The famous Lion House Pride in Gorongosa National Park (1960s). Gorongosa was once a stronghold for wildlife and today an ambitious, large-scale restoration project is underway to restore it to its former glory. (Courtesy Gorongosa National Park)
It wasn’t too long ago that Central Mozambique was considered lost territory for the big cats, a place where they would soon no longer roam wild and free. But today an effort is underway to hold the line against extinction and ensure that the African lion has its rightful place here into the foreseeable future. This thanks to a 25-year commitment to restore Gorongosa National Park and a stellar team of scientists, community educators and organizers, cinematographers, and funders—including National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative.
Before the 1977-92 war in Mozambique, Gorongosa’s lions were a famous tribe, strong in their numbers alongside the vast buffalo herds that roamed the plains. Today a few dozen of these resilient individuals rebounded (possibly more) from near extirpation, although a thorough accounting of how many and where has never been done. Impossible to effectively restore and conserve what we don’t sufficiently understand, in 2012 Projecto Leões da Gorongosa was launched and we began the important and exciting work of putting Gorongosa’s lions back on the map.
When our field-work first began we spent many-a-night on the roof of “Lion House,” famous for its stair-climbing lions who claimed this colonial-era structure as part of their dominion back in the 1960s. Lying on the southern edge of the vast floodplains of Lake Urema, it is the highest point for miles around and one can fully appreciate why lions would favor this outpost. From the roof you can see Mount Gorongosa rising over the lowlands filled with sable, waterbuck, reedbuck, oribi, and the occasional wildebeest; The mountain’s rainforest and cascades filter down the essential waters that nourish all this wildlife, including the perilously endangered population of Panthera leo.
Gorongosa is a wild place and lions here are elusive. Anyone who works with these big cats knows well that trying to find them during daylight hours as they slumber in the deep scrub and tall grass is akin to trying to find a needle in a haystack; it can be (and is) done, but the night hours when they are most active is the better time to be out working the lion shift. So we became nocturnal creatures ourselves and Lion House became our night-refuge, a mission control center of sorts, where we could safely convene in the dark hours to hear out the location of local prides (conveniently not having to watch our backs if we inadvertently snoozed off). Any roar would send us swinging down the stairs in the dead of night, into our vehicle and off to try identify who was out patrolling the dirt roads. It took many weeks of preparation and learning as the lions slowly revealed themselves, then just outright sweat and definitely tears (on my part for sure) before we found ourselves in the right place at the right time to collar our first lion. We made that crucial leap early this year when our team satellite-collared our 1st male—who has since led us on to more lions, being the highly social creature that he is.
Satellite monitoring of our lions has been crucial in these early stages of our work. The real-time capabilities of this technology means we can rapidly locate lions anytime of the day and document their social interactions (meaning we find more lions, and faster too), diet (understand what lions in a recovering ecosystem subsist on), sources of any mortality (human or otherwise), and their response to the extreme flooding and environmental change that occurs in the Park each year.
Most importantly, as we succeed in collaring prides in more remote areas we’ll be able to understand how lions interact with the boundaries of the Park and Gorongosa’s human communities and aide the Park in securing expanded protected areas for lions. It’s also essential for anti-poaching as we are able to document core areas for strategic de-snaring operations and if a collared lion’s movements seems unusual—or cease to move for an extended period possibly due to a poacher’s snare—we can deploy a rapid-response team and help save a precious life.
Now with each additional lion identified, tracked and those collared we gain more insight into the ecology of the Park’s largest carnivore while also helping secure their conservation. A thorough accounting of how many lions and where is now solidly underway in this Park for the first time ever. And what we learn from this recovering population has the potential to inform the science of wild lion recovery in savannah ecosystems across southern Africa; a need that sadly only continues to grow as lion populations across the continent face ever greater challenges.
Stay tuned for Projecto Leões‘s upcoming blog with co-author Domingos Muala (local historian) highlighting the social histories of Gorongosa’s lion-people relationships and how we’ll work with National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative to foster co-existence with these big cats. The Big Cat Initiative will also support the training of Mozambique’s first women to work directly on lion research and conservation – updates on this exciting development to come soon!