By Drew T. Cronin, SMART Partnership Program Manager
Big cats are some of the world’s most iconic and revered wildlife species, and the focus of this year’s World Wildlife Day on March 3. However, these species, from Jaguars in Latin America to tigers in far eastern Russia, face numerous threats, including habitat loss and degradation, poaching, disease, and declining prey population numbers. Many of the problems, though not unique to big cats, stem from a lack of effective conservation as a result of poor management and enforcement.
The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) was developed by the SMART Partnership*, a group of conservation organizations whose mission is to conserve biodiversity, reduce the impacts of illegal extraction and trade of natural resources, strengthen law enforcement related to biodiversity conservation, and enhance overall management of conservation areas. SMART is now the global leading tool for wildlife law enforcement and protected area monitoring–it has been implemented in more than 600 sites in 55 countries, with a national governmental mandate for adoption in 12 countries as well.
SMART has become an integral tool in efforts to conserve big cats throughout their ranges. In sites across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, SMART has become invaluable in detecting and monitoring threats and providing the information necessary to rapidly adapt to changes on the ground. In addition to driving protection at the site level, SMART is enabling improved collaboration and data sharing between organizations across landscapes, breaking down silos in the conservation community.
As the primary threat for tigers in many of their key sites is poaching, through either direct hunting or prey depletion, law enforcement is a critical factor in aiding the recovery of tiger numbers. Through SMART Partnership organizations and their collaborating partners, SMART is now being implemented in 100+ tiger sites across Asia, and has become the most effective tool for monitoring law enforcement work at the site level, which is the key to tiger protection.
“SMART has been invaluable in strengthening law enforcement and tiger protection efforts in our tiger sites,” said Yoan Dinata, tiger conservation project manager for ZSL Indonesia. “[SMART] has helped us to make the most out of law enforcement resources in areas where they are limited, allowing park management to effectively direct them where they are needed the most.”
SMART implementations focused on tigers are already demonstrating significant results in boosting tiger numbers in Bhutan and Russia, and improved patrol effectiveness and law enforcement monitoring efforts in Bhutan, Indonesia, Russia, Nepal, and Thailand. In Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park, for example, tiger populations have doubled since 2010. In Russia, sites saw increased or stable tiger populations since implementing SMART in 2011.
The increased transparency and monitoring of patrol efforts allow for greater management oversight, which can result in drastic improvements to law enforcement activity. In Russia, SMART implementation led to clear increases in patrol effort and a reduction in threats to tigers. In Nepal’s Parsa National Park, the implementation of SMART showed a more than doubling of patrol effort in less than a year, which led to a reduction of observations of illegal activity by 90 percent.
“Across tiger range, SMART has been really helpful to our teams on the ground and has helped improve protected area management where it is being implemented,” said Rohit Singh, enforcement specialist for the WWF Tigers Alive Initiative.
In Africa, SMART has also proved integral to efforts to conserve the continent’s big cats through enhanced management and decision-making, which has led to more effective and efficient deployments of anti-poaching efforts in sites with key importance to large carnivores. In Zambia, for example, Panthera and North Carolina Zoo are supporting SMART implementations in four National Parks that are critical for big cat conservation. In 2017 alone, SMART was used on more than 1,500 patrols in these areas to monitor and motivate anti-poaching efforts, as well as to collect research data on big cats to better understand their ecology.
The Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust has undertaken similar efforts. Using SMART, the group’s community ranger patrols improved the effectiveness of data collection and data quality for wildlife tracking, monitoring, and information on threats related to illegal wildlife activities. Since SMART’s introduction five years ago, community rangers have logged more than 10,000 anti-poaching patrols. In that time, poaching has decreased by 74 percent and there were zero wildlife poisonings or fires in the whole of 2017. MWCT also employs ‘Simba Scouts,’ a team of 12 Maasai warriors that uses SMART to monitor the movement of collared lions and other wildlife. They have seen a 67 percent improvement in the prevention of lion hunts within the area since 2010. SMART has helped the MWCT team not only reach their conservation targets, but surpass them, enhancing management and leading to methods that reduce human-wildlife conflict.
