Lion sightings are high on nearly every tourist's priority list when they visit a big five area, and guides at lodges often go to a lot of trouble to find lions on their daily game drives. But how well do the guides really know the lion prides, and just how accurate is their knowledge of how many lions in the area belong to established prides and which are nomadic animals moving from place to place? A research project being carried out in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve and the adjoining farm of Kempiana, a contractual park of the Kruger National Park (KNP), is intended to answer this question.
Marius Renke, a student at Unisa and the day walk guide based at Satara in the KNP, has enlisted the help of the commercial lodges in Timbavati and Kempiana to try and find out how information obtained from daily game drives matches up with lion counts determined by more conventional census methods, such as call-in stations.
At the beginning of the project Marius met with the guides at the lodges and discussed exactly what information he was looking for. The guides were then given data sheets to standardise the recording of information, and since the beginning of the year Marius has been collecting information on their lion sightings on a monthly basis.
The guides take photographs of the lions when they see them, and Marius uses these photos to draw up an identikit of the lions, marking all their permanent scars as well as each lion's unique whisker pattern. The guides have also been given maps of the areas that they traverse so that they can record exactly when and where each lion sighting took place. Next month the project will move into its second phase, when lions will be counted in the study area using the call-in method.
This involves playing distress calls of a wildebeest or a buffalo calf over a loudspeaker at selected points at night. A carcass may also be dragged to create a scent trail and hung near the loudspeakers to keep the lions at the calling station for longer. Researchers watch from a nearby safe place to see how many lions come to investigate the calling station. These lions can then be counted and photographed. By matching the photographs to identikits Marius has compiled from the guides' sightings, he will be able to determine the accuracy of the data obtained from the various lodges.
If the research shows that guides have a detailed enough picture of the lion population in an area, this can help inform management decisions. Reserve managers could then continually update the lion database using information obtained from guides, and have a clearer picture of the dynamics of the lion population. Marius says "the guides have been great" and expressed his thanks to everyone who has helped him.
He is eagerly anticipating the next step in the project where the lions will be counted from calling stations. He will be assisted at the calling stations by the researchers that are completing a count of Kruger's lions, as both Marius's research and that being conducted in Kruger is supervised by Dr Paul Funston.