Moving towards human activity goes against every instinct of a weak or vulnerable wild animal. So it’s as if the injured lioness knew that crawling into the scouts’ camp was her last chance of help.
She had lost her front right paw to a poacher’s snare. Typically set to catch antelope for the “game meat” market, these traps are fixed to a solid base. The lioness would have been unable to move, and as a result, her pride had been forced to abandon her. Once free, having lost her paw, she was unable to hunt, desperately thin, and battling infection. By chance, or some sixth sense humans might never understand, she sought refuge in the base camp of the Kaindu Scouts who protect and monitor wildlife in the 15,000-hectare Kaindu Game Management Area (GMA) on the north-eastern flank of Zambia’s Kafue National Park.
“When we first came across her, she was finished. It was very sad,” says Greenwell Kabinda, Resource Manager for the Kafue Natural Resources Trust (KNRT). “We felt like we had to help her.”
Realising straight away that she needed veterinary treatment, Greenwell, or “Green” as he’s known, called the Zambian Department for Parks and Wildlife, who have a wildlife vet on staff. However, with limited resources and vast areas of ground to cover, the vet was unable to come immediately.
With nothing to lose, the scouts set about finding her some meat, which they placed near her, in front of a motion-sensor camera in order to keep a watchful eye.
“She was very weak, so that first night she only took a few bites,” says Green. “But within a few days the whole carcass had gone.” The food gave her the strength to eventually go to the river for life-saving hydration.
Soon, a hopeful moment was caught on camera: She was joined by another lioness, an adolescent cub and a large male — presumably members of her lost pride, attracted by the smell of her dinner. To survive long-term in the wild, she will need her pride to defend her and to share the prey they catch.
Green’s 24 scouts were hired from villages within the Kaindu GMA. TNC established and provides ongoing support to the team because, while GMAs like Kaindu are formally protected areas, they generally lack their own wildlife security forces.
Between December 2016 and June 2017 the Kaindu scouts made 28 arrests, and found and destroyed 35 wire snares. But with such a large area to cover, locating poachers’ snares is a massive challenge, and this lioness was tragically unlucky — except for the fact that she sought refuge in the right camp.
The Kaindu scouts know well that revenue from wildlife-based tourism, for which lions are a critical draw, is a vital source of income and other benefits for local people. For example, tourism fees from a local safari operator recently supported infrastructure for the Kaindu primary school, and a kitchen unit and washrooms for a local health centre.
This direct link between wildlife conservation and better lives is increasing community support for the scouts and other TNC efforts, and attitudes towards issues like poaching are changing. Yet there’s no doubt that the scouts are going the extra mile by providing the injured lioness with gourmet meal deliveries, and a safe place to heal.
After two weeks, the vets arrived at camp, with the intention of darting and transporting her back to the capital Lusaka where she could receive treatment and careful monitoring.
But the lioness had other plans. She made herself scarce, evading their searchlights for two nights. On the third night, at around 11pm, they finally found her, feeding on leftover meat from her previous dinners.
“They just decided that actually, she was doing well with how we were feeding her. It would be more stressful for her to be darted and taken to Lusaka, so they thought it was best to leave her in the wild,” says Green. “We’ll continue to look after her.”
With her strength returning, these days she slips away for hours, sometimes whole afternoons, but each night she returns to camp.
“We want her to recover and have cubs in the future,” says Green, who feels confident that once she’s strong enough, the pride will take her back. For him, a new generation of cubs will be insurance for the wellbeing of future generations of Kaindu residents.
In a first for Zambia, TNC has helped the community secure legal rights to the GMA land that they have lived on for generations. This clears the way for plans to increase tourism, to direct more of that revenue to families, and to create new community-owned enterprises, such as sustainable forestry.
While this is a new frontier for Zambia, we are drawing on our experience with community-based conservation efforts in Kenya and Tanzania, and engaging TNC’s global team of experts on indigenous and communal lands conservation.
The driving principle: When communities are empowered to conserve wildlife, and doing so tangibly improves the lives of families, they become conservation leaders themselves.
And so this lioness and her devoted scouts are one small heartrending piece of a very large and ultimately hopeful story.
For the next few months, there will have to be some adjustments at the camp. Extra caution on trips to and from the tents at night, for example. And perhaps some earplugs to dim the deep, rumbling calls of the visiting male lion. But small prices to pay, says Green, for saving the life of a lioness whose species is profoundly interconnected with a brighter, more sustainable future for the Kaindu community.