Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Hunt for African Lions Continues

Sorry for the silence, lion friends.  A combination of internet problems and sneaky lions have kept us away from the computer.  As it stands we were trying to find male lions to collar.  Little did any of us know how hard this would be.  If female lions are sneaky, then male lions are sneakier.
For days we have been riding the rough, red dusty roads of Mpala and the North country in search of males.  We are discovering that the classic concept of lion “prides” is not so straightforward in Kenya.  Males are sometimes with other males, females are sometimes only with females.  Youngsters stay with mom, and adults males can cruise all around.   All of us are bruised and banged from massive ruts and gullies in the road as we criss-cross lion territory.   

Our task has been even harder with the spring rains.  New foliage has sprung up overnight.  The grasses are taller, all of the thorny brush have sprouted leaves, and wild flowers have popped up everywhere.  It is beautiful but the plants have had several effects on the wildlife.  

First, the favorite prey of lions can find food everywhere.  There is no need to hang around watering holes as easy targets for lions.  Instead the antelopes, zebras, and giraffes walk around the Kenyan countryside eating plants that are blooming right beneath their feet (or hooves).  Even the elephants are out in fields lazily picking up flowers by the trunkful and stuffing them into their hungry mouths.  Times are good in Mpala, Kenya if you are an herbivore.

Times are also good if you are a carnivore- the dense foliage has given the lions infinite places to hide.   It is far too dangerous to search for lions in the dense brush.  Only a fool would step foot in country like this.  A lion could be just around the next acacia tree.

But our vigilance and persistence has paid off.  The first sign that we are on the right track – was literally the right track.  There in the sand on the side of the road was a lion print.  In that moment I realize that this African lion is a REALLY BIG cat. 

The pawprint of a housecat can fit in the toe print of this lion.  Steve our lion tracker, tells us that this is just a female print.  It is enough to make one gulp out loud.  How much bigger could a male lion print be?

Slowly edging our LandCruiser into the brush, we follow the prints and the direction of the trampled grass to find the owner of the print.  Then just around the corner, beneath the arch of a prickly thorn bush is a rustle o leaves….

Friday, May 22, 2015

Finding Lions

The first step in putting a collar on a lion is finding the lion.  This is easier said than done in the vast lands of Laikipai, Kenya.   Dr. Laurence Frank and his team tracker Steve take my graduate student, Caleb, and me out into the bush in search of the big cats.  It is a daily combination of thrilling wildlife safari, kidney crunching roads and eating dust. 

But the vistas of the Rift Valley where we are travelling are unlike any in the world.  From the plateaus one feels that you can literally see the edge of the earth curve into blue atmosphere on the horizon- “breath-taking” does not begin to do the view justice.  

Somewhere in this vast landscape of brush grasses, thorny acacia trees and red dirt are African lions and the prey that they eat.

The animals of the wild are adept at hiding from humans and other predators.  They do this with cryptic movements and cryptic coloration that make them difficult to see.  I quickly learn to react to fleeting movements- an ear twitch, a tail twitch or even the skin shiver to find animals.  And even animals as big as African elephants can be hard to spot due to the mud covering their skin- they are the color of the ground.   

This is the first grader level African eye test -  see how quickly you can find

the rock hyrax


the turtle


and the elephant.  

As for giraffes – well, they do their best at hiding but sometimes anatomy just gets in the way.

Find the giraffe


Now imagine being in a Land Rover bouncing on rock and water pitted roads trying to find a crouching or sleeping lion hidden in grass the same color as its tawny hide.  Somehow what seemed easy to put down on paper in our grant proposal is looking more and more impossible in the real world.

Today the lions did not show themselves to us.  

Talking to other scientists at the Mpala Research Station where we are staying I find out that there are people working here for years that have never seen a lion- ever. 

 I begin to wonder if we have flown across the world on a wild cat chase.   

Monday, May 18, 2015

Getting ready for science on big predators

We arrived in Mpala on Sunday afternoon and immediately began unpacking gear.  Our goal on this project is to deploy our new wildlife collars on male African lions.  Here I am holding a lioness collar in my right hand and a male lion collar in my left.  The first thing to notice is the SIZE of these collars!  Think about how big the neck of your pet cat is and the size of its tiny collar.  Now look at the collars in my hands!  That is the NECK SIZE of a female and male African lion- now you know why they can eat massive chunks of meat from a zebra or wildebeest.  These are really big carnivores!

The top portion of the collar has a GPS unit and a VHF transmitter so that we can track where the lions go.  It also contains a 3-D accelerometer unit that we have calibrated to tell us their behavior (i.e. resting, walking, running, pouncing and killing or eating) and how many calories they expend to do these activities.  Think of the collars as a Fitbit or iwatch for wild lions.  The bottom portion of the collar has batteries and a release device so we can retrieve the collars when the study is completed next year.  My colleagues (Drs. Chis Wilmers and Gabriel Elkaim) and I developed these highly specialized collars at the University of California Santa Cruz.  This is the first time that they are being used on African lions.  Very exciting!

Now you all should be asking yourselves the same thing- just how do you put a collar on a wild Africa lion?   

A Race Against Extinction

Hello Friends of Big Cats,
This National Science Foundation sponsored research is the dream project of many biologists- at least for me.  It was the first study I wanted to do when I entered high school and it has been 40 years in the making.  It is the culmination of decades of schooling, terrific luck, hard work, and great collaborators. 

Over the next few months I’ll take you on this very special expedition in which we explore the challenges to African lion survival in Laikipia, Kenya.  These large cryptic cats are in a race against extinction as climate change, conflicts with humans, and the struggles of wild living create a suite of difficulties for this iconic African species.  My hope is that our research team will provide conservationists with a new tool for helping the lions survive in the presence of humans, and that you will learn the value of such large carnivores living in our world.

The Adventure Begins Today!