No one really knows why they climb trees, perhaps it’s cooler up there, perhaps they aren’t bothered by flies up in the canopy, perhaps they like the comfy branches of the fig trees that grow in the Ishasha region of Queen Elizabeth National Park, or perhaps they just quite like climbing trees and that’s why they do it! Whatever the reason, the tree climbing lions of Ishasha are one of the only populations of lions known to enjoy a partially-arboreal life, and for that reason they are very popular with wildlife enthusiasts visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. Unfortunately they are less popular with the local pastoralists, and as a result of human-lion conflict the lions now number only around 140 in the whole Park, with far fewer in Ishasha, and they are gravely threatened by ongoing human population expansion and persecution.
I was in Uganda with Dr Andy Plumptre and his team from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who are actively involved in monitoring the lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park, and in trying to mitigate the human-animal conflict that threatens their survival. One of the ways they hope to avoid further conflict with the local pastoralists is to better understand which parts of the park the lions are frequenting and when. This information could be useful in discouraging the pastoralists to graze their cattle near the areas where the lions congregate, though I doubt the will of the pastoralists to change their ways. The other potentially important benefit of knowing precisely where the lions are at any one time is that you can charge tourists a premium to be taken directly to the lions, and the extra revenue generated by this system can be used to help in ongoing conservation efforts.
To know precisely where any given lion is at any given time you need to have them fitted with a tracking device. The producers of Biggest and Baddest had paid for two GPS collars and Andy and his team were hoping to fit them to two lions over the next few days. To put a GPS collar on a lion you first have to tranquilize it using dart fired from a gas-powered gun. Lions aren’t particularly intelligent and tend not to realize that the dart now sticking in their leg got there by means of the 4WD that recently drove up to them. Other animals immediately recognize that it was you that jabbed them with the dart and throw you an accusing stare before succumbing to the anesthetic, but lions just don’t get it!
On our first evening in Queen Elizabeth National Park, we located a suitable lioness as we drove around the park in the late afternoon. It’s dangerous to tranquilize animals in the heat of the day as they can’t regulate their body temperature while anesthetized, so we planned to work nearer to sunset when it would be much cooler. We maneuvered the 4WD into position near the lioness and our vet took her shot, firing the dart into the lion’s muscular thigh. She leapt up and looked around confused, trying to figure out why she had a sting in her leg. Three minutes later she was unconscious and we jumped into action. We took a series of measurements, checked her body condition and – most importantly – we affixed the GPS collar to her. Then, after posing for a couple of photographs (it’s not every day you get to hold a lion’s head in your hands!) the vet administered the anesthetic reversal agent and we piled back into the car to watch her regain consciousness.
Two and a half hours later she was still asleep, breathing slowly and heavily and showing no sign of waking up. It was just beginning to get dark enough for us not to see, so we flicked on the headlights of the 4WD so we could carry on monitoring her, when one of Andy’s staff, in the other 4WD, came on the radio: “Careful with the headlights, the car battery is very unreliable in your car!” And with that, the battery died! We were now faced with the challenge of bump-starting the car next to a lion that could wake up at any moment! The other 4WD maneuvered in front of us and three of us jumped out to affix a tow-rope, while half of the remaining people watched the lioness for signs of movement and the other half looked out for any other animals coming our way. We tied the rope from the tow bar of the other 4WD to the front bumper of ours, then started to make our way back to the rear of our vehicle to climb back in when we heard one of the guards speak up: “Quickly now! She’s waking up!”
Join biologist Niall McCann as he heads to the southwest corner of Uganda searching for the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha on Biggest & Baddest: Tree-Climbing Lions tonight at 9/9c.