NORTHERN TANZANIA LION EXPEDITION 2023
In February 2023, two of our trustees James and Pete went to spend a week in Tanzania to visit four different protected areas close to the border with Kenya. While visiting here we would have the opportunity to spend time with our conservation partner KopeLion and to meet some of the team that we have been communicating with for so long.
KopeLion are based in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), surrounding the famous Ngorongoro Crater. The crater itself is 102 square miles in size and is one of a few areas within the NCA where people are not allowed to live. The NCA interlinks the crater to the main Serengeti ecosystem and is vital to the connectivity of wildlife between these places. For more information about Kope Lion please look at this link on our website.
Because of the development of communities over the years the lion population in the crater has been severely cut off from the main lion population for decades. Because of this inbreeding has been a huge issue to the crater population, compared to the vastness of space and lion numbers in the neighbouring Serengeti. The population also went through a huge disease epidemic in 1962 when the population dropped from 100 to 12 due to an outbreak of stable flies and between 1994 and 2001 the population has suffered with Canine Distemper Virus with numbers being knocked back several times. (BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Disease bouts knock crater lions). The work that Kope Lion do aims to work with the Maasai who live in the NCA to promote coexistence between them and the lions, to reduce retaliatory and traditional lion killings now that lion numbers have been declining alarmingly in recent years. The aim is to create a corridor of tolerance for the lions between the crater and the Serengeti. This involves working on a community level to increase mitigation efforts to reduce conflict as well as researching the lion population that lives in the NCA themselves. Not only does this help the lion population but it is also benefits the local people by reducing their losses. Ingela Jansson, founder of Kope Lion has researched the lions in this area for many years and her knowledge, the opportunity to meet and talk to her was something we will never forget.
With the help of friend of the charity, Bethan Peacock we have created a video below to show the highlights of our trip, the lions and other animals that we have seen and the time that we spent with the team at Kope Lion.
What did we learn?
Effective long term conservation requires patience. There is no one scenario that can solve the problems presented to the Maasai community and to the lions themselves. Conservation in a multi-use area like this is incredibly complicated and there has to be a balance and a compromise to help both sides. The team at Kope Lion have to work through a huge array of different issues from political to personal and a huge number of different emotions as well. The people that live and work in the NCA have a huge respect for the wildlife that they live around but their families and their livelihoods will always mean the most and this is on the forefront of the mind of the team. We were able to talk to Sally Capper, Head of Strategy and Development and Ololotu Munka, Programmes Coordinator about the work that goes on behind the scenes and the huge amount of planning involved.
Working in amongst all of this is Roimen Lelya, Lion Monitoring and Conflict Officer who we spent the day with. His mission was to immerse us into their work and the importance of coexistence. The animals helped him greatly as our first animal sighting was a trio of zebra grazing happily amongst the herds of cattle grazed by the indigenous Maasai. During the day we would visit four of their Ilchokuti. Ilchokuti means ‘guardian’ and Kope Lion employs 28, they are all local Maasai living in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area working to do anything to prevent conflicts from happening this includes warning local herders within their area about the presence of lions and treating wounded livestock.
We met Masanja first who showed us his telemetry receiver and Roimen explained how they use it. The GPS collars give them accurate locations of the lions plotted on a map and the receiver enables the people on the ground to pinpoint the lions exact location within that area. The receiver will beep when pointing in the right direction and get louder the closer you get, Masanja can be seen below showing us how it works. We then met Ngaayai who showed us his boma that he has reinforced to protect his cattle and goats against lions and leopards. It was a 1km walk up and down to his homestead and in high altitude it was quite the trek!
Next up we met Lazaro who had been treating a cow wounded by a lion over the last few days. We saw the cow and the treatment being provided by Roimen. A great experience showing us first-hand the problems the team have to deal with on a daily basis. Lastly we met Rumas whose area was once resided in by Laipangwa, our first sponsored collared lion who passed away as a result of likely conflict with other lions in July 2022. More information on Laipangwa can be found here. It was great to meet Rumas and to tread through the slopes of the crater with Roimen and Ololotu where Laipangwa had lived. It was at this point that we were presented with Maasai shukas by the team which we were told was a sign of affection and gratitude. Throughout the whole day we were reminded of the challenges that the team and the people face in this landscape, a multi-use area for people and wildlife is always going to present problems when those species include lions and leopards but the team work hard to promote coexistence which they believe is possible, and we can see why.
