Lion in Gabon may be the last of his kind…

In 2016 a camera trap caught the presence of a male lion in Gabon, in the Plateaux Batéké National Park (PBNP) in southeast Gabon – the first seen in the country for 20 years.

IImage result for lion hiddent was thought that no free-ranging lions were left in Gabon to the point that lions were listed as locally extinct in Gabon, at a regional workshop held to define the current status and conservation strategies for the lion in West and Central Africa (IUCN 2006). One notable outcome of this consensus on the presence of lions is that the species is also no longer considered by national legislation in Gabon.

One question with the Gabon animal was where had it come from? How could this individual –  a large, easily recognisable and generally visible species – have appeared in the area. Was it locally present or had it arrived from outside Gabon?

Fortunately some hair samples were collected from the vicinity when the camera trap sighting was made and these have been made available to researchers examining genetic origins of lion populations. The subsequent genetic study just recently published by Barnett et al (2018) which has revealed that indeed the animal is related to the historic population of the Batéké region of Gabon. As a long lived species, this animal has been able to survive persecution, but this single male may be the very last individual from that population.

The whole episode reminds us of a few stark realities which conservation planners, species specialist groups and legislators need to be kept aware of in their deliberations and decisions.

  1. Lions are long lived and can to some degree adapt to solitary (or non-pride) lifestyles, including nocturnal habits which enable them to evade detection for long periods
  2. One-off sightings (or other evidence such as tracks or calls) of individual animals should not be discounted even if considered unlikely
  3. The Precautionary Principle should be applied when considering declarations of extirpation, down-listing or de-categorising of species either locally or globally.
  4. Despite all our wisdom, rationality, and understanding of probability, if a species seeks to survive, adapt and find means to do so (that may not make sense to us as humans), it will.

Barbary lions survived in Morocco for over twenty years beyond when they were commonly thought extinct. They also survived in Algeria for perhaps 60 years longer than once thought. Now, nearly 100 years later, and with 21st century technology and conservation biologists and wildflife professionals working across Africa, we find lions in Gabon surviving for 20 years unnoticed. Other examples of the species’ survival undetected for more than a decade include hidden populations in Ghana where presence is still under debate (Angelici and Rossi 2017).

The real question is  – will we use this knowledge to shape our strategies and actions to save a species which has seen perhaps a 50% population decline in the past decade?

Reading:

Angelici, F.M. and Rossi, L. (2017) Further lion, Panthera leo senegalensis Meyer, 1826, sightings in Mole National Park, Ghana, and possible first serval Leptailurus serval Schreber, 1776 record after 39 years (Mammalia Felidae). Biodiversity Journal, 8 (2): 749-752

Barnett, R., Sinding, MH.S., Vieira, F.G. et al. 92018)  No longer locally extinct? Tracing the origins of a lion (Panthera leo) living in GabonConserv Genet . https://doi.org/10.1007/s10592-017-1039-2

Hedwig D, Kienast I, Bonnet M, Curran B, Courage A, Boesch C, Kühl H, King T (2017) A camera trap assessment of the forest mammal community within the transitional savanna-forest mosaic of the Batéké Plateau National Park, Gabon. Afr J Ecol (in review)

Saul H. (2016) Male lion filmed roaming in West African nation of Gabon for the first time in 20 years. The Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/male-lion-filmed-roaming-in-west-african-nation-of-gabon-for-first-time-in-20-years-10152290.html

 

 

Major predators in the modern world?…as now wolves roam across every country in mainland Europe…

If there was ever a serious consideration of reintroducing wolves into Britain, it is worth reflecting on the lessons of wolf migration in Europe.

News has come in this New Year that farmers in Belgium have been alerted to evidence that  a female wolf originally from eastern Germany that has been making a pioneering trek through the Netherlands and into the northern Flanders region.

This confirms  a return of the predator to every mainland country in Europe, turning back decades of persecution. Wolves have recently migrated into Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Denmark – the latter after a 200 year absence. even in Denmark, where there is a rather pragmatic acceptance of wolves, the wolf debate is value driven rather than about concrete problems based in reality. Their populations have abundant roe deer available as prey and few issues arise.

