Wire Snares: Africa’s Silent Killers

By Anna Kusler
Kaplan Grantee, Ph.D. Researcher

Cheetah staring

The author is grateful for contributions from Ben Goodheart, Kafue Site Co-Manager of the Zambian Carnivore Programme.

As a field researcher in Zambia, I am incredibly fortunate to see and work alongside an abundance of African wildlife. But through my work, I am also unfortunate to witness the dangers that imperil these incredible animals. One of the biggest threats facing cheetahs and lions in Zambia’s Kafue National Park is wire snaring by poachers. Panthera and our partners are working to reduce this risk and better protect the majestic wildlife of Africa.

When most people envision the issue of “wildlife poaching” in Africa, they likely imagine a slain elephant or rhino, its tusks or horn removed to be sold on the black market. What most people don’t think of is this: a little piece of wire.

Cheetah sitting

Driving through southern Africa, it would be easy to miss the slim pieces of metal hidden away in the bush. When you do spot one, it doesn’t look particularly dangerous compared to the sheer size of a lion or an elephant. But these wire snares – loops of inconspicuous metal that constrict and trap the legs and necks of unsuspecting animals – are silent killers. Laid by poachers to trap and kill wildlife for the illegal bushmeat trade, snares are indiscriminate; antelopes, warthogs, lions, leopards, even elephants can fall victim to their grasp. It’s unknown how many animals die each year in Africa from snaring, but the number is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

So, you can imagine our horror when, one sunny afternoon, we came across a snare binding the lower foot of a young male cheetah. This young male, who we’ve nicknamed Lunga, lives with his brother Lu. The siblings, who formed a tightly-bonded coalition after leaving their mother, live in northeastern Kafue National Park, in central Zambia. Lu is fitted with a satellite GPS collar and is part of a wider monitoring and research effort conducted by the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP), an organization dedicated to the conservation and research of Zambia’s large carnivores and a close partner of Panthera.

Cheetah paw snared

This routine visit to the boys could not have come at a more critical time; we had to get this snare off Lunga’s foot before it caused any serious damage, because a three-legged cheetah is a dead cheetah. Occasionally, group-living animals such as lions and wild dogs can survive the loss of a snared limb thanks to the support provided by their pride or pack. But a cheetah – an animal who needs its speed to take down prey and escape larger predators – won’t last long with a wire noose around its limb.

Luckily, we were able to call in Dr. Kambwiri Banda, ZCP’s field-based veterinarian. Dr. Banda was on the other side of the country, but after a sleepless night and driving hundreds of kilometers he was able to successfully remove the snare from Lunga’s leg. And thankfully, because we had detected the snare so quickly, Lunga had no permanent damage. By the next morning, he was on the move with his brother and had already successfully killed and fed!

While Lunga’s story is one of success, his plight is unfortunately all too common. Not more than three weeks prior, our routine monitoring of a lioness uncovered yet another snared carnivore – this time her six-month-old cub, his leg still pinned to a tree. Without the fast response by our team and partners, that cub would have inevitably died, either from starvation, thirst, or a poacher’s spear.  

Helping snared cheetah

This is why our work is so important. Panthera and ZCP tirelessly monitor and protect the large carnivores roaming across Zambia’s vast landscapes. The collars we fit on these animals are equipped with GPS transmitters that send us their locations via satellites. These locations allow us to visit and monitor the collared animals and the prides, packs, clans, and families with whom they live.  Although Lunga and that lion cub were not collared, the collars on their family members saved their lives. This shows how just one collar on an individual can provide protection to an entire group of big cats.

Through intensive on-the-ground monitoring and de-snaring efforts, satellite GPS collars provide immediate protection for more than a hundred lions, cheetahs, and African wild dogs across the park. But they also do more. The valuable GPS data collected from the collars also informs us of crucial hunting grounds and of where the animals make their dens and raise their young. Such information enables anti-poaching units to patrol and remove snares from these critical areas. This effort creates a “halo effect”, providing an area of safety where and when the animals need it most.

Lion and elephant

To date, ZCP has successfully removed dozens of snares from lions, cheetah, and wild dogs in Kafue National Park. And thanks to Panthera’s tireless support for anti-poaching efforts and the “halo” approach, we are seeing fewer and fewer snared animals.  So as our anti-poaching efforts continue to grow, so too will the safety of these incredible carnivores and the magnificent landscapes in which they live.

Learn more about cheetahs.