Through studying lions prides in 33 protected areas, reserves and fenced areas, one researcher is coming closer to decoding the fascinating behaviour of these big cats. Researcher Orla McEvoy, who is currently completing a PHD in zoology, was intrigued by the contrasting social dynamics of lions in open systems and smaller, fenced reserves and parks.
Words by Taryn Arnott van Jaarsveld. Originally published in SANParks Times.
By comparing the group dynamics of lions in smaller, fenced reserves and parks to those in open systems such as Kruger and Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Parks, McEvoy is uncovering the complex social lives of lions.
Her research will eventually inform the efforts of the Lion Management Forum of South Africa (LiMF), a public benefit organisation that assists interested parties in developing better management strategies for important fenced populations.
“Through the LiMfF more reserves with free-ranging lions are becoming connected all the time, increasing our knowledge and resource base when it comes to the management of our lions on a national level,” she says.
McEvoy has gathered data from over 1 200 lion sightings over 18 months. Rangers and environmental monitors throughout the national parks with lion populations assisted with monitoring and collecting data.
Observers paid special attention to the amount of time lions spent greeting, grooming, playing and calling – all signs of social cohesion.
So far, McEvoy’s research has revealed that, in smaller reserves with just a single pride, females spend far less time together than in reserves with multiple prides or males. “With reduced stress from unknown, competitive lions, pride members have less motivation to group in order to protect their cubs and their territories,” says McEvoy.
This leads to more independent hunting, and the removal of more prey – which can have implications on the ecological integrity of a closed system. “With smaller feeding groups, larger carcasses are also often left unconsumed before going rank or another kill is opportunistically made,” she says.
Because cub survival and lioness reproductive rate in small reserves are higher than in open systems, lion populations also increase excessively, impacting prey species populations. This can skew the ratio of predators and prey in a way that negatively affects the ecology of a system.
McEvoy believes that the restoration of natural processes is the key to conservation of lions. “Where natural processes cannot be completely restored for various reasons, the goal should be to mimic these natural processes as closely as possible.”
This echoes the SANParks management approach of mimicking the natural behaviour and social dynamics of predators.
Upon completion of her research, McEvoy will be travelling to various national parks and reserves to share her findings in a bid to inform lion management processes.