Anna Haw is our Group’s veterinarian and research officer. She is also busy with her PhD on respiratory depression during opioid-induced immobilization of wildlife and is involved in a few other research projects. One of the projects is a collaborative study with Oxford University on thermoregulation in lions in Zimbabwe. The lions were caught in 2013 and implanted with temperature-sensitive data loggers. For the next year, while they were free-living on a reserve, the lions’ body temperatures were measured every five minutes. The lions were recaptured in December 2014 to retrieve the data loggers. However, one lion’s capture, Royal, was delayed due to her newly born cubs. She was captured only during a second field trip in February 2015, and this capture proved to be quite exciting…
The last rays of golden light were kissing the earth goodbye as we headed out into the heavy humidity. Straight ahead of us, we could see magnificent lightning in front of a backdrop of black cloud. We stopped on the top of a crest, taking in the beauty of this intense electrical storm. Byron, with antenna in hand, looked at me and said “she’s about 3 km that way”, while pointing directly towards a massive fork of lightning that divided the sky ahead of us. As the gusty wind blew straight into our faces, we contemplated our options. Either we turn back and try again tomorrow, although time is running out and if it rains hard tonight, our destination may soon be inaccessible. Or, we push on, while keeping a beady eye on the storm clouds above to see if we can somehow escape the downpour.
Thankfully, we chose the latter option. As we honed in on the VHF signal, it became evident that the storm had skimmed the area and was now dissipating somewhere off in the distance. By now, the golden light had disappeared, being replaced by moonlight that was eagerly trying to find a gap in the heavy clouds. Our options were not fantastic, but we settled on a somewhat flimsy mopane to hang up our bait and moved the vehicle into place to start our little game.
As the speakers vibrated with the sound of a squealing pig, we waited, eyes squinting into the dark. Two lionesses approached from behind the mopane, but they slunk off seemingly uninterested in the bait. A few minutes later, I heard heavy breathing over my left shoulder, getting louder and louder. As I turned my head, the unmistakable silhouette of two adult lionesses padded past me as I sat just metres away. They were coming in for the bait. As we watched the mopane getting pulled almost horizontal, we readied ourselves for some darting action. The spotlight hit a stunning lioness standing perfectly, broad on, exposing multiple potential dart sites, totally engrossed in the meat and unphased by the light, or our presence. The only problem was that she didn’t have a collar. It was the wrong lioness. Our lioness was cunningly lying low behind her sister, nibbling at the back end of the bait.
With a combination of skill and luck, we finally got a shot at the right lioness and a few minutes later our collared lioness was lying sound asleep. Her sister, with six cubs at her heels, thankfully decided to move off as we approached with the vehicle. Just as Byron and Amorai had their hands on Royal, my spotlight fell on a magnificent male lion coming in for the bait, a mere 30m away from us. As I alerted Byron, another male came in, and then another, bringing this spectacular coalition to three. We tried to push these boys off a bit with the Cruiser, but these manly felines did not seem too bothered by the big, noisy, clumsy Cruiser. There was no other option but to move our surgery someplace else.
Somehow, we had to load Royal while also keeping the male lions at bay. Amorai was given seconds to take off the Cruiser’s tail gate, I kept the spotlight firmly on the lions, while Byron, gun in hand, stood between Amorai and the lions. Next, Byron had to drop guard to help load this hefty lioness. As I was giving running commentary about the whereabouts of the lions “they’re coming in, closer, probably about 20 m away…”, Byron and Amorai were cursing the height of the Cruiser. “Anna, we need your help”. Grabbing the handle of the stretcher from above, I cast a quick glance over my shoulder and thanks to the strength of Amorai and Byron, we somehow managed to get Royal onto the back of the Cruiser without getting eaten. I sat, straddling this sleeping lioness trying to keep her from slipping off the back of the vehicle as Byron bounced the Cruiser through the thick, elephant-trodden bush.
Finally, we were ready to start the surgery. I got busy, nervously asking Amorai if he had picked up any other predator eyes, while also keeping tabs on Royal’s anaesthetic depth, hyperthermia, flying insects and other obstacles that bush night surgery may throw in your face.
It went smoothly; logger out, collar changed, samples taken, all while the welcoming progressing night alleviated some of the heavy lowveld heat. We injected the antidote to the tranquiliser and moved off to enjoy the night under a now cloudless sky. I revelled in the moment; the moon so bright that a dove apparently thought it was the rising sun, while the other creatures of the dark noisily celebrated the coolness that comes with the deepening night. Sitting in the middle of the bush, watching a lioness slowly raise her head, stand up and slink off into the darkness is a feeling and experience that each time fills me with utter awe. We have successfully retrieved all our data loggers, but I sincerely hope this is not the last time I have that incredible feeling.
With the data loggers all successfully retrieved, Anna is now busy analysing the data. Judging from a quick glance I took at the initial data, the body temperature patterns of these lions seem to tell an interesting story. Hopefully we will be able to share that story soon…