Beginning in mid-May, the Lion Rangers have been deploying trail cameras near the Ombonde research area to assess the local lion population. This research, led by Dr. John Heydinger of the University of Minnesota, is being performed under the supervision of, and in partnership with the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT), and has been authorized by the Namibia National Commission on Research Science and Technology (NCRST). This camera trap project is part of an ongoing effort to learn more about the crucial desert-adapted lion subpopulation inhabiting the broader Ombonde landscape.
With the support of the Community Conservation Fund of Namibia (CCFN), the Lion Ranger program has procured 100 cameras to deploy across the Ombonde landscape. Using a ‘camera-blitz’ methodology the project aims for an accurate, if not necessarily precise, assessment of the lions around Ombonde. Because isolated population assessments are of little value, the methods being used are meant to be replicable in years to come. Once a baseline is established the camera trap program can hopefully be repeated to develop a better understanding of changes in local lion population numbers.
Deploying cameras in the field is a time-intensive, exacting process. We are using Panthera’s PoacherCam V7, which has proven effective in other similar projects in Namibia. First, every camera needs to be catalogued and assigned a unique ID number, so we know which camera is recording which image. Each camera needs to be programmed and tested to ensure proper functioning. This includes setting trigger-rate – to ensure the camera is taking enough, but not too many, photos – and date and time so we can know when each image was recorded. With a display-free interface, these cameras also need to be linked, via Bluetooth connection, to a phone-based app.
Once the cameras are ready to deploy they need to be properly sited in the field. This is where the expertise of the Lion Rangers is critical. Because we are aiming to record as many lions as possible – rather than a randomized sample of the area, which would be done if we were assessing relative lion density – it is imperative that cameras are deployed in areas frequented by lions. Because few satellite collars have been deployed around Ombonde, the Lion Rangers have had to perform intensive foot-based patrols throughout the rugged area since the beginning of the year. This, coupled with local knowledge of lion movements enables us to identify so-called ‘carnivore highways’: paths frequently used by lions and other carnivores when moving through the landscape. Provided they are set at the right height and orientation to the sun, cameras along these paths stand a good chance of recording movements of lions and other carnivores. Our initial results bear this out.
Our first check on the cameras, a mere ten days after deployment, revealed seven and possibly as many as nine lions moving through a roughly 15 km2 area between waterholes near Ombonde. Included in these photos was one group of four/five uncollared females and a collared male, as well as two males who had recently been collared further north in the research area. Given the time stamps from the cameras, and the fact that each group appeared on more than one camera, we were able to track the lions’ movements through the area. This provides greater insight into what types of groups are moving through and in what specific parts of the area.
Most surprising to the entire team was the number of brown hyenas captured on the trail cameras. Generally brown hyenas are considered to reside further west, closer to the coast, though the ongoing drought is likely causing carnivores across the region to look far afield for prey. We will definitely be keeping our eyes out for brown hyenas going forward.
Understandably some of the carnivores have noticed the cameras and taken an interest in them. To prevent damage, particularly from spotted hyenas, baboons, and elephants – all of whom are somewhat notorious culprits when it comes to destroying trail cameras – each camera is encased in hard plastic and placed in relatively nondescript locations. Though we know animals will inevitably find some of them.
Of course not only carnivores are being photographed, in the first ten days the cameras have taken photos of mountain zebra, steenbok, giraffe, springbok, oryx, black rhino, and a variety of raptors and small birds around waterholes. This project provides a great opportunity to learn more about the wildlife in the area. We will keep providing more information and images as they become available.