLP employs local Maasai to assess ‘hot-spot’ conflict areas involving livestock depredation. As the program expands, the SLP hopes to adopt conservation strategies from the Lion Guardians program and other initiatives, including employing more local Maasai to monitor lion populations, increase tolerance for lions among the Maasai communities, and mitigate human-lion conflicts by improving livestock owners’ husbandry skills and notifying them of lions’ whereabouts in relation to their livestock.
Click here to learn more about the Serengeti Lion Project and check back with us for an update on the progress of Young Tom, and the lions of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
The Serengeti Lion Project extends a special thanks to NABU International, National Geographic, Vectronic, and Ndutu Lodge for their continued support.
Learn more about Panthera’s Project Leonardo.
Watch a video of Young Tom, still walking with a limp, going to join the Masek pride several weeks after his examination and collaring. NCA, Tanzania
Female lions from Young Tom’s Masek pride chasing gazelles…and being chased by elephants. NCA, Tanzania