SMART is now being used in more than 70 sites across Central and South America, from Belize to Peru, more than 25 of which are Jaguar sites. SMART is playing an important role in accomplishing protected area management at the site level, which is key to protecting Jaguars and has included national adoption of SMART in Belize, Colombia, and Peru.
“Deforestation and other disturbances caused by people have reduced jaguar habitat by half,” said John Polisar, WCS Jaguar program coordinator. “In the strongholds that remain, SMART can play a critical role in monitoring and addressing threats.”
Significant work has been done in Honduras, where SMART was first implemented in 2014 in Jeannette Kawas National Park, a critical area for the Jaguar corridor. Panthera, in partnership with the government of Honduras, has expanded SMART implementation to three other national parks integral to Jaguars, and plans to expand SMART use in 2018 by combining key sensor technology, such as cameras and sound detectors, to better monitor where and when poaching is taking place in the parks.
“SMART has allowed us to identify and deter threats in key areas across the Jaguar corridor, but, most important, it has motivated park rangers to improve and continue to do their work,” said Franklin Castañeda, project coordinator for Panthera Honduras.
SMART continues to evolve and respond to the increasingly sophisticated needs of the frontlines of conservation. SMART Connect, an online extension to SMART released in 2017, facilitates centralized data management, integration with other data sources, and ‘as-close-to-real-time’ response as infrastructure allows. This technology is putting rangers one step ahead of poachers.
“With SMART Connect, our ability to detect and respond to threats in real-time will shift the focus from where poaching has happened to where poaching is about to happen,” said Tenzin Wangchuk, park manager for Royal Manas National Park, Bhutan.
Other new developments coming in 2018, such as SMART Profiles and a significant upgrade to CyberTracker, the mobile data collection component of SMART, will deliver exciting and impactful new services to practitioners around the world. SMART Profiles, for example, will provide conservation law enforcement officials with a highly secure and searchable repository of information on individuals engaging in illegal activities within protected areas over time.
These developments have been driven by feedback from the SMART user community and are based on the principle of delivering solutions that are free, open-source, and benefit the entire conservation community. We know that the fight to conserve big cats and other wildlife will be long and difficult, but the SMART Partnership and its implementing partners are committed. Through development of innovative solutions and support of the global community, we are working to continually improve conservation outcomes for big cats and all other wildlife in the long-term.
Drew Cronin is the program manager for the SMART Partnership. He is hosted by WCS on behalf of the SMART Partnership and works across the entire Partnership to encourage adoption of SMART, establish greater support for implementing partners, and to improve the overall conservation impact of SMART globally. Learn more at www.smartconservationtools.org, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook at @SMARTCnsvTools.
No wild animal on earth has an easy death. Be it starvation, disease, mortal wound, or a predator’s teeth, an inevitably grisly end awaits all creatures born into a world where nature’s dictum is the daily struggle to survive.
Though seemingly cruel, the ebb and flow of an animal’s precarious existence is the status quo that conservationists the world over are fighting to preserve. Without that primal but necessary ecological rhythm, wildlife in all flesh and form would simply cease to be.
As someone who loves Uganda, who spends time in the field doing research on its resident lions, observing and documenting their struggles for survival, even getting to know some of them as individuals, I’ve come to accept that their transient, unforgivingly harsh lives and equally cruel deaths are part of the natural order.
Yet despite the fact that wild lions don’t live that long, I was crestfallen to hear of the premature deaths of 11 of them in Queen Elizabeth National Park, done likely in retaliation for livestock predation.
Sadly, these lions, eight of which were cubs, did not die as ecologically intended. Their lives were tragically snuffed out as a result of suspected poisoning, which as it relates to lion conservation, is an unfortunate setback for the Ugandan population.
What happened in Queen Elizabeth National Park is not an isolated event. Human-wildlife conflict is endemic across much of rural Africa, impacting the entire conservation apparatus: regional biodiversity, the stability of ecosystems, and the well-being of marginalized peoples acting on basic survival compulsions. It is a nearly insurmountable hurdle with no straightforward way over.