However our response need be not one of horror, shock or fear. The success and impact of wolf populations will be a measure of how we, as humans, react (or overreact) to the presence of these animals. In the UK relative hysteria arises when the singularly  smaller and more wary lynx escapes a zoo and spends  a few days in the local countryside.

As ever conservation is first and foremost about cultural norms and political preference. A country’s viewpoint may be as much at odds with another for the most intangible reasons. Attitudes in the UK towards predation by pet cats versus attitudes towards the same pet cats in Australia or the United States, for example.

The question for conservationist in the UK should really aim to understand before rewilding with major predators is not ‘why’ but rather “why not?”

 

Reading

Anon (2017) lynx escapes from animal park in Wales. BBC News. on line

Barkham, P. (2017) Denmark gets its first wild wolf pack in 200 years. Guardian Environment. on line

Boffey, D (2018) Pioneering wolf becomes first sighted in Belgium for a century. Guardian Environment. on line

 

Leopard and Tiger spatial use implications for conservation

Conservation of wildlife is often a question of trade-offs. In most cases, including the in conservation of large carnivores the trade-off is between human needs and big cat needs. In these cases a point of tolerance by both parties is reached, relating to economics, security, retaliatory action and translocation of dangerous animals.

However it has been noted that where tiger conservation has been successful and tiger numbers have increased, there has been a knock-on reduction in leopard presence. Leopards will generally retreat from areas where tigers dominate. This is a classic shift in niche breadth as a function of interspecific social dominance (Morse 1974). Clearly a tiger is an apex predator and will take out (and prey on) leopards.  These two big cats differ in the size of prey killed, use of vegetation types, and in activity periods (Seidensticker, 1976).

In the absence of the tiger, the leopards can exist on prey which is similar in structure and less abundant than required by tiger. In the presence of tiger, leopards have been shown to shift to areas where the tiger does not occur frequently.

Also some evidence suggests that leopards are forced into predation of small livestock (which tigers do not do) when habitats and prey bases are shared (Bhattarai & Kindlmann, 2012), which raises conflict between cats and humans once again.

This has implications in areas where leopards themselves are under threat, the amur leopard in the Russian Far East being a good example.

Dramatic footage captures a tiger and a leopard in a brutal battle to the death… just a few feet from shocked tourists.

Further information:

Bhattarai, B. P., & Kindlmann, P. (2012). Interactions between Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris) and leopard (Panthera pardus): implications for their conservation. Biodiversity and conservation, 21(8), 2075-2094.
Carter et al (2015) Impacts of people and tigers on leopard spatiotemporal activity patterns in a global biodiversity hotspot. Global Ecology and Conservation, 3 910: 149-162. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989414000833
Morse, D. H. (1974) Niche breadth as a function of social dominance. Am. Nat. 108: 818-830.
Seidensticker, J. (1976) On the ecological separation between tigers and leopards. Biotropica, 225-234.

Nicols, S. (2015) Conservation targeting tigers pushes leopards to change. Michigan State University. centre for Systems Integration and Sustainability http://csis.msu.edu/news/conservation-tigers-pushes-leopard-change

Escalation of Human-Wildlife Conflict is never the answer

This dramatic, duisturbing photograph sees local people in Bengal trying to dissuade wild elephants with firecrackers and burning balls of tar. Whilst elephants are highly destructive, dangerous, unpredictable, this type of conflict is unlikely to be productive.

An adult elephant will not be stopped, even by elephant proof fencing. As human land-use encroaches on traditional habitats and pathways of wild animals these conflict increase in frequency. Deterrents such as fencing, chilli ropes have an effect, but also the education of local people on how to respond to elephant encroachment.

A further challenge is to get officials, developers and local people to understand how to reduce the disruption of habitats by building in unsuitable areas.

An adult elephant and a calf on fire flee a crowd of people: The picture was taken by Biplab Hazra, a wildlife photographer from West Bengal.

© Biplab Hazra/Sanctuary Asia/Facebook The picture was taken by Biplab Hazra, a photographer from West Bengal.

