King of the park

Tutilo Mudumba puts a collar on a male lion which has been darted
Tutilo Mudumba puts a collar on a male lion which has been darted

Lion populations have fallen dramatically in Uganda. A team of conservationists are on a mission to reverse this disturbing trend.

Just past a sign that read: “No driving off-road, 500,000 shillings fine,” Tutilo Mudumba guided the wheels of his Land Cruiser over the embankment and into the virgin savannah of Murchison Falls National Park, where the high yellow grass whispered as the truck passed through. Here and there an antelope would jerk up its head, flit its ears, and dash away. Tutilo’s assistant, Sophie Jingo, leaned out the window with an H-shaped antenna and scanned the hills rolling off into the horizon. All you could hear was the wind and the grass, and then suddenly, a little blip noise from Sophie’s antennae.

“The lion,” she said, “he’s off that way.” The blip got louder as the truck coasted down into a valley dotted with twisted shrubs. “He’s closer now.” The truck slowed and the blip grew steady and regular. “He’s right here. We should be able to see him. He’s right next to us.” Yet all around, there was nothing visible but waving grass.

Tutilo and Sophie work for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an NGO that has teamed up with Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) and USAID to monitor the large carnivores of Uganda. In 1998, a survey in Murchison estimated the lion population at around three hundred; but when WCS conducted a survey last year—the most extensive ever in Murchison—the organization found only 132 lions. In response, WCS dispatched Tutilo to live in Murchison, with the task of following the lions every day, learning their habits to discover the cause behind the sudden and worrisome decline.

Each night over the course of three weeks last June, Tutilo and other WCS employees crept into Murchison and laid out a trap baited with raw meat. Using loudspeakers, they filled the savannah with the sounds of a wounded buffalo, which attracted all sorts of carnivores – leopards, hyenas, jackals, and of course, lions. Every time one of the lions Tutilo had previously identified as a good candidate for a collar moved onto the trap, a WCS employee shot it with a dart containing enough anaesthesia to knock it out for fifteen minutes, during which a mad scramble ensued to weigh, collar, tag, photograph, and collect blood samples before the animal awoke. By the end of June, WCS had all the correct animals collared, and then it was up to Tutilo to keep track of them.

The collars each contain batteries that last about two years, but they only last that long because the collars conserve the amount of information they broadcast. Every morning, they beam a GPS location to a satellite, which Tutilo downloads to his e-mail. In addition to the daily GPS signal, every few seconds the collars give off a little blip on a radio frequency that can be detected up to two kilometres away. To find the lions, Tutilo drives his truck to the most recent GPS location and then drives around in ever-widening circles in order to pick up the sound of the radio blip.

Recently, Tutilo’s work with lions won him a distinguished scholarship. In February, he will spend nine months at Oxford University in England studying international wildlife. Not to be outdone by their old rival, Cambridge University has asked him to make a presentation on his research as well. While he’s gone, his new assistant, Sophie Jingo – who has already spent three years working with lions in Queen Elizabeth Park – will continue to keep him updated daily on the whereabouts and habits of the lions. Sophie swung around the antennae. “He’s near…on our left…no our right.” Tutilo drove the truck in a slow circle. The blips continued, without any sign of the lion. Then, not ten feet from the window, I saw a patch of grass that was blowing oddly in the wind. It was a male, and beneath it, two green eyes looking right at me. Lion!

“Oh,” said Tutilo, in a mild response to my shout, “There he is. Hello Silver.” Tutilo turned off the engine, and the lion grunted and snuffled in greeting, before lying down and blending in with the grass so well that he became almost invisible. Tutilo recorded his location and appearance and then discovered fresh paw-prints that indicated a female lion had been visiting. “His sister,” said Tutilo, recognizing the prints, “She’s around here too.”

After recording the data, Tutilo started the engine and handed me a pack of biscuits. “It’s a tradition,” he said, “First one to spot a lion gets to open the biscuits.”

