Living near the edge of a protected area is not an easy for any lion, especially those in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Last week, as I sat with guests at Sharon Stead’s Ivory Lodge, I explained the diverse and complicated threats facing lions: wire snares set for bushmeat, direct killing by people in retaliation for livestock predation, trophy hunting and how it disrupts the social fabric of lions, and even the trains that steam past the park boundary or the vehicles whizzing by on the national road. It occurred to me later that the guests may not have been the only ones listening; my voice may have carried off into the surrounding woodland to a lioness known as “Friskie’s Daughter” and her two older cubs. Through the mist and rain the next morning, the bark of alarm by some kudu (a species of antelope) signaled that she was still nearby… and dangerously close to the adjoining community of Mabale.
That very morning, a lion guardian by the name of Liomba Mathe would be patrolling Mabale, looking for signs of Friskie’s Daughter. If he found her tracks, he would notify local villagers and advise them to avoid letting their cattle graze into the forest. Liomba Mathe did not come across her tracks that morning, and instead accompanied me to visit the Hwange Lion Project’s Long Shields conflict mitigation project. Panthera, along with Oxford’s WildCRU, has supported the Long Shields since its inception in 2012. I was glad to see the guardians I knew well—Charles, Concillia, and David—and meet Polite, a new guardian, and the guardian leaders, Lovemore Sibanda and Themba Mathe.
While we caught up, I wondered where Friskie’s Daughter and her cubs were. I would find out later that they were likely lying in wait alongside a busy road nearby… perhaps preparing to dash across and kill a cow or goat in the fields on the other side.
Soon the Long Shields and I headed out to check on one of our ventures: mobile bomas. This simple concept, pioneered by Alan Savory of the African Centre for Holistic Management, uses mobile bomas to move cows around a field so that they fertilize the soil by defecating and trampling on it. Once an area has been fertilized, the boma is moved to another part of the field.
The plastic sheeting on the sides of the bomas has an added advantage: it protects cattle from lion predation at night, because lions will not jump over a barrier if they cannot see clearly to the other side.
The project’s success was stunning. Wherever the mobile bomas had been placed, the lush and healthy maize stood taller than a man; in areas without the bomas—but with the same seed and soil—the maize was barely knee height. After a particularly rainy year, I expected great results, but seeing them for myself was thrilling.
My delight was quickly tempered by sobering news: one of Friskies Daughter’s cubs had been hit by car—and her hind leg was shattered. She managed to limp off the road, but she quickly succumbed to her injuries.
This mix of joy and tragedy is the harsh reality of our work. On the very weekend that we were marveling at the success of one of our ventures, a young lioness died. The unfortunate truth is that we can’t be everywhere all the time.
Our next objective is to encourage more farmers to use mobile bomas and find donors to support them. The benefits are remarkable: better crops, safe cattle at night, smaller fields required (and thus greater retention of woodland habitat) and no need to slash and burn to prepare new fields every few years.
Together with our partners like the Soft Foot Alliance and the Hwange Conservation and Wildlife Fund, we will continue to support conflict mitigation projects, minimize the impacts of bushmeat poaching and trophy hunting, and focus on the issue of speeding vehicles. These diverse threats can only be addressed by an encompassing and integrated set of initiatives. Fortunately, Panthera, our partners, and I personally are fully committed to doing just that.
Road traffic poses a significant threat to lions. Here, a lioness only just misses being struck by a bus.