South Africa’s lions thrive with careful observation and fenced parks

Posted on September 04, 2021 at 8:40 pm


At sunset, the disturbed grunt of a buffalo calf echoes through the bush. But it’s a trick. The grunts boom from a loudspeaker that is supposed to lure lions to a tree and a South African game reserve to count its top predators. As an additional incentive, the carcasses of two impalas are attached to a tree. The scent promises a fresh meal. In the spotlight of a 4×4, armed rangers watch over the scene with night binoculars and flashlights.

“We know our lions, but this is the process we use to screen them,” says Ian Nowak, chief overseer at Balule Nature Reserve. Next to him, a wildlife researcher is listening attentively, her ears fixed on clues from the nocturnal noises. So she knows that a rumble comes from elephants grazing in the tall grass. And so she knows when to raise her camera to photograph lions, look for distinctive scars or peculiar ears – everything that she identifies for the count. This work requires patience. The team once saw 23 lions take a bait. “They growl and fight. Then they lie down and eat, ”Nowak whispers. “It can be quite a frenzy with the bait. They hit each other and then settle down.” At 55,000 hectares (136,000 acres), Balule is huge – but it connects to an even larger ecosystem that is almost the size of Belgium overall. Balule and other nearby game farms have moved to nature reserves and have partnered with Kruger National Park to create a vast area with no internal fences that spans 2.5 million hectares and extends as far as Mozambique. Creating such an enormous habitat for wildlife is a rare success story these days. Conservationists meeting in Marseille, southern France, are deeply concerned about Africa’s “big cats” facing habitat loss, human interference and poaching. Balule is so large that its census officers have to crisscross the grounds to make the census as thorough as possible. “Sometimes they ate. If they are full, they won’t come, ”said Nowak. “The males in particular are lazy as hell.” Twenty years ago balule was mostly farmland and lions were few. Last year the census found 156 of the stately beasts. “Lions are doing incredibly well, mostly because the room is big enough to work,” says Nowak. Overall, the news is good for lions in South Africa thanks to government efforts to protect them – aided by the incentive of tourists willing to see the animals. Private investors have also stepped in. Years of drought have also given impetus. Antelopes and buffalo did not have enough to eat, which made them easier prey for large carnivores. The loudspeaker rumbles again with the recording of the injured buffalo calf. This time a little jackal appears hoping to nibble. At the slightest noise, it rushes away. The wildlife researcher notices another movement in her thermal binoculars. The headlights come on again, illuminating the majestic mane of a lion that is secretly approaching, cautious but calm. “He’s cautious at first,” says Nick Leuenberger, one of the district heads. “He doesn’t know if he comes in with any other pride.” “Lions defend their food, they don’t share it,” he adds. “Here the lion tolerates the jackal. He knows that he is not a great threat to his food source.” Suddenly the lion jumps up to one of the hanging impalas and bites him in the stomach. After eating, he lies at the foot of the tree. Now the team can move on. No other animals will dare to approach. The next night seven hyenas take turns snapping at the fresh impala without a lion in sight. But on the way back, the 4×4 hits the brakes fully. On the left a hippopotamus is roaring with its mouth wide open. On the right, seven lionesses raise their heads over the grass border. A magical sight, but no danger to the hippopotamus. Nowak says it would take at least twice as many lions to threaten the hippopotamus. The tension subsides. A lion emerges from the undergrowth and walks along the path. A lioness joins him and the 4×4 slowly follows them until they disappear into the night.

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