Canine Distemper in Gir lions highlights restricutions of population size and range

See the source imageFrom September 12 and October 2 2018, a total of 23 lions have died in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park due to an outbreak of Canine Distemper, carried by domestic dogs, but known to have previously caused a mass wipeout of lions in East Africa’s Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem.

Asiatic lion expert Ravi Chellum summed up the situation: “If you allow the entire population of a species to be concentrated in one place without any populations in other areas as a safeguard to mitigate risk, this kind of scenario is bound to happen.”

Whilst issues with a small founder population are real, in the case of Asiatic lions which dwindled to about 20 animals in the 1930s, the issue is unavoidable. Genetic variation is very low among Asiatic lions with animals to some degree related to any other since they all descended, and this lack of genetic variation makes them vulnerable to the effects of disease.

Chellum has long advocate that these lions should be housed in different geographical areas so that they can develop new adaptation to their geography which can then reflect in their genetic structure. Separated sub-populations also act as a potential buffer to the spread of disease. Despite significant planning and identification of potential areas outside Gujarat, no progress has been achieved.

In June, the government announced that 109 sq km of area in Amreli and Bhavnagar districts of Gujarat would be reserved as a new sanctuary for lions. State politics has dogged plans for relocation of a small sub-population of these animals. Perhaps now is a serious prompt for a rethink on this strategy. India’s lions are the last large wild group of lions of the newly designated subspecies (recommend to the IUCN in 2016), Panthera leo leo, the northern group which ranged from West Africa and northern Africa across the Middle East into South Asia.

No one seriously challenges the cultural and biological importance of lions in Indian ecosystems, so some effort is needed to enable their sustainable conservation as a nationally and regionally important species.

Reading:

Anon (2018) Gujarat lion deaths: What killed 11 big cats? BBC News 25th September 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-45636746

Barnett, R. et al. (2014) Revealing the maternal demographic history of Panthera leo using ancient DNA and a spatially explicit genealogical analysis. BMC Evolutionary Biology 14: 70; doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-14-70

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

Chellam, R., Joshua, J., Williams, C.A. & Johnsingh, A.J.T. (1995) Survey of Potential Sites for Reintroduction of Asiatic Lions. Unpublished Report, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, India.

DownToEarth (2018) Those who have endangered the Asiatic Lion’s future, have to be held accountable. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/-those-who-have-endangered-the-asiatic-lion-s-future-have-to-be-held-accountable–61789

Johnsingh, A.J.T. , Goyal, S.P.  and Qureshi, Q. (2007) Preparations for the reintroduction of Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica into Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh, India. Oryx , 41(1), 93–96.

Unsightly realities from the murk of taxidermy

The taxidermy diorama ‘Arab Courier’ is displayed prominently in Pittsburgh Museum and is considered one of the best examples of preserved barbary lions, having two animals in the exhibit in the moments of an attack on a man riding an Arabian camel. Whether you like taxidermy or not, this is a definitive example of the 19th century art form which was awarded a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris on its first presentation by Jules Verreaux to the public in 1867.

The taxidermy diorama was shipped to New York City two years later obtained by the American Museum of Natural History, and acquired in 1899, by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, its current home.

The piece is somewhat controversial, being made by the notorious Verreaux brothers. The Verreaux studio had certainly exhibited unacceptable specimens during their career, repellent even to less-enlightened Victorian Society, most notoriously including the body of a human tribesman in one exhibit.  At one time the Arab Courier exhibit itself was suspected of incorporating a real human body (the camel rider), alongside more accepted animal parts associated with the other subjects. Even to this day the museum was confident that the teeth inserted in the man’s head, and visible in the shocked expression represented on his face, were real.

The exhibit, has been stored in a standard glass case, but in 2017 was removed for restoration work to address deterioration in the materials. The opportunity was taken to run a CT scan of the subjects. To the museum’s surprise, the camel and the two lions included actual bones within the sub-frame of the bodies around which the taxidermy skins had been stitched.

