Lions are in rapid decline throughout much of Africa. According to a recent report by Panthera and WILDAID, lion populations have plunged 43% in the last 20 years. Today, 20,000 lions (Panthera leo) remain, occupying just 8% of their historical range. National Geographic reports that the Luangwa to Lower Zambezi ‘complex’ is one of the last ten lion strongholds in Africa. A ‘stronghold’ is where lions have a long-term chance of survival. The USAID-funded Community Forests Program (CFP) which BCP implements overlays the same Luangwa to Lower Zambezi geographic area. The Luangwa ecosystem has an estimated population of 574, and the Lower Zambezi ecosystem contains an estimated 40 lions.
Large herbivores and big cats are particularly affected by escalating human-caused threats such as poaching, exploitation and habitat loss. While there is tremendous pressure on these species to survive, hope does exist. REDD+ is emerging as a tool to support wildlife conservation through protecting forest habitat, wildlife that live within these forests, and community-incentive programs. The Lower Zambezi REDD+ Project (LZRP) implements a set of community livelihood and development activities in return for help protecting Rufunsa Conservancy. The Conservancy adds 400 square kilometres of improved conservation area in a buffer zone directly adjacent to Lower Zambezi National Park, an area 10% the size of the Park. This is important as buffer zones to parks can often be “sinks”, not sources of lion.
When the Project started in 2012, we were lucky to see a lone Reedbuck sprinting away from 200 meters. Throughout 2013, wildlife sightings continued to be sparse; lion had not been reported in scout patrol records in the Conservancy for over a decade; wild dog (Lycaon pictus) had not been reported at all; the last buffalo (Syncerus caffer) had been reported around Mukamba gate about 8 years previously; and the few roan and sable left were sparse, stressed and poached. All indications pointed to a major near wildlife collapse in the Conservancy.
In addition to major community investments, the security system was overhauled in the Conservancy. New scouts were hired, trained and equipped, new vehicles procured, a radio repeater system put in place, and investments made into aerial surveys and a dog detection unit conducted by CLZ and DNPW. Bush meat poaching still is a problem but in short, a small pride of four lion appear to have found their way back to the Conservancy, and are feeling more and more comfortable and secure there. Lion roars are heard from the Management Camp regularly, and occasionally lion are seen by the Camp. These four lion represent around 10% of the Lower Zambezi ecosystem’s overall lion population.
Some may ask, why do four lions matter? According to a new BioScience article entitled “Saving the World’s Terrestrial Megafauna”, 59% of the world’s largest carnivores and 60% of the world’s largest herbivores are classified as threatened with extinction. These four lion are important because lions and their prey are in such trouble, and at the start of LZRP, it was rare to see any wildlife at all. Spectacular sightings continue to increase in the Conservancy including of iconic species like Sable (Hippotragus niger) and Roan (Hippotragus equinus). In April, 2016 wild dogs, a critically endangered predator, were spotted near the Rufunsa Conservancy entrance gate by DNPW staff for the first time in years. Six buffalo also moved through an area where they had not been seen in eight years.
To see whether these sightings scientifically reflect if REDD+ helps conservation or not, we teamed up with Lion Landscapes, a Kenyan-based Conservation research organization, to develop a structured community-based wildlife monitoring program in the Conservancy. Dr. Alayne Cotterill who heads up Lion Landscapes, recently visited the Conservancy and said: “There has been a noticeable difference in wildlife numbers since the REDD+ program started. During my initial visit we saw very little wildlife, and lions were discussed as something to aim for in the future. My last visit saw almost daily signs of lions using the area; I heard them calling 3 nights out of 6, and I even had lion tracks on my tracks walking back into camp one day! It is exciting to see the Conservancy becoming a sanctuary for both lions and their prey.”
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