Lion Guardians find the miss­ing Linc

CityPress - - News - GAR­RETH VAN NIEK­ERK gar­reth.van­niek­erk@city­press.co.za

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.

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