Conflict causes escalation of consequences, for people, for wildlife or both.

Elsewhere in Assam, efforts by conservationists to give early warning to local crop producers when elephant herds are drawing near allows families and communities to remove crops from fields before the mammals encroach on the agricultural landscape. Whilst this arrangement might not be optimal, it is an example of the type of tolerance and human cooperation which reduces conflict and removes incentives of elephants to visit landscapes which would otherwise be attractive for foraging.

Other challenges occur with big cats, which can easily pass unnoticed in urban landscapes let alone villages and agricultural areas. this means living with a number of challenges discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Local people chase a leopard in Guwahati, Assam, 2009 (northeast India). The animal was tranquilized by a local wildlife official and relocated. However three people in the village had already been mauled by the big cat.

Further information these images:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthpicturegalleries/5023005/Animal-pictures-of-the-week-20-March-2009.html?image=1

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/photo-of-elephant-and-calf-fleeing-fire-throwing-mob-wins-top-prize/ar-AAuyqxH?ocid=spartanntp

Towards a global approach to lion conservation

Lions survive in 25 countries, but the habitats are highly fragmented, even in the strongholds of south eastern Africa. The ecology and breeding biology of the species means that discrete ranges are unlikely to be a long term solution to maintain numbers. This most likely involves seeking solutions where the species comes into contact with human communities and modified habitats. Biology is ‘necessary, but not sufficient‘, to inform and deliver conservation.

Other measures and resources need to be drawn upon if range-wide solutions can be developed. A recent study suggests that a range of measures is necessary to achieve the type of sustainable outcomes needed to support the species.

In addition t this, since lions themselves present threat to other endangered species such as cheetahs, wider systemic understanding of lion habitats and ecology is needed.

Reading

Anon (2017) Lion conservation requires effective international cooperation. https://phys.org/news/2017-09-lion-requires-effective-international-cooperation.html

Trouwborst, A et al. (2017) International law and lions (Panthera leo): understanding and improving the contribution of wildlife treaties to the conservation and sustainable use of an iconic carnivore, Nature Conservation 21: 83-128 (13 Sep 2017) https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.21.13690

How to win another 10 years for the Moroccan lions

The lions which are direct descendents from the captive collection of the Sultans and later Kings of Morocco are all in zoos. There is a healthy group of lions in Temara Zoo in Rabat, plus even more related individuals spread across a dozebn or so zoos across Europe, with around 100 animals in captivity overall. Ten years ago there were about 80 of these lions and many of those were beyond breeding age, or had already contributed significantly. Just around then, old and alone, the last female with genetic representation from founder animal 7 died and with her 1/12th of the genetic basis of the captive population.

Unfortunately until the studbook was developed from detailed examination of handwritten zoo records and a sweep of various databases, websites and personal contacts acrtoss European zoos the precariousness of the captive population was unknown. However since then a number of zoos have joined the programe to breed the animals and there have been successful transfers that have made the population a lot more healthier. When the studbook was devised it was hoped that a reinvigorated programme would give the zoo population another 10-15 years breathing space as a viable captive group.

However a few animals are underutilised – males needing suitable females – and some breeding pairings have been completely unsuccessful. Greater cooperation is needed between zoos to maximise the strenght of the whole population, not just the small groups held in each zoo exhibit. The first ten years since the revival of the breeding program has since passed. Concerted effort and active partnership is needed now to get inactive males and females together to develop breeding pairs.

Reading:

Black S.A. (2016) The Challenges of Exploring the Genetic Distinctiveness of the Barbary Lion and the Identification of Putative Descendants in Captivity, International Journal of Evolutionary Biology. vol. 2016, Article ID 6901892, 9 pages, 2016. doi:10.1155/2016/6901892

Black S, Yamaguchi N, Harland A, Groombridge J (2010). Maintaining the genetic health of putative Barbary lions in captivity: an analysis of Moroccan Royal Lions. Eur J Wildl Res 56: 21–31. doi: 10.1007/s10344-009-0280-5

Yamaguchi N, Haddane B. (2002). The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas Lion Project. International Zoo News 49: 465-481.

