Lion Guardians find the missing Linc
New facial recognition software developed to monitor Kenya’s dwindling lion populations could drastically alter the African conservation game.
By harnessing the best of surveillance camera technology with an advanced web-based search database, the Lion Guardians’ Lion Identification Network of Collaborators (Linc) has already seen results.
“With a photograph and an internet connection, Linc allows lion researchers to share data across landscapes and borders, enabling them to more accurately monitor and track lion populations,” says Salisha Chandra, marketing director of the conservation group that is developing the software. “This greater understanding of broad-scale lion populations will allow for more effective conservation across what remains of African lion-range lands.”
For more than 10 years, the Lion Guardians, an international group of researchers working with the Masai people of Kenya, have been using oldfashioned photo ID recognition that required a quick distinction of facial markings. But these methods were slow and often inaccurate. But one case changed all that. On October 3 last year, the Guardians were looking for a young adult male, Osapuku, who had been missing for eight months. Two months later, Michael Mbithi, the director of wildlife at Lisa Ranch, sent them photographs of an unknown male who had recently appeared on the Athi-Kapiti plains. Using photographs of his whisker spots and comparing them with what Michael had sent, they were able to identify him.
The discovery of Osapuku more than 250km from where he was originally identified provided the first evidence of population links between three of Kenya’s main game reserves.
Lion Guardians science director Stephanie Dolrenry then approached software engineer Justin Downs, who developed the lion-recognition system.
His technological intervention has opened up other areas of research unthinkable before, says Chandra.
“This activity of dispersing is one of the most important ecological processes, although it remains one of the least understood. Dispersal between areas is absolutely critical for long-term sustainability and genetic viability of lions across east Africa.
“Migrating individuals can rejuvenate populations where local extinction may have occurred and enable a ‘rescue effect’ in which immigrating individuals protect a dwindling local population from extinction.”
The local Masai people first came up with the Lion Guardians idea 10 years ago, telling the organisation they would be best suited to conserving the lions because they were the ones killing them. The warriors’ traditional role is to protect the people and their cattle from threats.
Lion Guardians is now a collaboration between Masai traditional knowledge and scientific research. Their goal is to reinforce the cultural values of the people, but shift them in a way that promotes conservation instead of killing.
Their most recent report shows no lions were killed by community members where Lion Guardians operate and about 40 cubs were born.