Upon learning of the tragedy, I immediately wrote to my colleague and friend, Dr. Ludwig Siefert. As head of the Uganda Carnivore Program, he dedicates himself to finding a balance between the lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park and the vibrant communities of fishers and farmers living near them, including the village of Hamukungu, where the deaths occurred.
By working closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Siefert’s efforts have seen lions celebrated throughout the park’s enclave villages, financial compensation for the loss of goats and cattle thanks in part to tourist donations, and a number of other human-wildlife conflict programs aimed at protecting people and lions from one another, all under the umbrella of greater carnivore conservation.
To say that I wasn’t overcome with emotion at the loss of these 11 lions would be dishonest; my initial reaction was a plurality of anger, frustration, and sadness. But though my feelings were justified, I eventually had to swap them for critical thought.
“Lions will do what comes naturally to them,” Rachael, my fiancée said, referring to the all too common attacks on livestock. “Whoever poisoned them did so to protect their animals. How can we, who have grocery stores and access to so much that many people in Africa don’t have, even possibly understand what life is like for them? There’s just no good solution at the moment.”
Though not a conservationist by trade, she’d provided a profoundly teachable moment. I needed the reminder that even though a lot was done to ensure the safety of these lions, human conditions in this part of the world meant that it was only a matter of time before another flash point was reached. It was, and has been for some time, a no-win situation.
The lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park are famous for climbing sycamore figs in the Southern Ishasha sector, and candelabra euphorbia cacti in the northern Kasenyi plains. Photo by Michael Schwartz.
When taking a bird’s eye view of Africa, her people and her wildlife, one must admit that something is truly wrong with the overall picture. Yes, there are a number of organizations—government agencies, researchers, NGOs, volunteers, effervescent activists—all dedicated to saving lions. Some are quite successful. Yet in spite of management strategies and livestock husbandry schemes, compensation plans and cattle enclosures, lions are still being eliminated at an alarming rate.
This steady decline reveals a hard truth: As long as a growing rural population remains tethered to poverty, the risk of losing more lions stays high. And if we (the Western world) react to every wildlife tragedy with nothing more than moral exhibitionism toward the disenfranchised, then the root of the problem will stay buried beneath the conflict.
This may come as a surprise, even go beyond the frame of reference for some, but though I’m saddened, I hold no ill will toward the perpetrator(s). I know that if caught, there will likely be a hefty jail sentence or stiff fine. But how many times have we seen people apprehended, issued severe punishments, then become recidivists?
While arrests may be a salve to our personal wounding at the loss of wildlife and painstaking desire to see justice served, in the end it is nothing more than an attack on the symptom of human-wildlife conflict. The source, meanwhile, remains free to dictate these sad turn of events ad nauseum.
This is not to argue that there are no circumstances that warrant justice, nor is it wrong to express sympathy over the loss of these amazing creatures. But to put one living thing on a pedestal while refusing to empathize with the difficult circumstances of the other, is the wrong way to approach the problem.
In other parts of the world, where poverty isn’t as rampant, there doesn’t exist the same level of concern about dangerous wildlife, if one’s cattle or crops are safe, when the next meal can be successfully speared, trapped, shot, or fished, or if there is enough wood for the fire or water fetched from the nearest body of water to drink.
Ironically, while many of those suffering from domestic stock losses that take punitive action against offending lions arguably don’t see their intrinsic value, those in the western world who hold lions in high regard live in places completely devoid of them.
A Ugandan fisherman heads out at dusk to earn a living. Photograph by Michael Schwartz
Human poverty and wildlife is like oil and water. Not only are they incompatible, but they exist at the heart of so many tragic events contributing to wildlife loss in Africa. From retaliatory aggression against predators acting merely on instinct to unsustainable bushmeat poaching in support of a starving family, poverty has crippling effects on the lives of humans, animals, and the environment at large.
For people living in the African bush, tending herds is an occupational hazard, while for lions, easy meals can come at deadly costs. To boil it down, both parties living on the fringes are a continued threat to one another. How, then, can the problem be fixed?
