We chat to Dr David Mills, programme manager for the Carnivore Conservation Project, which focuses on conserving African Wild dogs, cheetahs and more recently, lions. These carnivores faces endless threats from humans, including animal-human conflict, poaching and habitat loss.
Why and when was Carnivore Conservation Project started?
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) was established in 1973. Carnivores have always held a special place within EWT’s organisational mission. The Cheetah was one of the founding species and the Cheetah spoor is our logo. Over the years, EWT’s carnivore conservation has taken on a broader scope. For example, in 1989 we began work to conserve our other flagship species, the African Wild Dog by monitoring the population of Wild Dogs in Kruger National Park through a photographic census. In 1995 cheetah were included in the monitoring in Kruger National park and a census has been conducted every five years since then. The next census which encourages members of the public to submit sightings and photographs of Cheetah and Wild Dog where individual animals are identified using there unique coat patterns and markings Now the CCP runs Cheetah and Wild Dog Range Expansion Projects that aim to increase numbers and safe space for these species across southern Africa. In 2020, we are very excited to announce that we are adding Lions to our conservation portfolio, as we start a project to address the increasing threat of poisoning and illegal wildlife trade to the Lions of Kruger and the rest of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA).
What are the challenges facing SA’s and the rest of Africa’s carnivores?
The main challenge to Africa’s Lions is habitat and prey loss due to human expansion. As people require more land to live and farm, there is less available for wildlife. Lions especially struggle to survive outside of formally protected areas. This sets them apart from other predators, such as Leopards, which can survive in secrecy around humans. Lions are large, travel in prides, and are much more visible. Lions also instil a greater fear for human life than any other predator in Africa. Therefore, tolerance for Lions is very low and they are often killed quickly when they enter human settlements and farmland.
Paradoxically, Lions are also a symbol of strength and bravery in many societies. This has unfortunately led to the belief that humans can take on a Lion’s strength, power, or other qualities by consuming or otherwise using Lion parts.
As demand has grown, poaching has decimated Lion populations across their range, most notably in West Africa. In southern Africa there are records of captive lions being poached for their parts. Lion bones are also used in Chinese medicine and bone strengthening wine. The rise in demand for legally sourced Lion bone (South Africa is the only country legally allowed to export lion bone from captive bred lions) has raised further concerns regarding the impact of this trade on conservation and wild Lions.
A common way of killing Lions, both in retaliation for killing livestock and to harvest their parts, is to use poison. Carcasses of livestock or wildlife are laced with potent poison, which is available in stores for agricultural use or against household pests. This invariably kills a suite of other mammalian and avian scavengers and has had a catastrophic impact on Africa’s vulture population. Combating these growing threats is the driving force behind our Lion project in Kruger and Limpopo National Parks.
The challenges facing lions are also affecting South Africa’s most Endangered carnivore species, Wild Dogs, and the Vulnerable Cheetah. They are in many ways more vulnerable to extinction because both species occur at low densities and require large areas for their conservation. Historically, our conservation and research efforts on the two species focused on the largest protected population in Kruger National Park. However, the EWT now manages range expansion projects for both species. These projects aim to recover populations of these species by reintroducing them to new and rewilded protected areas.
The Cheetah Range Expansion Project, initiated in 2011, now includes 390 Cheetah on 60 reserves across Southern Africa with recent reintroductions into Malawi cementing the success of the project. The Wild Dog Range Expansion Project includes 265 individuals (around half of South Africa’s total population) in 18 reserves, including recent introductions into Gorongosa and Karingani in Mozambique. Through strong partnerships with reserve managers and organisations like African Parks, The Bateleurs, and the Carr Foundation, we have reintroduced Cheetahs and Wild Dogs to parks where they have been extinct for decades and are steadily increasing both safe space and population numbers across Southern Africa.
