Tag Archive | conservation

A different way to see the world

I posted a little while ago about the applications of remote sensing technology in biological research. Here’s a TED talk by one of the authors of the South African study I mentioned with some fascinating visuals showing the level of detail these technologies can reveal to us. While the talk starts off flying you through a “lion’s-eye” view of hunting terrain, Greg Asner goes on to reveal some of the other ecological and conservation implications of these technologies and how they can help us do things from finding illegal goldmines and documenting species composition in the Amazon to tracking habitat changes by elephants and fire back in Africa.



Male lion takeovers


This series of photographs documents a stand-off between two male lions — a younger male attacking? defending against? an older male. Interestingly enough, at the last minute, a pair of lionesses jump in and join the young male in evicting his older competitor.

In lion societies, males leave their birth prides at a young age and join together with other males, forming coalitions. These groups, which vary in size from 2-9 individuals, range across territories and attempt hostile takeover of established female prides from other males. While it may seem that the only obstacle to taking over a pride is the coalition of males who have already set up shop, it isn’t always in the females’ best interest to stand by passively and the males duke it out.

A group of male lions’ first order of business upon gaining tenure of a new pride is to off all the females’ dependent offspring. Loss of cubs brings females back into heat sooner, giving the new males a reproductive incentive to commit infanticide. The female, on the other hand, suffers an immediate loss in fitness — all the reproductive effort invested in her cubs is gone! Females have evolved a number of ways to reduce the risk of infanticide by males, including behavioral strategies such as banding together with their current coalition to stave off intruders. Is that what’s going on here? Perhaps, perhaps not. The female-defended male looks fairly young the be in this type of a situation. Cub loss, however, is an important factor to keep in mind when considering sport-hunting of mature male lions. The effect of removing a resident male is removed may cascade through his social group, leading to additional deaths within his pride when new males move in to his vacated niche.


Grinnell, J. and K. McComb. 1996. Maternal grouping as a defense against infanticide by males: Evidence from field playback experiments on African lions. Behavioral Ecology, 7(1): 55-59.

Packer, C., Scheel, D., and A. Pusey. 1990. Why lions form groups: food is not enough. American Naturalist, 136(1): 1- 19.

If you’ve got the time to sit down for 15 minutes and subject yourself to some truly awe-inspiring photography, check out this TED talk from the documentary film-making couple, Beverly and Dereck Joubert as they recount their adventures in Africa interacting with big cats and their big personalities.

Beverly and Dereck Joubert. (Photo Credit: © Wildlife Films Botswana / Mike Meyers)


George Schaller and the Serengeti Lion

To bring myself up to speed with the fundamentals of lion research in the Serengeti, I have spent the last week or so reading through the classic work The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator-Prey Relations, by the reputable George B. Schaller. For a collection of field notes, the book it quite a page-turner. The work covers everything remotely relating to lion biology, from social systems to predation patterns, and manages to capture both the drama of the dynamic Serengeti system and the dusty, hot, sweaty reality of watching big cats sleep for 18 hours a day.

Although the focus of the book is the life of lions, the life of George B. Schaller himself turns out to be just as intriguing. Digging a little into his background, I discovered that Schaller, dubbed the “Megafauna Man” by National Geographic, has undertaken a 50-year career in field biology studying some of the most iconic systems in the world.

Schaller had moved to the Serengeti with his wife and two sons for two years in 1966 to uncover the intricacies of the lives of big cats and their prey. This, however, was not the start of his field career. Back in 1959, when he was a mere 26 years old, Schaller packed up and headed off to Central Africa to study the mountain gorilla. For two years, amidst dodging poachers and eluding Watusi invaders, he uncovered facts about these great apes which helped to dispel common notions about their brutishness and revealed them to be gentle and intelligent animals. His work paved the way for other naturalists, including the well-known Dian Fossey, and led to the creation of Virunga National Park.

In the ‘70s, Schaller worked in both South Asia and South America, studying large mammals including the blue sheep and snow leopards of Nepal and the jaguars, capybaras, and caimans of Brazil. The American novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen accompanied Schaller to Nepal and wrote a travelogue on their exploits (The Snow Leopard) that went on to win the 1979 National Book Award. Matthiessen describes Schaller as “one of the finest field biologists of our time. He pioneered the practice of turning regions of field research into wildlife parks and preserves,” a epithet that held true yet again when five years later, the Nepalese government used Schaller’s research to form Shey-Phoksundo National Park.

