We stop at the gate of the fence that surrounds Chitengo Camp. The guard counts us, records it in a book, gives the driver a pass that must be returned at the end of the day, and opens the gate. We are on safari again.
This time, we are with Gorongosa Lion Project senior researcher, Paola Bouley, wildlife veterinarian Rui Branco, a Mozambican; and field researcher Celina Diaz, also from Mozambique. We are in search of a collared lioness named Helena and her three young cubs, born two months ago. Part of our group had seen her and her cubs on the flood plain a couple of days ago and those of us who didn’t — well, we were happy we were with Paola.
Lions were virtually wiped out during the war — from a pre-war estimate of 400 in the great Gorongosa ecosystem to single digits.
“This year, we have laid eyes on 32,” says Paola, which means that researchers have sorted out who’s who by whisker spots or other identifying characteristics. Since the project began in 2012, they have documented 42. They’ve only been able to cover about 20 percent of the park, so mathematically speaking, there’s more lions out there. They have collared eight.
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Everybody goes into a database. “We will be able to document the response of lions to ecosystem restoration over time,” Paola says. “Like 20 years. This hasn’t been done before in Africa.”
One of the people working on this research is Celina, 24 — the generation that will carry on this work. Celina began her affiliation with the Gorongosa Restoration Project by working with a environmentally oriented theater group that puts on plays for children at the Community Education Center. Now, she has a job with the lion project, processing data, tracking, analyzing camera trap images, taking samples and measurements, collaring lions. If she chooses to go to college, the project will help her.
Celina and a counterpart are the first female Mozambiquans to be working directly with lions. “It feels great,” Celina says through an interpreter. “To show women it’s possible to do this work. It’s hard work, but that doesn’t mean just men can do it.”
As we get to floodplain, Celina’s telemetry equipment showed that Helena has moved elsewhere. We track her up an old creek bed and stop when the signal gets strong again.
The lioness has taken the cubs into the tall thick grasses, far beyond our ability to find them or see them. It is not wise to bump through the grasses, either, what with three 10-week-old cubs on the prowl. There’s also the possibility that Helena’s sister’s much younger cubs are close by. They were born five weeks ago and haven’t yet been see by anyone. “I think we’ll let them be for now,” says Paola.
Welcome to a researchers’ day: Not always successful.
And yet — we were close. Close enough for a lion to lose herself in the wild and maybe that’s pretty good. But this also is a good opportunity for the reminder: Restoration is not all about animals.
Each year, Zoo Boise patrons get to vote for their favorite conservation projects. If lions are on the list, they win every time, says Steve Burns, zoo director. Twice now, Boiseans have shown their affinity for the big cats. That amounts to $67,000 that pays for research and camera traps.
The camera traps are mounted on trees and are motion-activated. Left in place for a couple of months, a camera can net maybe 9,000 images. Sometimes the photos capture elephants or lions sniffing and investigating the cameras. Elephants have been known to knock over the camera’s tree, and one lion bit through the attaching wire and carried off the camera — captured in photos, of course.
Although the camera traps are set to document lions, they’ve also provided data on other animals. The only sighting of a spotted hyena, for instance, along with aardarks and — well, poachers.
“They aren’t all animals,” says Paola, a bit cryptically. “There’s a lot of human activity.”
Read about Celina and her counterpart, Domingas. http://www.gorongosa.org/blog/park-news/two-talented-mozambican-women-get-opportunity-lifetime