I tracked lions in Tanzania: ‘They’re lions with a history and an identity’ | The Star

2022-05-14 00:49:35 By : Mr. Harry Hang

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When Emmanuel Lufilisha, our cheerful and chatty lion tracker, begins speaking in hushed tones, everyone knows to be quiet. We’re standing in the bush in the shared community and wildlife corridor threading between the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in northern Tanzania.

In a shady patch beneath a tree, we watch as Rapaito, another tracker who’s draped in red plaid fabric, heads out into the relentless midday sun with a hand-held collapsible antenna and GPS tracking system. Silent with anticipation, we wait to hear any soft beeps coming from the GPS unit.

“The unit beeps when it pings a GPS collar on a lion,” Lufilisha quietly tells me. “It gets louder as the lion gets closer.”

I don’t hear any beeps. What I do hear is the quiet of a landscape untouched by most people: the soft swish of the grass waving in the breeze, the rustling leaves of the flat-top acacia trees. The world around us is lit in a palette of straw yellows and pale greens, the Tanzanian bush highlighted in patchwork from the sun streaming down past the few clouds in the sky.

Around us lies an array of lion-tracking tools: a hand-held geolocator device, noting the distance we are from where lions were seen that morning; the Land Rover that brought us here; a camera for photographing footprints, scat and the lions themselves; and a bullhorn to broadcast lion roars or the sounds of fighting hyenas to attract the lions so they’ll give away their location.

The group I’m with is part of KopeLion, a non-profit working with local communities and conservationists to turn the line between the Serengeti and Ngorongoro into a “corridor of tolerance,” says Ingela Jansson, the organization’s founder. The goal is to help humans and lions live side by side more harmoniously, in a bid to prevent conflict and killing of the remaining big cats.

Studying the movements of the lions is crucial to the mission, and this lion tracking excursion is an add-on to my stay at &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, a 30-suite luxury game lodge in Tanzania, where travellers can go out in the field with the KopeLion team, attend educational seminars or even just join the group for lunch.

My driver, Noel, and I travel for nearly two hours to get to this spot, passing through small towns of roadside shops and homes, with traditional Masai villages in the distance. We see giraffes grazing on treetops in a field; small monkeys watching us from tree branches; zebras munching on grass alongside goats and livestock. Young children, heading home from school, wave hello and salute our Jeep as we pass.

We eventually find Lufilisha and his crew waiting for us along a dusty road, surrounded by empty grassy plains in the space where the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater blend into a living space for villagers and local tribes.

“In this environment, they’ve always lived with abundant wildlife populations, including the large predators,” Jansson says. “When you look at the impact from lions, they may not be the most common predator on your livestock, but when they attack, they attack your cattle. The most valued ones.”

And for this reason, it’s necessary for a system to be in place, warning herders about lions in the vicinity who might attack their cattle. Currently, there are about 50 lions in the Ngorongoro Crater, and up to 3,000 in the Serengeti.

In the KopeLion office — a single storey building with just a few rooms, perched on a hillside overlooking the expansive Ngorongoro Crater — the group tracks each lion they’ve collared on a digital map, with lines following their movement day and night. Little boxes along the lines show where the lions are; three times a day, the office calls the trackers to share locations.

When KopeLion’s trackers, all local Masai residents, get a location, they head out into the field — and guests of &Beyond can tag along, taking a bumpy ride in the Land Rover to get to the exact spot. When you reach the last known location of a lion, everyone files out of the car and starts to look around for signs of the big cats.

We are lucky; we find some traces of the lions right away. A massive paw print sinks into the dirt by one of our stops, and into the mud by another. One paw print is nearly as big as my hand. We draw a dusty circle around it with a finger and take a photo to send back to the office.

I adjust my hat to keep the sun off my face, heeding the day’s extreme UV warning, and continue walking past grasses with tiny burs, and trees with thorns so long you could use them to sew together a thick blanket. It looks dangerous, but it’s all motivated by survival, mimicking in flora the reason we are out — to protect the local fauna.

Lambarakwo, another young tracker, tells me they are out all day to monitor the movements of the lions. “It’s our duty,” he says, to make sure the local communities and their livestock stay out of harm’s way.

Every tracked lion has an identification card, showing specific markings and the history of their GPS collar. The KopeLion team gets to know every one of them, and introduces them to the guests as well through the cards.

Jansson shows me the card for the lion we are tracking, Lemunge (code MG130), a male lion in the Munge pride collared since May 2019. The card features a line drawing of a lion’s head, noting identifiable marks like Lemunge’s missing four top teeth and his cleft palate. His whisker spots — which Jansson likens to human fingerprints — stretch out in perpendicular lines to his nose.

“All the lions in the crater, we know their family,” Jansson says. “They’re lions with a history and an identity. In the community, they know the name of the lion that took their cow, and there’s either more understanding, or more anger.”

We don’t find Lemunge, or any other lions, that day. But that’s actually a good thing. When the lions are out of range, it means the livestock and local communities are safe for another day. The trackers can finally go home — and the guests can return to their camps and lodges to prepare for another day of lion-spotting.

Luckily, on game drives through Ngorongoro Crater the day before and the day after my time with the trackers, I catch a glimpse of the elusive creatures, including a pride of lions in their glory, spread out into battle positions while following a lone buffalo running to meet his herd. These lions are part of the population that KopeLion monitors, so I still see the fruits of their tireless work.

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