Conservation programme saves lions, wild dogs

ZCP and DNPW researchers Thandiwe Mweetwa (right), Henry Mwape (left) and Reuben Kabungo observe the famous Luangwa lions Ginger and Garlic as part of the collaborative long-term carnivore conservation work. PICTURE: ED SELFE

LARGE carnivores are declining worldwide due to a combination of human factors, including habitat loss, poaching leading to prey depletion and snaring by-catch of carnivores and

Fortunately, Zambia is one of the last remaining strongholds for large African carnivores but is also under pressure and there is not a lot of information on large carnivores given they are hard to study.
The Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP) says keeping accurate and current information on carnivore populations being conserved is fundamental.
“Equally important are conservation actions to address the ever-changing array of threats and mitigate their impacts, and most important is to ensure sustainability of the work by making sure current and aspiring Zambian conservationists are provided the opportunities to get the training, education and employment to lead in all aspects of this effort,” ZCP chief executive officer and programme manager, Matthew Becker, says.
The history of the ZCP stems from work initiated on African wild dogs in Lower Zambezi National Park beginning in 1999 as the non-profit organisation African Wild Dog Conservation (AWDC), before expanding its activities into the Luangwa Valley in 2005.
Dr Becker says in 2009, the ZCP was granted permission by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) to expand into intensive studies on multiple large carnivore species and their prey.
“In 2010 we officially became the Zambian Carnivore Programme, implementing multi-species projects in Liuwa and Greater Kafue in 2010 and 2011 respectively, and we now work in collaboration with DNPW across Zambia in most of the country’s key ecosystems for large carnivores and their prey,” Dr Becker explains.
He said working in close collaboration with the DNPW has been really important in the development of this work for both ZCP and the department.
“At present we now work on all large carnivore species in Zambia in the majority of the country’s stronghold populations, and in collaboration with DNPW, we help provide some of the only data on carnivore populations, their habitat, prey, and threats,” Dr Becker says.
He adds that these data help inform, guide and evaluate management and conservation efforts.
“And we have had good results; in our Luangwa study area, for example, wild dogs and lion populations are at recent highs. Perhaps the biggest success of this programme, though, is the number of Zambian conservationists that have been engaged in and currently lead carnivore conservation efforts in the country,” Dr Becker says.
He says prior to ZCP’s collaborative work, there were few large carnivore specialists in the country and have helped train several dozen, many of whom are in the DNPW, others with ZCP and other non-profit organisations.
The ZCP has had three Zambians obtain international Masters and PhD degrees in the United States with it and have two more pending.
Some of its team members are internationally recognised for their work, perhaps best embodied by Thandiwe Mweetwa, who in 2016 was granted the prestigious National Geographic Emerging Explorer Award for her work with Luangwa lions and community conservation. She gave an internationally broadcast talk in Washington, DC.
“There is a groundswell of interest in conservation among young Zambians, and that is in no small part due to the outstanding work of ZCP’s Zambian conservationists,” Dr Becker says.
Although Dr Becker is a wildlife ecologist (whose PhD is in studying large carnivores), he assists ZCP’s vets and DNPW vet with de-snaring and treating animals.
“It is a very gratifying feeling to assist in saving an animal’s life, particularly as you follow that animal in the years to come and watch it raise more young, perhaps create new packs or prides, and know that this would never have been possible without our collaborative efforts. It’s a very good feeling,” he says.
Dr Becker’s best experience has been assisting in training and providing opportunities to all the talented, hard-working and ambitious conservationists to help Zambians reach their potential.
“One of my mentors told me the biggest impact one ever can have is who you help train and enable to do the work long after you are gone. I never fully appreciated what that meant before getting engaged in this work, and seeing people take off and reach their potential as conservationists has been really rewarding,” he enthuses.
His worst experience was trying to de-snare a wild dog and driving into a huge patch of buffalo beans that fell all over his head and down his clothes.
“Anyone familiar with these horribly itchy plants can sympathise,” he says.
In general, ZCP and DNWP only treat human-caused injuries like snaring or poisoning and not interfere with natural injuries.
As regards the human-wild life conflict, there aren’t too many diseases animals pass to humans versus to livestock and vice versa.
“However, rabies is always a concern with large carnivores, but it typically originates in domestic dog populations. So to protect people, domestic dogs and wild carnivores, we have collaborative vaccination programmes for domestic dogs to minimise disease risk,” Dr Becker says.
For Henry Mwape, his field-based conservation work means long hard hours in the bush and their teams spend over 3,000 person days a year across the country doing research, monitoring and conservation work.
Dr Becker says this is typically done from the ground in Land Rovers and they follow the carnivore groups with the aid of radio-telemetry (usually one or more animals has a radio collar in the group to enable them to find them across the thousands of square kilometres they range).
“We collect all sorts of data on these species and the impacts of the various threats and if an animal is snared we utilise our wildlife vets and DNPW vets to dart, treat and remove the snares. We also spend a lot of time training new recruits into the carnivore conservation efforts, as there’s a lot to learn and most of it is new for everyone–from learning the behaviour and identifications of lions to knowing how to drive a 4×4 vehicle and patch a tyre,” he says.
Mr Mwape says he wakes up around 04:00 hours daily, gets the food, field equipment, sleeping bags and packs everything in an open Land Rover.
Accompanied by a department game scout, he heads into the field looking for lions, wild dogs, hyenas and leopards; the focal study species in South Luangwa.
Locating these animals without some kind of help is very difficult, so Mr Mwape depends upon some collared animals in the group of carnivores he is looking for. For example, ZCP follows 18 prides of lions in its study site in South Luangwa and each pride has one animal fitted with a VHF collar. It is very easy to get the location of a particular group of carnivores once he is within a radius of about 2km from the collared animal. He also relies upon the tips from the safari guides who are always in the park with quest for information on carnivore sighting.
Once carnivores are located, Mr Mwape accounts for every individual in a group; he identifies individual lions using whisker spots and wild dogs using colour patterns on their body.
Hyenas and leopards are identified using their spot patterns on their bodies. If one of the animals is missing, Mr Mwape would know which one it is, as every animal is given unique numbers.
If there is a new animal or recently born cub not in ZCP’s ID kit, he takes note of that and ensures that a number is assigned and its age estimated.
Collectively these data provide critical information on population dynamics, survival, reproduction and threats to these species.
Apart from identifying and accounting for these animals, Henry makes sure all the animals in a pride or pack are free from snares.
“If one is snared we call for a wildlife vet to come and immobilise the animal and remove the wire,” Mr Mwape says.


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