New Method Standardises Predator Measurements

First, catch yourself a lion. Next, pull out a stiff metal or wooden ruler and a measuring tape, and have your small sliding callipers and large vernier callipers close at hand. Be sure that the lion is not about to wake up, and then start measuring. These are the initial steps in creating a standardised database of the weight and size of large African predators.

Despite the fact that hundreds of lions (and other predators) have been hunted over the years, and many have been darted and handled by scientists, there has never been a universal technique for measuring the animals and so scientists currently know surprisingly little about exactly what size the average lion really is.

Even measurements recorded by hunters differ from one hunting association to another, and not all trophies are measured. The African Large Predator Unit (Alpru) based at the University of the Free State has now developed a set of standardised procedures for measuring lions and other predators.

Headed up by HO de Waal, Alpru is encouraging all researchers and hunters to take a bit of time when they have an immobilised predator and carry out some measurements. Alpru provides a standardised data sheet to fill out the measurements, and has an instructive set of pictures and diagrams explaining exactly where the 40-odd measurements should be taken.

Once the measurements have been taken, Alpru can enter them into their database. The more data that Alpru has, the more reliable will be any conclusions drawn from the data. With enough information, the database will be able to discover if predators in some areas are growing slower or faster than in other areas, and how this relates to their habitat and food supply.

Although the measuring techniques are demonstrated using an adult male lion, de Waal says that they have also been used to measure lion, leopard, cheetah, caracal and jackal. He encourages anyone handling an immobilised or dead predator to take the measurements, and to repeat them if the animal is handled sequentially over time, allowing more information to be obtained on growth rates and physical condition.

Alpru also has a visual observation sheet for predator sightings that can be filled in by researchers or tourists whenever they see a lion or another predator. This sheet contains questions on where the sighting took place, how many animals were seen, their physical condition, what they were doing, their prey if they were hunting or feeding, the weather conditions and others.

By Melissa Wray

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