Though I’m immensely passionate about lions, part of the answer begins by having compassion toward my fellow human beings. It must start by changing public opinion of the African people, many of whom are still seen unfairly as the callous enemies of wildlife. By continually impugning their character, by pitting human against beast without understanding the root cause of the issue, we are doing nothing more than reinforcing the status quo, meaning lions won’t stand much of a chance.
Like it or not, the lives of people and lions are inextricably linked, as they have been since time immemorial. The survival of latter being dependent on the welfare of the former is more important than ever.
Rather than immediately casting judgment, we must rediscover our empathy. We must ask ourselves what we would do if we were living without the means or resources to protect ourselves? Only then will more people care enough to act in the best interest of people and lions. Only then will another Ludwig Siefert join in the effort. That, in my opinion, is the true definition of a conservationist.
A conservationist is not someone who only loves animals. A conservationist is someone who sees the whole picture, and dedicates herself or himself to finding solutions that are beneficial for all involved. They are the ones who tirelessly work to build rainwater collection systems, or raise funds to open a school where young minds can learn about the value of the wildlife in their own backyards.
I must be careful not to paint with too broad a brushstroke, as I do not want to oversimplify all that human-wildlife conflict entails. There are similar issues such as ivory poaching, unsustainable hunting, corruption, and rhino horn harvesting that require the law’s intervention.
But when I envision communities with safe access to clean drinking water, proper forms of waste disposal, and improved or alternative fishing and farming methods, all with the idea of healthy local economies in mind, I believe lions will have a better chance of survival.
Imagine if the outside world showed as much care and concern for the people of Africa as it does for its wildlife? What if we traded in empty criticisms for helping hands? Once more, that is the essence of what it is to be a conservationist, not to mention what it is to be human.
This effort must coalesce with the celebration of the amazing people—black, white, and otherwise—that call Africa home. From the four kingdoms of Uganda to the Rainbow nation of South Africa, the herders of the Maasai Steppe to the San who can read the intricacies of the bushveld the way no other human can, the future of lions, indeed all wildlife under the brilliant African sun, is under their care.
Lions have as much a right to be on this earth as we do. But it is only when we give the same amount of compassion and care to people that lions will be free to live and die as nature intended.
“If we do not do something to prevent it, Africa’s animals, and the places in which they live, will be lost to our world, and her children, forever. Before it is too late, we need your help to lay the foundation that will preserve this precious legacy long after we are gone.” Nelson Mandela
The Okavango Delta is considered a pristine wilderness. Visitors are treated to vast open landscapes and extraordinary wildlife sightings. One of the biggest draws is the lion, the largest predator and undisputed king of the region. But for all of the strength that lions possess, there is an Achilles heel that can throw a thriving population into chaos: the removal of a territorial male.
Photo of Lentswe in the distance (photo: Stephanie Periquet)
When we started our lion conservation program here, along the northern boundary of the Okavango Delta, the lion population was reeling from a series of poisoning events that cut the population in half in one year. Many of the prides disappeared altogether and a struggle for territory ensued. Though the females, living in prides, maintain their areas, it is the males that protect and defend the territory against intruders that seek an opportunity to mate.
In many areas, males can hold a pride for only a few years, just long enough to mate and see their cubs to independence before younger, bolder males take their place. To increase their chances of holding their ground, males will build coalitions with other males–typically their brothers–in order to have the best chance of maintaining a territory for longer periods.
Since females don’t always sync up their reproduction, often there are cubs at a range of ages and so the new males have a choice to make. Do I wait for these cubs to reach independence, or do I kill the cubs, bringing the female into estrous for faster mating opportunities? This is the cold calculation the new males must make, because they are on the clock from the moment they take over a pride. If the cubs are less than a year, they are typically killed by the incoming coalition. This is the tragedy of regime-change in lion society.
Photo of cubs (photo: Andrew Stein)
In areas of greater instability, territorial males change more often, stagnating population growth and slowly killing the population. When lions kill livestock, communities retaliate. With poison or bullets, lions fall and the pride dynamics are shaken.
