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The First Collared Lion in Samburu

  • 03/07/09
  • Paul

I’m looking for lions. We haven’t found them, or much at all, in this drought that has left Buffalo Springs and Samburu National Reserves parched and dusty. But we need to find them soon.

I got a call from Shivani Bhalla – the Kenyan PhD candidate studying the declining lion population in this region and working with local Samburu communities to mitigate human-lion conflict – and she told me that she was arranging a small team to assist her put her first radio/GPS collars on lions to better track their movements between the reserves and the surrounding community areas.

This would be the first officially collared lion in Samburu.  I figured this would be a great opportunity to highlight an AWF Charlotte Fellow in action as well as to bring attention to the serious trouble lions are in, so I drove up to Samburu to document the collaring.

To fit a research collar on a lion, you need to anesthetize it. To do that, Shivani booked the time of Dr. Stephen Chege, a wildlife vet with the Kenya Wildlife Service. You might remember him from the incident of the zebra killing the cheetah.

Chege is one of these characters you look at with a tinge of envy. His week, an average one, looked like this: he had to go treat a wounded Grevy’s zebra on Kalama Conservancy one day, then come do the lion collaring, then dash off to inspect an ill white rhino on Ol Pejeta. You know the reality of his job is not as glamorous as it seems, but you can’t help think “when I grow up I want to be like Chege.”

[caption id="attachment_491" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Wildlife vet, Dr. Stephen Chege"]Wildlife vet, Dr. Stephen Chege[/caption]

Before Chege arrives in a couple days, Shivani needs to locate her target lions. She’s a bit on edge since she has a very small window in which to find the lions, get the vet to these lions, and coordinate the other park rangers, wardens, and guys from Save The Elephants who have offered to help with the operation. Unfortunately, the lions aren’t aware of their upcoming appointment with the doctor, so they’re not lying around waiting for us.

We left camp before sunrise in two vehicles to find the lions. We drove deep into the reserves, along with Shivani’s team of Samburu warriors to track the lions.

Soon we found these little guys. Just as the warm light was coming up, we spotted three little brown forms rushing from the road’s edge into the bushes. We cut the engine and waited and eventually the playful cubs began their antics again, tumbling, chasing and swatting at each other.

[caption id="attachment_492" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="We didn't find our lions, but we found Nabo's cubs enjoying the sunrise."]We didn't find the target lions, but we found Nabo's cubs enjoying the sunrise.[/caption]

These were Nabo’s cubs that we spotted on my last trip here in July. Since these were important cubs – the first to be born in the reserve in nearly three years – it was great to see them now 9 months old, healthy and bigger. Their mother must have been out hunting.

[caption id="attachment_494" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="A single sighting like this cub is why I love my job."]nabo-cub3[/caption]

Eight hours later, the two vehicles were still driving around, without a sign of the adult lions. While Lekuraiyo, the Samburu tracker, studied the dirt for paw prints, I kept an anxious eye and ear on my car.

Getting here wasn’t easy. AWF has been hit hard by the global financial crisis, so I wanted to keep my trip costs to a minimum and decided to drive myself in “The Tractor,” my old, rickety Land Cruiser. Halfway between Nairobi and Samburu, there was a violent lurch and clang, and I pulled over to find my drive shaft dragging on the ground. I don’t know squat about auto-mechanics, but I knew that couldn’t be good.

I was on the outskirts of a small town, Isiolo, and I was able to call Philip Lenaiyasa from AWF’s Samburu Heartland team, who quickly put me in touch with a friend of his in Isiolo with a backyard garage.

I’m always impressed with Africa’s networks. There I was, stranded on the side of the road in the middle of hot Kenya, wondering how much drinking water I have in my car, and soon enough I had about four people sending help – not to mention the people passing by who asked if I needed a hand.

Four hours later, with a new something called a flench, I was pulling The Tractor into Shivani’s camp.

[caption id="attachment_493" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="One of Nabo's three cubs, posing on a fallen tree."]One of Nabo's three cubs, posing on a fallen tree.[/caption]

About the Author

Paul began with AWF based in Nairobi for a year, before moving to Washington DC. Paul has worked at the Madrid Aquarium and at The Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands outside San Francisco. He was born in New Zealand but grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Paul received his B.S. in Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. He is a member of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leadership initiative and is working on a conservation campaign to combat the illegal trade of Asian pangolins. Paul enjoys photography, travel, hikes in the woods, music, and nyama choma.

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AWF Blogs bring you to the critical landscapes we work in, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.