Category Archives: Conservation

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.

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.

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)

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