Following these adventures, Schaller and his wife were given the distinction of being the first westerners invited by China to enter the remote southwest Asian wilderness and research the Giant Panda in its native habitat. As part of this work, Schaller focused on understanding threats to the diminishing panda population and discovered that the primary culprits in their demise were poaching and logging. In his book, The Last Panda, Schaller writes “The panda has no history, only a past. It has come to us in a fragile moment from another time, its obscure life illuminated through the years we tracked it in the forests.” Despite this foreboding prophesy, since Schaller’s work on panda biology, the number of panda in the wild has increased by 45%.

In the 1990s, Schaller worked in Laos, Vietnam, and Tibet studying antelope and in the process discovering and rediscovering several species of mammals including a bovine, a pig, and a type of deer. More recently, he has been collaborating with agencies in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China to develop a 20,000-square mile “Peace Park” for the protection of the world’s largest wild sheep species, the Marco Polo sheep.

Over the span of his career, Schaller has made profound contributions to our knowledge about large mammals, both their biology and ecology, and has greatly furthered species conservation in the creation of over 20 parks and preserves throughout the globe. I can highly recommend his writings on the Serengeti Lion, and if you want to delve further into his life and career, his other authored books (there are over 30) include The Year of the Gorilla, The Last Panda, Tibet Wild, and A Naturalist and Other Beasts.

On fencing wildlife reserves

Craig wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times today. He argues that fencing wildlife reserves in Africa is a cost-effective and necessary step to conserving Africa’s big mammals. The reasons that reserves need fencing now have to do with demographic changes over the half-century since they were established. He points out that fences won’t work for some reserves, especially those that depend on wildlife migration over reserve boundaries, but that for many, it may be an important step towards conservation sustainability. (For what it’s worth, those reserves like Tarangire with in-out migration may be doomed anyway, as human population and agriculture increase around the reserve and effectively block the migration anyway.)

Craig’s opinion piece derives from a study he and many others did comparing the success of Africa’s reserves based on various attributes of those reserves *. The effectiveness of conservation efforts is not usually measured; mostly, people would rather their money to go conservation actions rather than conservation monitoring programs. Lacking specific monitoring data, the approach of Craig’s study is one way to look at what works and what doesn’t when it comes to conservation. And the data say that fences work in (most) African wildlife reserves.

Your gut reaction to fencing wildlife areas might be aversion, or even horror. I know I wince when I consider the idea. Fences are unattractive. But they’re especially unattractive, I want to point out, for those of us with the luxury of living far from major human-wildlife conflict. If there were reasonable chances that a lion or leopard might carry off my child – or kill my livestock – or that elephants would trample my carefully tended crops – I would welcome a fence. North Americans and Europeans have historically come into conflict with wild animals when human needs for land, food, and fuel have increased. They have largely solved this human-wildlife conflict by eliminating the wildlife. Africans have done a better job of retaining their wildlife, but their needs for land, food, and fuel are also increasing. As unaesthetic as they might seem, maybe fences around wildlife reserves can help both Africa’s wildlife and its people.

* “Conserving large carnivores: dollars and fence” in Ecology Letters, 2013 Volume 16, pages 635-641. DOI: 10.1111/ele.12091
Authors: C. Packer A. Loveridge S. Canney T. Caro S.T. Garnett M. Pfeifer K.K. Zander A. Swanson D. MacNulty G. Balme H. Bauer C.M. Begg K.S. Begg S. Bhalla C. Bissett T. Bodasing H. Brink A. Burger A.C. Burton B. Clegg S. Dell A. Delsink T. Dickerson S.M. Dloniak D. Druce L. Frank P. Funston N. Gichohi R. Groom C. Hanekom B. Heath L. Hunter H.H. DeIongh C.J. Joubert S.M. Kasiki B. Kissui W. Knocker B. Leathem P.A. Lindsey S.D. Maclennan J.W. McNutt S.M. Miller S. Naylor P. Nel C. Ng’weno K. Nicholls J.O. Ogutu E. Okot‐Omoya B.D. Patterson A. Plumptre J. Salerno K. Skinner R. Slotow E.A. Sogbohossou K.J. Stratford C. Winterbach H. Winterbach S. Polasky.