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The Queen Elizabeth Park lion massacre

Lions are popular with tourists

Queen Elizabeth National Park boasts sweeping savannas, crater lakes and forests, and is home to some 600 species of birds and 95 mammals, including elephants, buffaloes and leopards. It is also a lion conservation area, and the cats are among the biggest tourist attractions.The park is famous for having the largest population of tree climbing lions and whole prides can be spotted in trees.

In the wild, lions are the second largest living cats after the tiger. Male lions are unique among the cat species for their thick mane of brown or black hair that encircles their head and neck. The lion’s mane darkens with age, and the thicker and the darker the mane, the healthier the lion, conservationists say.

But the lions found in Queen Elizabeth National Park are very popular with tourists because they have the rare culture of climbing trees. But the same culture might be putting the lions at risk, according to findings of a new study of lions in the Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area (QECA) of southwestern Uganda.

According to findings published in June last year in a study titled “Detecting early warnings of pressure on an African lion (Panthera Leo) population in the Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area, Uganda” that was published by the British Ecological Society (BES) journal, the lions’ tree climbing culture may have led to unusually high detection rates of lions and misled field workers to be satisfied in applying less‐robust lion monitoring methods.

The study carried out in the Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area (QECA) from October 2017 to February 2018 by Prof. Alexander Richard Braczkowski and Senior Research Fellow Duan Biggs from Griffith University and Postdoctoral research fellow James R. Allan from the University of Amsterdam and ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, Martine Maron, of the University of Queensland found that there was only one female lion for every male in the Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area.

According to them, this is very different to other African lion populations which have a much higher proportion of females relative to males (about two females for every male).

The researchers say this may be due to direct killing of lions by people living in villages located within and on the boundaries of the QECA. This is because female lions often venture into community lands to feed on vulnerable livestock.

In the northern section of the park alone, at least 47 adult and sub‐adult lions were killed between 2006 and 2012, equating to at least seven lions being killed annually. This, according to the scientists, could lead to the population of lions in Queen “collapsing” or long-term population decline.

“From the standpoint of lion conservation and recovery these results are concerning. But, on a positive note, this finding has provided a timely alert,” the researchers said.

Going forward, local conservationists say it is time UWA found a long lasting solution to the lion massacres in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

“There is no doubt that predators threaten human life. Whereas elephants and other larger mammals like buffaloes are equally dangerous, lions present the most existential threat for the frontline communities,” he said.

“But it is important for the authorities to investigate these incidents, get to the root of the cases and then try to find long lasting solutions which they should also be able to replicate in other parks,” Olupot told The Independent.

“The economic situation, thanks to the disruption caused by COVID-19 and a lack of robust policies in reacting to the challenge is causing these killings but, I think, following the Hamukungu incident (lion killings in 2018), we should have come up with a new strategy of protecting Uganda’s lion population,” Duli told The Independent.

Duli wants Queen Elizabeth Park’s special status as a biosphere reserve revisited. “We know that Queen Elizabeth National Park is both a man and biosphere reserve meaning that activities that are going on there are not compatible with conservation.

In the recent past, human-wildlife settlements have increased around the park’s boundaries. Some are legally established including; Hamukungu, Kasenyi, Katunguru and Katwe-Kabanyoro.

But many are illegal havens of wildlife poachers. An April 2017 report on community-based prevention in Queen Elizabeth Park noted that within the park’s villages, over 40% of households are estimated to have hunted in the park for commercial purposes at least once in 2015.

“That has got to be revisited,” Duli told The Independent adding that, “It is important that the number of people living closer to the park be kept at a minimum.”

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