When lions stray away from the park to the neighboring communities, the consequences are typically disastrous for both the lions and people. With no buffer area left around Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) in Uganda, lions frequently encounter human populations, which negatively affects the livelihood of the subsistence farmers and sometimes resulting in injury or death to a community member and lions are killed in retaliation.

This was observed early last year when a pride of 11 lions that included eight cubs were poisoned and killed by communities residing near Hamukungu, a fishing village located inside QENP.

This time, the narrative has been re-written, thanks to WCS’s Uganda Program and its partners.  In a collaborative effort, three male lions were rescued from what could have easily ended in a tragic tale.

On January 1st 2019, three male lions strayed from QENP and moved to Kiyenge village, located in Lake Katwe Sub-county, Kasese district, western Uganda. Using the real time information about the lion movements received on mobile Smart phones, WCS, together with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and Uganda Carnivore program (UCP), were able to track the lions using VHF signals to trace their location and rescue them before they could cause harm to people and their livestock.

According to Mustapha Nsubuga, a WCS-Uganda Country program carnivore researcher based in Queen Elizabeth National Park, the lions were fitted with a satellite collar and chip with VHF in 2018 to monitor their movements in a bid to address the human-lion conflict as well as to guide tourism activities inside the park.

“We first got the signal from the satellite collar and chip on the lions indicating that the lions were on the move on December 31st, 2018. By January 1st, 2019, they had moved 2 km away from the park into the adjacent communities. Once we confirmed their location, we returned to the drawing board to plan the rescue mission. It took us two days to come up with a risk free and successful rescue plan,” Mustapha said.

Armed with a call back machine, which we will refer to as a sound recording system, pre-recorded sounds of prey animals and a bait (legs of a dead buffalo), Mustapha and a team of veterinarians and rangers from UWA and staff of UCP set out on a mission to capture and repatriate the lions to the national park.

Once the rescue team successfully re-tracked the big cats to their exact location, a team from UWA laid their trap, using the buffalo leg as bait and playing recorded sounds of prey animals such as buffaloes and warthogs from the sound recorder to attract the lions to the bait.

“The calls lured the lions to the bait and nearby, we had the veterinary doctors strategically positioned inside the vehicle to ensure the beasts well targeted and darted using a dart gun loaded with tranquilizing (anesthesia) drugs. All the three lions arrived at the scene and struggled to pull the securely fastened bait. Veterinary doctors in the vehicles darted the three lions, one by one at an interval of 10 minutes each,” said Bashir Hangi, the communication manager of UWA.

The veterinarians darted the lions with an aesthetic drug to weaken them for their safe translocation. They later topped up on the drugs before loading them onto the waiting trucks for transportation back to the park under the close watch of the vet doctors who kept monitoring their vitals throughout the journey to make sure they were breathing fine and well positioned.

The operation which began at about 5:30pm on January 3, ended at 12:10am on January 4, 2019 when the lions were released at Kasenyi plains, 20km away from the village.

Dr. Simon Nampindo, the Country Director for WCS’s Uganda Program underscored the importance of applying superior technology in wildlife conservation, saying that the remaining lion population in Queen Elizabeth National park could easily be recovered to viable populations, if innovative, science-based techniques are used to mitigate human-lion conflicts, the biggest threat to lion conservation in Uganda.

Said Napindo: “We were able to conduct a successful rescue mission because of the collaborative effort among the QENP lion monitoring and research team as well as the support from the lion alliance, which was created in 2018 and being led by WCS. With these devices, our field officers are able to monitor the lion movement and know where they are every after two hours. A rescue response unit is then deployed in real time to conflict hotspot areas such as the fishing villages to counter any lion incursions. This helps us safeguard both the communities and lions at the same time.”

The Executive Director UWA Mr. Sam Mwandha called the rescue a demonstration of a true conservation spirit.

“We have conservation heroes who put their lives at risk to save wildlife and also protect the communities,” said Mr. Mwandha.

WCS has been monitoring and researching on lions in QENP and Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP) since 2006 and 2008 respectively and because of its permanent commitment to sites, it has developed a long term partnership with UWA and committed to work with interested parties to restore lion populations in the three stronghold lion conservation area - MFNP, QENP and Kidepo Valley National Park and inspire Ugandans and the global community to conserve the large carnivores on the African continent.