Less welcome for the museum curators was the discovery that the head of the courier himself was in fact, macabrely, a human skull.

And what of the barbary lions? The museum has been approached in the past for skin samples form these taxidermy animals. On this occasion the museum was suitably encouraged to offer samples for DNA analysis and the restoration activity gave first access to the skins on this famous exhibit. Could these actually be two barbary lions?

 

Ross, D. (2017) 150-year-old Diorama Surprises Scientists With Human Remains. National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/taxidermy-carnegie-museum-skull/

 

 

Stop and think – what about lions today?

There are perhaps as few as 20,000 lions left in the wild. When I first started studying lions just over a decade ago we thought there were 40,000. Will this figure halve again over the coming 10 years? For a sobering comparison, when I was a child there were 40,000 tigers in the wild; now only around 4,000. The similarity in the lion figures is startling. Decline is real and fearsome.

A comprehensive set of studies of lion genetics has recommended the IUCN to consider the lion family tree as two subspecies. One is the North/West /Central subspecies, Panthera leo leo (which includes lions in West and Central Africa and India, and the previous, now extinct populations in the Middle East, and of course the extinct Barbary lion of North Africa). The second is Panthera leo melanochaita from South and East Africa (i.e. about 90% the world’s population). All remaining ‘northern’ lion populations are tiny and very vulnerable. The ‘southern’ populations are much larger but many animals are cut off from each other in fenced reserves or fragmented landscapes.

Zoos may have a significant part to play in managing, sustaining and recovering the ‘northern’ subspecies Panthera leo leo. There are around 100 Asiatic (Indian) lions in captivity, but I do not know of a single captive lion from West or Central Africa in any zoo, even in their home countries on the African continent. There are a further 80 captive lions which may be related to the extinct North African Barbary lion. maybe the captive Addis Ababa lions in Ethiopia are linked I some way to this group.

Addis Ababa lion

A lion in Addis Ababa Zoo, Ethiopia

Lions are quite long-lived and can persist undetected for decades. This happened in North Africa, where lions had become almost mythical beasts by the late 1890s, but actually survived in northern Algeria into the late 1950s at a time when Gerry Durrell was founding the zoo in Jersey. I often wonder what Durrell might have done had he known that Barbary lions were still out there in the wild… However, this is not a purely historical issue since in 2016 a lion was caught unexpectedly on a camera trap in Gabon, and later confirmed by DNA evidence to be a survivor of a population thought extinct for 20 years – one of the important Central African relic populations of the ‘northern’ lions Panthera leo leo.

Lions in the Mountains

As lions in North Africa became increasingly persecuted, populations sin the lowlands and coastal forests were eliminated and the population retreated to remoter areas to avoid human contact. Although in parts of Morocco and Algeria lions were not be seen in previously commonly inhabited areas for many decades, the animals were still observed unexpectedly in remoter, less well-explored areas years later.

Lion behaviour in the mountains would be more solitary, somewhat like the Siberian Tiger (A Harland pers.comm) than communal (as per lions in East Africa). However, even under these circumstances  lions tend towards social behaviour (Black et al. 2013), so a pair of animals would more likely stay together than disperse. It also seems, from hunting accounts, that in mountainous areas they would use ‘lairs’ usually caves as a base, so that is quite a peculiarity related to the landscape.

Although snow can persist on the highest peaks, the snowfall in the Atlas Mountains tends to be limited to the January February period and the strength of the African sun means that in general although snow cover will occur, the evaporation of a snowfall is quite fast compared to equivalent altitudes in Europe or North America.

Lions were known to range up to 3500m and footprints were used by hunters to track animals in the snow. If an animal was being pursued it would keep to remoter areas and if that meant the snowline it would stay there (see my point about caves below)and would be less likely to drop into lowlands if there was human activity unless there was prey (e.g. livestock). The animals would use mountain passes to track prey and keep to areas clear of human presence. So a lion in the snow would be somewhat transient – due  to both the passing nature of snowy conditions in the lower altitudes and the lesser need for the lions themselves to be at higher altitudes other than for transit.