In the communal areas north of the Okavango, conflict between lions and people is nothing new. Since the start of 2018, lions have been slaughtering livestock. This is due to a number of factors, including unherded livestock venturing deep into lion territory, and also the roaring return of the lion population since our program began and poisoning stopped in the region. The communities have steadily reduced lion-killing, which led to the birth of over 15 new cubs in 2016 and 2017.
Photo of male and female lion (photo: Stephanie Periquet)
Despite the reduced killing, we have seen dramatic turnover as the area males struggle to keep a pride. In 2014 it was Eretsha and his brother who were the new kings in the west after pushing Nduraghombo and Mutlawankanda to the east. Then in 2016, Gombo and Poison (named because the community believed his limp was the result of a previous poisoning) took over the western and central portion of the study area, pushing the previous males to the margins. When Mutlawankanda was shot in February of last year, that put Nduraghombo on notice, and he has essentially been nomadic ever since.
By the end of 2017, however, the mighty Gombo and his injured companion Poison, couldn’t hold off the new young males, Lentswe and Stout. During our January darting expedition, we were shocked when we collared Lentswe in the eastern portion of our study area, and then found him the next night on the western edge. He and Stout were covering the area of at least three prides. Wetu, one of our newly collared females, was mating with Stout, and Shishatiya, another female, was receptive to him as well. We later found out that Shishatiya likely lost her recent cubs (sired by Gombo) to Lentswe and Stout. Other females in his area also had young cubs that fell, and they were quite busy ensuring that their genetic line would take root.
All that came into question on Friday, when Lentswe was found dead near an area lodge. Our team took traditional mokorros to find him and inspect the body. It was determined that he had been shot in the chest, missing several organs. But after four days of struggle, he eventually succumbed to the injuries.
Lentswe was a strong, prime-age male. He was named for the Setswana word for “Stone” by a member of the community. Now that he is no longer there to defend his many cubs, both newly born or on the way, we face a serious period of instability. Stout will likely be chased out by intruders that must in turn immediately defend their claim against a crop of new competition. Females typically lay low during these periods, waiting for the conclusion of these battles before committing to mating with any one group.
Photo of Lentswe Dead (photo by Florian Weise)
We are working with members of the community and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to determine what happened, and the best course of action to take. Lentswe is gone, and likely his entire cohort of cubs is lost. We will carry on our work, waiting for the full impact of that single bullet.
ABOUT ANDREW STEIN
Andrew Stein has 15 years’ experience working on human-carnivore conflict throughout East and southern Africa. His work draws upon his interest in wildlife ecology, culture, and engaging with communities to develop pragmatic solutions to challenging issues in the field. His previous work includes studies of African wild dogs and lions in Laikipia, Kenya, and leopards on farmlands in the Soutpansberg, South Africa, and Waterberg region of Namibia.
After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Stein headed a field camp overseeing ecological research on lions, leopards, cheetahs, African wild dogs, and spotted hyenas in northern Botswana. In 2015, Dr. Stein founded the CLAWS Conservancy (Communities Living Among Wildlife Sustainably), a nonprofit organization established to provide innovative approaches to promote human-wildlife coexistence. His current research initiatives include Pride in Our Prides, a human-lion conflict study in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, that engages the community in lion-monitoring. By informing communities about the habits of individual lions and providing real-time text alerts, the program has helped to stabilize and increase the lion population and halt the use of poison to kill the big cats.
In 2016, Stein led an international team of colleagues in making the case to change the conservation status of leopards to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Additionally, CLAWS is developing a program to use scent-marking to reduce wolf conflict in the western United States. Prior to his African carnivore focus, Stein studied by-catch and distribution of Atlantic sturgeon, explored bowhead whale migratory patterns in the face of sea ice melt in northern Alaska, moose movement patterns in western Massachusetts in relation to major road crossings, and nesting success by grassland/shrubland birds under powerline clearcuts.
Stein is currently an Assistant Professor of Natural Sciences at Landmark College, based in Putney, Vermont. He has received support from National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative since 2014.