Watching For Whisker Spots
I recently met with Meritho, who has to have one of the best jobs in the world; he is paid to watch lions.
Yes it does sound like the dream job, following lions all day, observing their behaviour and trying to identify them but Meritho’s job is not quite the dream it would seem. For various reasons the long running Serengeti Lion Project was put on hold for three years which meant that all the diligently followed lion prides known intimately by researchers have done a lot of growing up, giving birth and dying. Not surprisingly it’s hard to work out who’s who and who belongs to whom.
Meritho has inherited the arduous task of re-establishing the family connections and splits within the Serengeti’s lion prides. Armed with some old scribbled maps and a stack of cards with drawings of lion whisker spots he has to compare each lion he sees with these cards to help him workout just who is still out there in the Serengeti lion society. Of course the camera trap images help a little but only if they capture the perfect close up, in focus image of the lions muzzle showing the spot pattern. In reality its all down to traipsing around the Serengeti looking out for lions and comparing each and every one with the hundreds of hand drawn cards.
I asked Meritho how he tackles this mammoth task. Making a plan is key, he says, with most of the tracking collars non functional you have to think hard where the lions might be and just drive around looking for them.
Ok you can narrow it down a bit as Meritho does by getting up by 5 am, making sure your vehicle is puncture free and stocked with fuel and water and then heading out to try and catch the big cats as they finish up for the night. At this early hour they are often looking for a good spot to spend the day or joining back up with young cubs that have been left somewhere safe whilst mothers where out hunting. All this movement increases his chances of running into lions.
Most of the time Meritho is far from base so eats lunch in the car only returning home around 5:30 as it starts to get dark. Its long hours and most of the time you are either sitting waiting or driving, briefly interspersed with spells actually watching the lions. In return they themselves are often infuriatingly sleepy and won’t lift their heads for you to get good pictures of their whiskers meaning even when you do find lions you cannot always see who they are.
So far he has managed to identify around 150 individual lions and is monitoring around 18 prides. Monitoring lions gives him a sense of pleasure that he is out there doing a scientific job he never dreamt, as a Tanzanian, he would get the chance to do. He says ‘ when I look at where I come from and where I am going as a researcher it brings a lot of value to my life, knowing what research means is one thing but doing research makes me feel like I am contributing something to the world and my home environment’. He is gaining knowledge and experience daily and hopes to continue doing great things within conservation, an inspiration to aspiring local scientists.
It’s great to know that Meritho is out there following the lions again and that the Snapshot Serengeti cameras are still going to be clicking away for sometime to come.
People all around the world know about the great wildebeest migration through the Mara/Serengeti ecosystem. Those of you who classify on Snapshot Serengeti are more than familiar with the thousands of wildebeest and zebra images. A few of you will have been lucky enough to witness the spectacle.
For myself working here in the greater Serengeti ecosystem I have been eagerly awaiting the event since early November and boy, I have not been disappointed.
Having spent most of my time in Southern Africa I haven’t experienced this kind of mass migration before, sure I have seen large herds of buffalo in Kruger National Park and seen the elephant migration from Botswana into Namibia through Khaudom National Park but this here in the Serengeti is something else.
Up until recently the area I work in has been a dust bowl with a few blades of grass and bare branched thorn trees. It didn’t look like it could support much and the lions were becoming thin. Only the little dik dik looked healthy. The area is also home to Maasai herders and so scrawny cows, sheep and goats filled the landscape, conflict between lions and humans was running high.
Then the rains started. Slowly at first, not the dramatic down pours you see in Nature documentaries but teasing splatters that have you willing for more. By mid-December though enough had fallen to tip the balance and the vegetation began to grow.
Shortly after the rumours began, so and so saw a large group of wildebeest to the north, then so and so was camping and heard the distant gnu-ing of wildebeest on the move. Then out of nowhere they were here. Everywhere you look there are hundreds, in fact if the bush was less dense you would soon realise there are thousands. Zebras are here too but not quite so many. Meanwhile the Maasai herders with cows have vacated the area. They avoid the wildebeest who can pass on disease that is deadly to their cows.
With the herds finally here, the lions can relax. They have gone from skin and bones to full and fat seemingly overnight. I am following one particular pride, two of its females have given birth in the last two weeks, absolutely perfect timing (of course this was down to luck rather than judgement as lion don’t have set breeding seasons). I haven’t seen the cubs yet as they are tucked very safely away in some extremely prickly dense bush which is a good thing because the place is teaming with milling wildebeest, zebra and elephant. The mums don’t have to go far for dinner, its more like a home delivery at the moment and the satellite tracking shows this well, they haven’t moved more than about 1.5km from the denning spot! These cubs have a good chance at life.
After a long day of monitoring lions, I found a quite camping spot in an area of more open bush. I took a moment to lay on the ground and close my eyes for a 10 minute nap before dragging myself up again to make tea and set up camp. As I got up, I looked out to a crowd of wildebeest about 40 meters away gently gnu-ing and all looking at me. They seemed so confused that I was there. After a short standoff they turned 900 and continued on their way towards goodness knows where.
That’s the strange thing, when you watch nature documentaries the migration looks so purposeful but when you are in the middle of it, particularly when you are not on the open plains but in thicker bush its harder to tell. Its more of a swirling pattern than a straight A to B and the herds just keep moving round and round the area looking for the freshest new grass. So sometimes you see 100’s moving south only to see another group heading North.
Wherever they are going it is hard to describe how it makes you feel to see such numbers of wild animals. For me it is hope and relief that at least somewhere in this world wildlife seems to be doing ok. For a moment you can lose yourself and imagine what this planet used to look like when things where in balance.
The wonder of nature.