There is no doubt that lions are in trouble across their range in Africa, with studies estimating a drop in numbers from over 100,000 to possibly as low as 20,000 over the last 50 years. Due to its size and relatively low human population density, Zambia is a potential stronghold for the species, and the country’s iconic Kafue National Park (KNP) is likely to be of vital strategic importance to the future of the species in the country.
Currently, however, very little is known about the size or status of the lion population in the KNP. The Kafue Lion Project (KLP) has therefore been established in order to determine the current status of the species in the park, as well as the conservation threats facing lions in the greater Kafue system.
The KLP came about as a result of discussions between Wilderness Safaris, Panthera (a US-based NGO dedicated to wild cat conservation) and South Africa’s University of Cape Town (UCT). These three organisations, with additional support from the Wilderness Safaris Trust, approached the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) in early 2010 with a proposal to establish a new project in line with ZAWA’s Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for the African Lion in Zambia. The proposal was accepted by ZAWA, and the KLP officially began fieldwork on 1 July 2010.
The first phase of the project is aimed at generating baseline information on the status of the KNP’s lion population. Various techniques are being used for this purpose, including call-up surveys, spoor count surveys and prey abundance counts. The sheer scale of the park, and the lack of road access make the completion of these surveys particularly challenging for the research team!
Once the initial surveys have been completed, the project will move on to investigate whether lion numbers in the park are stable, increasing or decreasing. Three core study areas, one in the Busanga Plains, one in the Lufupa Camp area, and one in a Game Management Area (GMA) adjacent to the KNP will be selected for this purpose. In these areas the researchers will deploy GPS and VHF collars on selected individual lions to enable intensive monitoring of a number of key prides and male coalitions.
Over time this will enable the team to determine whether lion numbers in the KNP are being limited by natural or anthropogenic factors. A major natural factor to consider will be the annual inundation of much of the KNP by the summer rains, while poaching and fires in the KNP, as well as trophy hunting in the adjacent GMA’s will be among the anthropogenic causes of mortality investigated.
The overall objective of the project is to generate sufficient data to enable the KLP partners, along with ZAWA, to collaborate on producing a plan to ensure the long-term sustainable management of lions in the greater KNP system. With other lion populations in Zambia likely to face similar challenges to those in KNP, this plan will be a valuable contribution to the design of a countrywide Lion Management Strategy.
Lastly, as the KNP forms a major part of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, the Kafue Lion Project will make a significant contribution to ensuring the continued existence of this key species across a vast tract of prime African conservation land.