Occasional sightings suggest lions cling on in West Africa

Currently the West African populations of lions are Critically Endangered (Henschel et al., 2014) and currently occupy only 1% of their historical range. The presence of lion in Ghana is therefore very important, although it is known that many west african sub-populations cling on in single figure numbers.

A recent paper (Angelici and Rissi, 2017) suggests a recent sighting 11 years since the last confirmed lion presence in Mole National Park. If present the small number of individuals (perhaps as few as two or three) suggested by the sightings reported in the paper, might appear insignificant. Neverthless many populations in West africa are of this size, totalling perhaps less than 200 across the entire region – the ast wild representatives of the IUCN’s newly designated northern subspecies of lion Panthera leo leo (the rest are in India).

The few individuals in Mole are a sub population of a tiny population across Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger and Nigeria (Henschel et al., 2014), which itself is a tiny population of Panthera leo leo globally (probably less than 2000 animals including in captivity).

Although we rarely consider individual animals in conservation, with lions it has reached that stage. If a few individuals can be conserved in Ghana, they might provide hope for continuation across the region and for the northern sub-species Panthera leo leo as a whole.

References:

Angelicic, F.M. and Rossi, L. (2017) Further lion, Panthera leo senegalensis Meyer, 1826, sightings in Mole National Park, Ghana, and possible first serval Leptailurus serval Schreber, 1776 record after 39 years (Mammalia Felidae). Biodiversity Journal, 8 (2): 749-752

Henschel, P. et al. (2014) The lion in West Africa is Critically Endangered. PLoS ONE, 9: e83500. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083500

 

 

So what’s the big deal about a bunch of zoo lion cubs?

Five lion cubs have recently been shown to the public for the first time with great fanfare at Neuwied zoo in southwestern Germany.

The litter of cubs — three males Baz, Chaka and Sab and two females Jumina and Lin  — were born at the zoo in April 2017,  to six-year-old female Zari (previously from Hannover zoo) and the incumbent male, Schroeder (who was born in Olomouc Zoo in the Czech Republic), who is nearly ten.

So what is the big deal? The zoo presents them as barbary lions – certainly Schroeder and Zari are established on the European zoo studbook for lions descended from the King of Morocco’s collection. Around 300 animals are lsited on the studbook going back to the origninal animals taken form the King’s Palace in the late 1960s and placed in Rabat zoo.

Since there are only a few hundred lions in India and a few hundred in West and Central Africa which represent the northenr subspecies of lion, Panthera leo leo (Bertola et al, 2016; Black 2016). the north african population is no loinger present in the wild, and its most likely remnant are the 100 or so animals in european Collections and in the Mrooccan collection at Rabat. So these five new cubs may yet have an important role to play in lion conservation.

Reading:

Asian Age (2017) German zoo displays rare barbary lion cubs http://www.asianage.com/photo/life/290617/german-zoo-displays-rare-barbary-lion-cubs.html

Associated Press (2017) 5 rare barbary lion cubs go on show in a zoo in Germany

Bertola, L. D.,et al. (2016) Phylogeographic Patterns in Africa and High Resolution Delineation of Genetic Clades in the Lion (Panthera leo). Scientific Reports 6:30807. DOI: 10.1038/srep30807

Black S.A. (2016) The Challenges of Exploring the Genetic Distinctiveness of the Barbary Lion and the Identification of Putative Descendants in Captivity, International Journal of Evolutionary Biology. vol. 2016, Article ID 6901892, 9 pages, 2016. doi:10.1155/2016/6901892

Spot the lion habitat

Typical savannah landscape in southern Africa

Lions are commonly associated with the savannah grasslands of southern and southeastern africa. They live in large prides, hunting herds of antelope and other ungulates of the grasslands. However these expansive grasslands are specific habitats to sub-saharan lions of eastern and southeastern Africa Panthera leo melanochaita. These habitats are the heartlands for lions in the modern world.

Unexpected sight of lions in desert dunes, southwest Africa

Dry forest in the Gir, India

Yet lions also survive in quite doverse habitats, such as the desert dunes of Namibia.