What are the solutions/methods that are being implemented to help the lions?We have been awarded a grant from the UK Government through the International Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund to address the targeted killing of Lions in Kruger National Park in South Africa and Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. We will deploy satellite collars to track Lion prides across the protected area and use this data to assist rangers in Mozambique and South Africa to optimise ranger patrols to ensure they are covering areas important to Lions.
Since one of the main risks is poisoning, our Vultures for Africa Programme will provide Poison Intervention Training (PIT) to rangers and protected area managers in both parks. This is essential to minimise the number of animals that are killed and to make sure that first responders can decontaminate the site without accidentally poisoning themselves.
We will also work with the Herding 4 Health programme run by our project partner, Peace Parks Foundation, to address human-wildlife conflict in communities inside and around Limpopo National Park. Since conflict is one of the drivers behind the killing of Lions, this is a particularly important aspect of the project.
In order to more effectively intercept illegally traded Lion parts, our Wildlife in Trade Programme is working with the Mozambique government to host training courses for Customs Officials. This training will enable law enforcement to combat illegal trade in Lion products through enhanced detection.
Are there educational programmes in areas where schoolchildren and adults live near lions?
Our community conservation officer, Kulani Nyakane, gives talks to local schools along the western boundary of Kruger about carnivore ecology and conservation. Spar Hoedspruit is also working with us to facilitate and support a project to take school children into the Environmental Education Centre at Satara in Kruger. Along the way, Kulani talks to the children about the ecological importance of a variety of species, highlighting the importance of predators to a healthy ecosystem. Seeing and learning about wildlife first-hand with an expert in carnivore conservation has an enormous impact on these children. One of our goals for the coming year is to increase the frequency and reach of these school trips. Additionally, we are planning to initiate livestock protection workshops that teach predator ecology and effective methods for protecting livestock. This will increase the capacity of local farmers to mitigate the risk of human wildlife conflict, which has led to strained relations between farmers and predators.
ow can the public help?
We appreciate the help in terms of sharing our stories and our mission and can donate to the EWT through our online portal at www.ewt.org.za/campaigns/ewt-donations/. Those who wish to support the Carnivore Conservation Program in particular, or one of our projects focusing on Lions, Cheetahs, Wild Dogs, or community outreach, can specify this during the donation process. Any company or organisation who aligns with what we’re doing and wants to support our work even further, or have fundraising ideas, they can contact our fundraising team for more information.
*The staff of the Carnivore Conservation Unit is made up of eight staff members:
David Mills Programme Manager
Grant Beverley Lowveld Regional Coordinator
Vincent van der Merwe Cheetah Range Expansion Project Coordinator·
Cole du Plessis Wild Dog Range Expansion Project Coordinator and KwaZulu-Natal Regional Coordinator·
Derek van der Merwe Limpopo Regional Coordinator
Kulani Nyakane Lowveld Carnivore Conservation Community Field Officer·
Joseph Hlako Waterberg Carnivore Field Officer
Marnus Roodbol Lion Conservation Field Officer
*About The Endangered Wildlife Trust:
Our country is home to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a world respected conservation body we are fortunate to call our own. The EWT, which started out back in 1973, was founded by Clive Walker, along with James Clarke and Neville Anderson, and operated from a house. Originally the three worked together to save the cheetah – already in decline in the 1970s.
The trust later moved to the Johannesburg Zoo, but outgrew its home there, becoming the much larger and highly specialised and diverse operation it is today. Working not only in South Africa but across southern and east Africa as well as partnering with conservation groups in many other countries, the EWT recently celebrated moving into its very own headquarters in Midrand. Here, they will have the space and facilities they need to keep expanding the vital scope of work that they do.
Headed up by CEO Yolan Friedmann and staffed by a wide array of conservation experts who have years of research and experience in the field, the organisation is a one of its kind in the country. EWT staffers are out in the field daily, working to protect the rich biodiversity of the continent and the animals that live on it. Importantly, they are constantly researching and implementing programmes to involve communities, so that habitats, animal species and humans can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.