A short distance from where we spotted Silver, a large fence had been erected around what appeared to be a barren field. An oil exploration site, Tutilo explained. As Murchison opens up to oil drilling, Tutilo is investigating how the lions react to the increased human presence. To do that, he tends to look at kill sites and excrement, to see what and where the lions are eating.

About a mile from the Nile River, we came across the carcass of a water buffalo. To me it just looked like a pile of skin and bones but Tutilo could read the carcass as though the animals had left him a note. A female water buffalo had died giving birth, Tutilo explained.

He pointed to bite marks on the carcass: two male lions had found the body first. “After the lions came hyenas to finish off the meal,” he said, noting how the bones had been scattered and the meat gnawed from within, “They left the tough skin and ate her from inside out.”

The two male lions were satellite males – that is, males unattached to any other pride of lions. Tutilo suspected that these two males were older lions, who had sensed that the male lions of the Delta Pride of Murchison were weak and had come down from Wangkwar, northeast of Paraa, to claim new territory. Even though they had frightened the Delta Pride across the river, the presence of new males is a healthy sign for the park. Male competition for prides leads to increased genetic diversity. To check on his hunch, Tutilo drove down to the Nile River to search for the fleeing Delta Pride, but stopped on a hillside when he spotted five or six small canoes, each holding two men, skimming along the river banks near the park.

He pulled out a set of binoculars and crept behind a bush. Poachers, he said, looking through the lenses. He handed me the binoculars, but the men just looked like fishermen to me. “They are fishermen,” he said, “but they used to have to stay halfway across the river. Now they are coming closer. At dusk, they set wire snares for antelope, but all sorts of animals get caught.”

Earlier this year, Opido, the head male lion of the Delta Pride, was found by a ranger with a wire snare cutting deeply into his waist. To save his life, he had to be operated on by a UWA veterinary doctor. A second male lion lost a paw in a wire snare. Three other lions have disappeared without a trace. Occasionally, Tutilo finds the bones of butchered hippo hidden in bushes along the river.

The fishermen are quite poor, so one can understand that to them, the park looks like field of food scampering before their eyes. But the poaching destabilizes the park’s ecology, and in practical terms, causes a tremendous loss in tourist dollars. In the 1960’s, Murchison was considered the best park in Africa for sheer number of animals. Now it’s a shadow of its former self. Tourists come to see lions. For every lion poached, one finds a corresponding increase in the number of tourists who go home disappointed. Next time they’ll visit Kenya or Tanzania, not Uganda.

Part of his job, Tutilo says, is thinking about tourists. Lions attract tourists and tourist dollars save lions. To his mind, tourists are also an untapped resource. In the coming year, Tutilo wants to set up a database, like those in Kenya (http://www.livingwithlions.org/mara/), where tourists can upload the pictures that they have taken of the lions. Tutilo can recognize the lions from their whisker spots, and with tourists photos available to him, he and other WCS employees could keep much better track of the activities and habits of the lions.

“I can’t be everywhere at once,” he said, “but tourists are always crawling around the park. If we can harness their curiosity, it will make caring for the lions that much easier. Tourism can harm a park, but the park also won’t survive without tourists, so I think about how to incorporate them in a healthy manner.”

As if to prove his point, down by the delta we came across a group of distraught Americans. They had rented a big low-slung bus, and their driver, who had never driven off-road before, had driven the bus straight into a deep mud-pit, where it had sunk up to the axles. Even though Tutilo had planned to track the Delta Pride across the river, he stopped to help the tourists. When it became clear that a tractor would be needed to pull out the bus, Tutilo offered to give an American mother with two crying children a ride to Paraa. “But what about the Delta Pride?” I asked, “Won’t it be harder to track them if they cross the river before you see them?”

Tutilo pointed to the hills rising up from the Nile River and lowered his voice so the American mother couldn’t hear, “The two satellite males are close by. And as a conservationist, you learn something funny: often the best way keep track of the animals is to first keep track of the humans.”

By David Torrey Peters