"Living with Lions" scientists Dr. Laurence Frank, Alayne Cotterill, and Steve Ekwanga, working in the Laikipia region of Kenya 150 miles north of Nairobi, wanted to check out a pride of lions who had been seen trying to kill a sheep on a nearby ranch the night before. Only one of the lions in the pride had a collar - an old-fashioned VHF collar. The team wanted to put a much more advanced GPS collar on another of the pride's lions, so they would be able to track the movements of the pride over days and weeks.
Without being able to pinpoint the pride's exact location from the ground, the team would have to lure the pride with bait - to bring them close enough to shoot at one of them with a tranquilizer dart. To make things more complicated, they'd have to try to do this at night, when the lions would be more active. The team set up a trap beneath a dead smelly calf lashed to a tree. The idea was that a lion from the pride would come to the bait, put their foot in the middle of the snare, and trigger a cable that would tighten around its wrist, essentially tying him to the tree. Frank said it's a remarkably humane way to capture lions because when cats are held by their feet, quickly discover they can't go anywhere and become quite calm.
So there we waited, in the dusk, watching for lions from the roofs of our Landcruisers. The smell of the calf was overwhelming - lions to be sure couldn't help but smell it too. Steve Ekwanga went through a routine that he had done countless times before. He mounted old speakers on top of one of the Landcruisers, hooked up a stereo cassette player and blasted the mournful cry of an unhappy buffalo calf.
"For a lion, that's a dinner gong," Frank said. "They typically come running."
It wasn't too long before we heard the trap set and the most incredible roar. A young male had been caught. He was quickly tranquilized and the team set about working on him - but with one eye peeled - somewhere out there in the dark lurked the rest of the pride.
Watch video of the night operation:
A Vulnerable Population
Claus Mortensen oversees dozens of lions on Mugie Ranch, in Kenya's Laikipia district. A few years ago, seven lions from a pride that had lived on Mugie were found poisoned on a neighboring ranch. One of the lions from that pride survived, however, and Mortensen named her "Bahati," which means "lucky." Bahati was given a radio collar and had been thriving after she joined another pride on the ranch - that is, until just before we arrived.
The transmitter on Bahati's collar had gone silent. Finally, after ten days, Mortensen picked up a signal just inside the edge of his property. There he found the collar, but not Bahati. Someone from neighboring community land had cut the collar from Bahati's neck and thrown it back over the fence. It was a message to Mortensen: Bahati was dead.
Mortensen suspects local herdsmen, who complain to him all the time about their cattle being killed by predators. Some of these herdsmen carry guns, as there had been fighting recently with another village. It wouldn't take much to put a bullet in a lion; "Who would find out? Who would care? Good riddance."
Dr. Frank and other conservationists emphasize that this attitude is entirely understandable, given its one that has prevailed in the West. "We got rid of the wolves and the bears in Europe a thousand years ago," said Frank. "We finished them off in the western United States 100 years ago. Africa's finally catching up."
The irony is that in Kenya at least, lions don't do as much damage to livestock as people think. Statistics are hard to come by, but in one area in southern Kenya it was less than 15 percent. Hyenas do most of the killing. However, the perception in the mind of the locals is that lions are the culprit. Even if local herders want to take revenge on hyenas for killing their cattle, by using poison they target every predator and scavenger there is - hyenas, lions, wild dogs, leopards, cheetah, vultures, etc. This is why poison can be so damaging. It rarely punishes the guilty - it's the innocent bystanders who usually suffer.
Now there's a new incentive to kill lions. The trade in lion claws and bones is beginning to have an impact in Kenya. The bones are used in Chinese medicine and can be sold for a lot of money. We heard rumors that Chinese laborers who came to Kenya to work on local road building projects were "in the market" for such parts, as well as bush-meat and elephant and rhino tusk. Locals would be hard-pressed to resist an offer of extra income for a few hours work. Out here, away from the protected areas, pretty animals for the tourists don't put food on the table.
Watch Bob Simon's full report:
Written by Drew Magratten