An Amazing Discovery GPS Collaring Endangered Lions

By Kristoffer Everatt, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist and Director, Panthera Canada


Note: This piece is the second installment of a blog series detailing our work protecting Critically Endangered West African lions in Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park. For an introduction to the program, click here. 

Capturing lions in order to fit GPS collars is no easy task. It’s particularly challenging with low numbers of lions spread over vast landscapes. Days and even weeks can pass without finding signs of these rare cats. Some nights, however, you get lucky. 

One such night in Niokolo-Koba National Park, Senegal, I sat in the back of the truck in the dark, staring at a bait tied to a tree 30 meters away. The stars were bright and the night had finally allowed the air to cool down after another scorching day. The ruckus sounds of birds and insects calling at dusk had died down and silence prevailed.  I began to intermittently broadcast the call of a lost buffalo calf into the night. The buffalo calf’s call, along with a carcass tied to the tree and a kilometer or more of blood and gut trails I had laid leading to the site, were all tools I used to lure in lions.  

I sat alone on the back of the truck, hidden behind a bamboo thatch blind, with the rest of the team in the cab to minimize sounds. Suddenly, I heard the distinct and careful sound of a lion’s footsteps approaching through the forest. Even as someone who’s made this my profession and passion, my heart started pumping hard.

a lion, immobilized for gps collaring.

I listened to the lion as it worked his way through the bush and around to the bait. Through an infrared night vision scope, I saw that he was a massive young male. I prepared the dart, set the gas pressure on the dart gun and readied my scope. I worried that this lion would easily break the rope holding the bait, and I thought I should take a chance and dart him as soon as he took the first bite, rather than wait for him to relax and feed like I would prefer. However, when I turned the spotlight on and began to lower the beam onto the lion, he became frightened and ran off. I quickly turned the light off, went silent and gave him some time to come back.  

After a few minutes of waiting in the dark, I could again hear his footsteps approaching. When I looked through night vision, I could see that this time he was not alone but was accompanied by two other massive males of the same age! One of the three had an eye that was damaged and not reflecting the infrared light. I let them approach the bait, and the one-eyed male began to paw at it, lick it and then lay down with his side to me and started to feed. This time I gave them a few more minutes to feed before trying the spotlight. When I turned the light back on, they didn’t run, and I lowered it onto the one-eyed male. I put the muscles of his hind leg in my sight, steadied my breathing and fired.

The dart hit and he jumped, growled and ran a few steps. But because his two companions stayed and continued to eat, he then returned. I noted the time that the dart went in and then decided to ready another dart for a second lion. It took me ten minutes for a clear shot at a second male. The one-eyed male lay down at about the same time that the second dart went in, and the second male went down about ten minutes after that. During this time the third male continued to feed unbothered. 

Lion asleep

I got down from the back of the truck and sneaked around to the front to explain the situation and plan to the rest of the team. Our team included Mouhamadou Modi Ndiaye — Panthera’s newly appointed Technical Assistant for the Niokolo-Koba project, Lieutenant Mouhamadou Makhtar Fall — the young Chief Wildlife Veterinarian for the Park and Sergeant Abdoul Aziz Senghor — a park ranger and prominent member of our mobile brigade for anti-poaching. This was to be each of their first time working with lions. They were all incredibly nervous and excited. We drove up to the lions, chased the third one with the truck and made sure the other two were fully immobilized. We fit the GPS collars, took genetic samples, measurements and photos of the lions, and then gave them the reversal drugs and watched them wake up, shake and wander back into the bush. 

©Panthera/Senegal/ Everatt

Finding a coalition of males like this was a great success, as it indicates that the population is moving towards a natural structure indicative of a trend towards overall recovery. Lion prides across eastern and southern Africa are composed of groups of 2-4 related females with their young, which are defended by a coalition of 2-4 males. Males form such coalitions to be able to compete with other male groups for access to the females. But if the population has declined to the point that there are few males competing, then the need for coalitions disappears. These three males form — to our knowledge — the first coalition in recent park history and possibly the first coalition reported in West Africa. Our lion recovery project in Senegal is working. 

Read our Press Release on this incredible breakthrough. 

This blog has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union and the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States through the BIOPAMA Programme. The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of Panthera and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union nor of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.