Due to lower density of prey in the North African ecosystem (compared to African savannah or open forest) lions tended to be single, in pairs, breeding pairs or breeding pair with juveniles, rather than the expansive prides of southern Africa (Asiatic lions in India have smaller prides but not as small as North African lions). Single animals would often range on their own, certainly single males (of which at least one photograph exists), but there are also records of single females being shot in high mountain passes. The range of a lion in North Africa would have been quite extensive – we see this today in desert dwelling lions in Namibia for example. In northern forests of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria in the 19th century some ranges were predictable to the point that locals would know a path that a lion took – and could tell hunters (N Yamaguchi pers comm). However in the Atlas mountains and southern Morocco, certainly in the 20th century, this was much less predictable as the distances animals travelled was far greater.

Reading:

Black SA, Fellous A, Yamaguchi N, Roberts DL. (2013) Examining the extinction of the Barbary lion and its implications for felid conservation. PLoS ONE 8(4):e60174

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

Book review: “When the last lion roars”

This month sees publication of a historical review by Sara Evans, considering the lion in history, society and culture and, to some extent in our minds as human beings.

Sara has made sure that the narrative is dotted with up to date science and comment on the status of lions globally. It makes an interesting start point for further study by a student, without being inaccessible. The insights of conservation professionals and scientists are revealing and the author’s own experiences in the  wild places brigs a personal touch to the story.

The book is dotted with maps and tables and has a thorough set of colour plates.

When the Last lion Roars is a gentle but detailed read, allowing wildlife enthusiasts to be introduced or reminded  of facts around our often considered most familiar of wild animals.

I can imagine that brining the many and varied experiences, research and personal contacts has made the creation of this book a labour of love for the author. But the effort made is timely. If we do not take the message seriously and engage with how on earth we live and accommodate magnificent, dangerous predators like lions, soon enough there will be none to speak of and this book will be just a compelling lesson in history.

Reading

Evans, S. (2018) When the last lion roars: the rise and fall of the king of beasts. Bloomsbury Wildlife, London. (link)

Food for lions: diet in the Atlas mountains

Wild boar were certainly a main prey species for lions in the Atlas Mountains, but also red deer (Barbary deer) and barbary sheep, plus oryx, addax and small gazelles(Cuvier’s gazelle, Dorcas gazelle, Dama gazelle).

As human inhabitants became more numerous the temptation for predating livestock grew.  Lions were a threat to the mixed flocks (sheep and goats) which were kept in mountainous areas by pastoralists. Flocks would not be left overnight  near wooded areas or places known to be inhabited by predators, and would be moved closer to villages or to open ground at least.

Flocks up in the higher ground that would stay out but if the herder was wary they would put up rough stockades of thorn bushes as protection from leopards, jackals and hyenas. This appears likely because the same type of temporary construction was used by local guides taking people travelling through the mountains if the had to stay overnight in a remote areas in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Cattle were also vulnerable and many accounts mention their demise at the jaws of lions. Additionally on the domestic front were pack animals, the camels and mules used by travellers and pastoralists.

It would not be unusual for a rough stone shed or shelter to be made near regular pastures (especially in cattle pastures) for farmers to stay in overnight – more common in lowlands hills though. If a flock had been attacked previously, the farmer would stay in the hope the visiting predator would venture in again and could be shot. There are certainly accounts of this ‘stake out’ approach in Tunisia and Algeria in the 1800s.

Reading:

Black, SA (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 vol 2-16, Article ID 6901892 9 pages https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6901892.

Black SA, Fellous A, Yamaguchi N, Roberts DL. (2013) Examining the extinction of the Barbary lion and its implications for felid conservation. PLoS ONE 8(4):e60174

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

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