We learnt so much from Roimen about Maasai values and the way that he and his people respect the wildlife that they live amongst and how much their cattle mean to them. Roimen talked to us in great detail about his past and that he had been a previous lion killer, like many of the ilchokuti, his fascination and respect for lions and his interest in the work of Kope Lion had caused him to become involved with the project and now he works to promote coexistence between the lions and his community.
Life for a lion can be hard, no matter where you are. The lions in the NCA are very wary of people, during the day they will spend most of their time in the hills, out of the way from people, hiding in the bush. The lions in the Serengeti and the other national parks we visited such as Tarangire and the Serengeti were confident around vehicles and made no special effort to hide away and we were very fortunate in having plenty of lion sightings throughout our time on safari in these places. In these areas they have a different relationship with people but life is still tough. Food can still be scarce in certain times of year and the sizes of prides can also dictate how easy life can be.
In the Ndutu region of the NCA just south of the Serengeti, the wildebeest migration had arrived. This in turn gave a healthy food supply to the local lion prides. One of the prides we saw, seen in the picture left, the big marsh pride were resting with full bellies, clearly enjoying the time of year. Elsewhere in the Serengeti though we saw one pride of five lionesses with twelve cubs to feed, all of the lionesses looked particularly thin, clearly it had been hard to find enough food to go round. Thankfully they had just found a hippo carcass, something that should definitely help keep them going for a few days. As always we saw a huge variety of different group sizes and demographics we saw several large prides of females with lots of cubs and several juveniles, clearly starting to spend more time away from the pride. These included young males and groups of mixed genders, approximately two years old.
This level of independence was great to see and a huge insight in to just how flexible and changeable lion society is and why they require so much space. Unlike the males and younger lions that are more transient and can move out of territories to find food if they need to, the prides of lionesses are territory bound. Pride territories may have some overlap but lionesses will not take kindly to intruders, therefore they are the ones that suffer more so during times of prey scarcity. This is why the prides in the most successful areas tend to grow at a larger rate, of course the success of a territory can be very changeable influenced by many different factors. The most interesting sighting of the trip was seen in the Serengeti. Firstly, we saw two very large males, the largest that we had seen on the trip so far, following a group of lionesses and cubs to the shade under a tree by the roadside. Sat with these females was a younger male that we estimated to be at around two years old. The males seemed unphased by his presence and we did not know whether he was part of a coalition with the males, which would be unusual but not impossible or a hanger on of their offspring who was still based with the lionesses and cubs. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting sighting, adding a different dynamic to what we had seen so far, a picture can be seen left.
Despite the hardships, lions are resilient and adaptive. One of the things that we took from the trip and that surprised us with the sheer variety of different habitats that the lions lived in around here all in quite a close distance to one another. In the Serengeti are the famous vast open plains are a huge contrast to the mountains and high altitude in the Ngorongoro and the lush jungles seen in parts of Lake Manyara National Park. This park is famous for its tree climbing lions, sadly we didn't see any but we were struck by the lush and dense vegetation both here and in Tarangire National Park but the level of cover and height of the trees around here was something you would expect to find gorillas in! Yet the lions thrive here and there is a healthy population of them. Despite the numbers they are hard to find due to the dense vegetation and being unable to drive off road the view into the park can be restrictive.
We had the most amazing time in Tanzania visiting the Serengeti, Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks as well as meeting the Kope Lion team in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We would like to put a special mention here and acknowledge our hosts Sally Capper and Damian Bell, Ingela Jansson, Ololotu Munka, Roimen Lelya and all of the Ilchokuti who took time out of their day to meet us. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting everyone and just being able to talk to them about their work, experiences and lions! We are already in the planning stages of planning more support for Kope Lion and we look forward to seeing this through in the near future! Asante Sana Kope Lion!