Lions, eradicated from Lake Mburo National Park in southwestern Uganda some 20 years ago, may be returning.
About half a dozen sightings have been made in recent years, reports Mark Infield, AWF's technical adviser to the Uganda Wildlife Authority for community conservation.
The Lake Mburo area was once known as a prime habitat for predators such as leopards and lions (including man eaters), which fed on the large populations of prey. But as the region, with its open plains and acacia grasslands, attracted more cattle ranchers and herders, friction between lions and people increased.
The lions were most likely wiped out by hunters and by cattle owners who poisoned them for killing livestock, Infield says. Leopards and other predators like hyenas were reduced in numbers but not eradicated. Adept at living near humans, leopards "go underground," Infield points out, remaining silent and hidden. "They're known, for example, to exist in good numbers in the suburbs of Nairobi."
Lions are particularly vulnerable to eradication, adds AWF's director of African operations Mark R. Stanley Price, because they are easy to detect and easy to shoot or poison. Powerful, high-profile carnivores, lions are capable of taking out large numbers of livestock, making them more likely targets for retaliation than other predators.
The lions recently spotted around Lake Mburo could be fugitives from Akagera National Park, some 65 miles away in Rwanda. Killing of wildlife has been reported in Akagera since pastoralists and soldiers began entering the park during Rwanda's civil conflict in the mid-1990s.
The lions, Infield says, were probably looking for a quiet area and stopped traveling when they reached Lake Mburo. Since 1983, when 250 square miles of the Lake Mburo region was designated as a protected area, human use of the park (reduced in size 10 years ago to 100 square miles) has dropped significantly. That, combined with its high prey populations, may make it a conducive home for lions.
Nonetheless, sightings have been few and far between. The lions are reported to be extremely shy and quiet--possibly a retained response from the dangers of Akagera-and are likely to be lying low in Lake Mburo.
A key to conserving lion populations is protecting them in large, intact wilderness areas where they can breed without interruption. Carnivore communities are easily disrupted, and lions are usually the first to disappear.
"If areas can be kept lion-friendly," Stanley Price says, "then many other species will also thrive."
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