Lim­popo’s lions

A wildlife squad in Lim­popo na­tional park fights a des­per­ate bat­tle against a shady trade for an­i­mal parts

The Guardian Weekly - - Global report - By Damian Car­ring­ton MOZAM­BIQUE

‘That’s fresh, just a few hours old,” says Kris Ever­att, point­ing at a clear print of a lion’s paw in the hot dust. “It’s the ghost pride.”

The print is fe­male. A big­ger male print is soon spot­ted, also lead­ing to­wards a pre­cious wa­ter hole, then a smaller one. “A cub, less than two years old,” he says.

The anti-poach­ing pa­trol con­tin­ues across the parched land­scape of Lim­popo na­tional park (LNP) in Mozam­bique. Hip­pos wal­low nearby, crocodiles sun them­selves and ba­boons yell alarms calls at the rangers – but the team don’t find the lions.

Ever­att, from the global wild cat con­ser­va­tion group Pan­thera, is pleased none­the­less. “I’m so happy – at least there are still lions here.” The ghost pride, who live along the Macham­pane river, have good rea­son for be­ing elu­sive – they have been de­lib­er­ately poi­soned three times since 2015. Nine lions died, their faces and paws hacked off by the poach­ers, and the Lim­popo park’s lion pop­u­la­tion is in freefall.

The tar­geted poach­ing at­tacks are a new and hor­rific dan­ger to lions, which were al­ready un­der se­ri­ous threat across Africa from de­struc­tion of habi­tat and the snar­ing of their prey for bush­meat. There are now fewer lions left than ele­phants.

“Poach­ing has the po­ten­tial to be in­cred­i­bly detri­men­tal to Africa’s wild lions,” says Ever­att. “This is some­thing we def­i­nitely didn’t need – an­other huge chal­lenge.”

“It hap­pened re­ally fast in Mozam­bique, and it could hap­pen re­ally fast in the rest of Africa,” he says. Lion poach­ing has al­ready been re­ported from Zim­babwe, South Africa, Tan­za­nia and Uganda. “You could end up with the only place left with wild lions in Africa be­ing Kruger na­tional park,” a well-pro­tected refuge across the bor­der in South Africa, he says.

The poach­ing prob­lem is es­pe­cially wor­ry­ing be­cause it is far eas­ier to poach lions than ele­phants or rhino. Lions scav­enge, so poach­ers only need to snare an an­te­lope, poi­son the car­cass and wait.

“I feel like I am rac­ing the poach­ers to find the lions, and they have the ad­van­tage be­cause they don’t ac­tu­ally have to see the lions,” says Ever­att. “Lions are much eas­ier to kill than to study.”

On the way back from the pa­trol, Ever­att stops his Land Cruiser to watch African white-backed vultures cir­cling a cou­ple of hun­dred me­tres away – they could sig­nal a preda­tor kill and, per­haps, lions. Strid­ing off, he kicks a rusted blue enamel bowl dis­carded in the dirt. “Poach­ers,” he spits.

Time is against the Lim­popo lions. Their num­bers have crashed from 66 to 21 in only five years, ac­cord­ing to sur­vey data soon to be pub­lished by Ever­att. Based on the prey avail­able, the area should sup­port up to 200 lions.

“Tar­geted poach­ing has emerged over the last few years to be the num­ber one threat to the vi­a­bil­ity of these lions,” he says. “The de­cline is so steep that you would not ex­pect lions to be around in the park in a cou­ple of years’ time.” The change from 2014 is so stark that Ever­att thinks that must be when crim­i­nals first showed up want­ing to buy lion parts.

Who is driv­ing the de­mand for lion teeth and claws is un­clear: il­le­gal trade is by its na­ture shady. But they have turned up along­side ele­phant ivory and rhino horn in ship­ments des­tined for east Asia. There is also a lo­cal mar­ket in south­ern Africa for use in tra­di­tional magic.

A few poached lions have also had their bones re­moved, po­ten­tially link­ing them to the con­tro­ver­sial le­gal trade in farmed lion bones in South Africa. With just a few thou­sand tigers left, lion bones are now be­ing used as re­place­ment in Asian tiger cake and wine.

Cam­era traps set for wildlife in LNP have snapped poach­ers re­turn­ing from Kruger with tusks and rhino horn. But rhi­nos, al­ready wiped out in LNP, are be­com­ing rarer, so it ap­pears lions are now be­ing tar­geted as an­other way to make money, says Ever­att: “A lot of the time it is the same peo­ple, and of­ten on the same trip.”

The most re­cent poach­ing at­tack in LNP hit the ghost pride in Jan­uary: four lions died, along with dozens of vultures. One of Ever­att’s team broke down in tears at the sight of the mu­ti­lated car­casses. “It’s grue­some and I do have an emo­tional re­ac­tion, but I try not to,” he says. “You couldn’t deal with it if you did. It just keeps hap­pen­ing.”

But such sights spurred Ever­att to set up his six-strong Lion Unit in LNP. “If I had not, I think there would prob­a­bly be none left.”

‘You would not ex­pect lions to be around in the park in a cou­ple of years’

Grue­some The re­mains of a lion re­cov­ered from poach­ers

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