When lions eat livestock, relocation is common—but often deadly

New research shows lions often die after being translocated, leading conservationists to call for a change in tactics.

By Rachel Nuwer
Published 22 Mar 2021, 13:07 GMT
Nine lions are darted and flown from Tembe and Mkuze game reserves to Mozambique.
Photograph by Ami Vitale

Wildlife conservationist Glyn Maude knows that scientists shouldn’t get attached to their research subjects. But he and his colleagues couldn’t help rooting for a six-year-old lioness they nicknamed Magigi, Botswanan for “magician,” because of her habit of disappearing.

After she repeatedly killed cattle outside the village of Bere, Botswana authorities captured and moved her 80 miles into Central Kalahari Game Reserve, far from people. Magigi spent most of her time within the reserve’s protective boundaries, but around the one-year anniversary of her capture, she strayed outside in pursuit of livestock and was shot dead by a farmer.

“We were hoping she’d survive long-term,” says Maude, the founder of Kalahari Research and Conservation, a nonprofit wildlife group in Botswana. “But it didn’t work out in the end, which sadly is often the way it goes.”

New research Maude and his colleagues have conducted confirms that Magigi’s unfortunate story is the norm for many relocated lions. For decades, wildlife managers in a number of African countries have used translocation as a humane way to deal with lions that repeatedly kill livestock. (Lions that attack people are euthanised). But the new research shows that after lions are moved, most continue to prey on livestock and endanger villagers’ livelihoods.

Moreover, the majority of the 13 translocated lions Maude’s team has monitored in Botswana died within a year of being moved. Some were killed by people, while the others likely succumbed to the stress of being transplanted.

“The main reason the government uses this tool is because they don’t want to shoot lions,” Maude says. “Today, there’s a huge move to use methods other than lethal control.”

Across Africa, lion numbers have fallen by 43 percent in the past two decades, to as few as 23,000 animals today. About 3,000 remain in Botswana. The steep declines are primarily driven by development—lions now occupy just 8 percent of their historic habitat—as well as by prey depletion and retaliatory killings. “It’s important not to criticise any government trying to move lions rather than shoot them dead on the spot,” Maude says. “In most situations, though, translocations are not worth the effort, so we need to be more inventive and think outside the box to come up with more effective solutions.”

Answers needed 

In general, translocation of problem-causing carnivores—from tigers in India to wolves in the United States—delivers mixed or discouraging results. A 1997 review of studies from around the world found that most large carnivores try to return home—even if it means travelling hundreds of miles—or die trying. A 2011 investigation of 10 carnivore species likewise concluded that relocating animals tends to be more costly and less effective than alternative solutions.

Research on other big cat species in Botswana reflects these global findings: One study showed that three of four translocated leopards died, and the fourth resumed killing livestock. Another paper revealed that only two of 11 cheetahs survived for more than a year after they were moved.

Translocation basically equates to “carnivore dumping and hoping for the best outcome,” says Lise Hanssen, coordinator of the Kwando Carnivore Project, in Namibia, who was not involved in the new study.

When it comes to lions, though, very little research exists, save for a couple of studies published decades ago that revealed mostly inconclusive results. While lion experts have long suspected that translocations often fail, this belief was mostly based on anecdotal evidence until now. “We all just wanted answers, really,” Maude says. 

Working with partners from Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Maude and Mompoloki Morapedi, a Botswanan lion conservationist, and their colleagues used satellite collars to follow the fates of 13 cattle-killing lions—seven males and six females, including Magigi—that were translocated in southern Botswana between 2013 and 2017. All 13 were moved into wildlife reserves that were, on average, about a hundred miles from their capture site.

The researchers were surprised to see that immediately after their release, six of the lions started killing cattle again and had to be recaptured and re-released elsewhere. One lion had to be recaptured a third time, and several managed to find their way back home.

Even more discouraging, of the 13 study subjects, 10 died within a year of being translocated. Farmers killed five in retaliation for cattle raiding. The other five, the researchers suspect, were probably weakened by the stress of suddenly finding themselves alone in strange territories occupied by other lions, leading to possible clashes and competition. Of the remaining three, one lost its radio collar—possibly in a fight with another lion—and another’s signal stopped transmitting, so their fates are unknown. Only one lion survived to the two-year mark.

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The new study calls into question the usefulness of translocation for lions, says Florian Weise, a carnivore researcher in southern Africa who was not involved in the work. “The purpose of translocation is to mitigate the issue of livestock predation while keeping the offending animal alive so it can continue to contribute to the wild lion gene pool,” he says. “This is not achieved if most lions die soon after release or continue to kill livestock.”

Amy Dickman, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford, who also was not involved in the research, adds that even if translocated lions are confirmed to survive, that only gives a partial understanding of the impacts because their sudden presence in a new landscape can undermine existing lion populations there. New lions could kill or expel resident animals, Dickman says, or if they go back to preying on livestock, this could increase the likelihood of retaliation against all lions.

Preventing bad outcomes 

Rather than trying to move lions, Maude and others say, emphasis should be placed on reducing the chances of lions encountering and killing livestock in the first place. Many preventative measures are being tested in various African countries, including hiring lion guardians to monitor carnivores, creating lion-proof corrals, sending out lion text alerts, and teaching herders to keep livestock away from high-risk areas.

Every situation is different, so conservationists should work directly with communities to identify the root of the problem and come up with solutions, says Moreangels Mbizah, executive director of Wildlife Conservation Action, a nonprofit organisation in Zimbabwe that promotes human-wildlife coexistence. She was not involved in the study.

“Once you have community participation, even if the mitigation is not 100 percent successful, they’re on your side, so chances are you won’t have retaliation against lions,” Mbizah says.  

When appropriate, government departments other than those that deal with wildlife should also be involved in addressing the underlying causes of trouble, Hanssen adds. “We have found in northeast Namibia that settlement patterns of people and agricultural practices of those people are a big contributing factor to conflict,” she says. “If land is correctly zoned for different land use, then this would make a big difference to human-lion conflict.” 

“Translocation of lions,” she adds, “is putting the full burden of human-lion conflict onto the conservation authorities, when in fact it is a more complex issue.”

But Dennis Ikanda, a lion biologist at the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, who was not involved in the study, says that in certain situations, translocation can still be a viable option, especially if an animal or pride faces immediate retaliation and there are suitable nearby release sites without existing lions.

This was the case in 2017, for instance, when authorities in Tanzania captured and moved a group of seven lions that had eaten cattle and which were likely to be killed. Four of the lions survived to the 12-month mark, when monitoring stopped. “We rate this as a successful venture, given the threat of the whole pride being poisoned,” Ikanda says. 

In some difficult cases, however—when no suitable areas are available for relocated lions, for example, and when other efforts have failed—authorities may need to consider putting chronic problem lions down, says Peter Lindsey, director of the Lion Recovery Fund in Zimbabwe.

“No one wants lethal control, but sometimes it has to be done,” he says. “The real take-home is that prevention is the best cure, without a doubt.”

Wealthy countries and donors, Lindsey continues, should play a more active role in helping African nations implement measures to reduce killings of livestock by lions.

“Africa’s wildlife is among the most challenging in the world to live with,” Lindsey says. “It’s definitely possible to achieve coexistence, but Africa needs help with these issues.”


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