This would have been true for the northen subspecies Panthera leo leo in areas of the middle east and North Africa. Camels were known to be tracked by lions on isolated trails in the late 1800s. Animals were reported in the desert firnges of southern Morocco up to the 1930s and were also known in isolated forests and oases in western Algeria,

For  today’s remnant population in India mostly live in the dry forests of the Gir. These forests are less productive in dry years with prey numbers falling under challnging conditions. Some lions have chosen to venture beyond the Gor,, across agirculaural land and into new but limited habotats in the coastal forests and dunes of Gujarat. Smaller populations survive in the forests of central and west Africa, in the deserts of southwestern Africa.

Northern lions also previously roamed the marshes of the middle east, the mountains of North Africa occasionally up above the snowline, down to the coastal forests of the Mediterranean.

Image result for cork forest algeria

Mediterranean cork oak forests would seem to be an unfamiliar habitat for lions.

High Atlas plateau, North Africa. The last lions in Morocco were seen at high altitudes in the 1930s and 1940s.

Reading:

Black, S. A. (2016). The Challenges and Relevance of Exploring the Genetics of North Africa’s “Barbary Lion” and the Conservation of Putative Descendants in Captivity. International Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2016. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijeb/2016/6901892/abs/

Yamaguchi, N. and B. Haddane, B. (2002) “The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas lion project,” inInternational Zoo News, vol. 49, pp. 465–481, 2002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decline of the cats – the precipice is nearer than we think

In 1970 there were nearly 40,000 tigers. In the late 1990s this was estimated to be 5,000 – 7,000. Today there are less than 4000.

The global cheetah population has declined startlingly to today’s count of just 7,100 individuals, confined to 9% of its historical distributional range (Durant et al, 2017). 60 – 70% of previous lion and cheetah habitats in West and Central African protected areas have  seen recent disappearance of both species (Brugière, Chardonnet, & Scholte, 2015).

In 2013 analyses established that the African lion has lost at least 75% of its original habitat, with fewer than 35,000 wild African lions remaining (Riggio et al (2013).Bauer et al. ( 2015 ) assessed the trend of 47 relatively well-monitored lions in Africa, and found an alarming population decline of about 38 % over 21 years (1993–2014). In 2015 the IUCN estimated that fewer than 20,000 lions remain. Worse, it has been suggested that only 6 populations should be considered as biologically viable.

Even the adaptable leopard is now disappearing from areas of its previous range (Giordano et al , 2017).

Threats to large cats include conflict with humans, reduction of habitat and decline of prey species, all of which are inter-connected. The picture is bleak.

Further reading:

Bauer, H., Packer, C., Funston, P.F., Henschel, P. & Nowell, K. 2016. Panthera leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15951A97162455.http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T15951A97162455.en.

Brugière, D., Chardonnet, B., & Scholte, P. (2015). Large-scale extinction of large carnivores (lion Panthera leo, cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and wild dog Lycaon pictus) in protected areas of West and Central Africa. Tropical Conservation Science, 8(2), 513-527.

Durant, S. M., Mitchell, N., Groom, R., Pettorelli, N., Ipavec, A., Jacobson, A. P., … & Broekhuis, F. (2017). The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(3), 528-533.

Giordano, A. J., Tumenta, P. N., & Iongh, H. H. (2017). Camera‐trapping confirms unheralded disappearance of the leopard (Panthera pardus) from Waza National Park, Cameroon. African Journal of Ecology.

Goodrich, J., Lynam, A., Miquelle, D., Wibisono, H., Kawanishi, K., Pattanavibool, A., … & Karanth, U. (2016). Panthera tigris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e. T15955A50659951.

Riggio J, Jacobson A, Dollar L, Bauer H, Becker M, et al. (2013) The size of savannah Africa: a lion’s (Panthera leo) view. Biodiversity and Conservation 22: 17–35.

Sandom, C. J., Faurby, S., Svenning, J. C., Burnham, D., Dickman, A., Hinks, A., … & Macdonald, D. (2017). Learning from the past to prepare for the future: Felids face continued threat from declining prey richness. Ecography.