Africa’s first ever rigorous lion survey of key source populations

Lions are one of the most charismatic species on earth, idolised across the world as a symbol of courage and strength. Not only do they play a big part in ecosystem health, but they are also a major contributor to Kenya’s GDP. It’s no wonder that the lion is Kenya’s national animal. However, the sad truth is that throughout Africa the status of lions is increasingly bleak. In the last 25 years alone Africa may have lost almost half of its remaining lions and today there may be as few as 20,000 left on the continent.

When important species like lions decline it becomes critical for us to be able to accurately count them, especially in source populations where lions are breeding, since these areas are essential to their long-term survival. In addition to numbers, good monitoring techniques are able to provide a lot of other useful information on parameters such as sex ratios, movement patterns, and survival and recruitment rates. Long-term monitoring of these parameters within key source populations helps us understand if our conservation interventions are working and provide a sound basis to create better plans to conserve wildlife.

But counting lions accurately is notoriously difficult since they naturally occur at low density, are nocturnal, cryptic and wide-ranging. As such, across Africa, a variety of indirect methods, such as track counts, call-in surveys and expert opinion, have been used in the past. These methods are frequently unreliable and this has hindered the ability to assess lion population status and trends.

As the Kenya Wildlife Trust, we began working on this problem in 2013 through our flagship programme in the Maasai Mara. We realized that in the previous five years there had been a quantum leap in the development of scientifically-sound methods and that a framework known as Spatially-Explicit Capture-Recapture was rapidly emerging as the industry standard for monitoring large carnivores. So in 2014 we adapted, developed and applied these tools to begin long-term monitoring of lions and cheetahs (we’re still conducting annual surveys), which resulted in two seminal publications below:

  1. Lion paper
  2. Cheetah paper

Concurrently, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the state agency for wildlife in Kenya, was looking to address the same problem. The many different, and frequently unreliable methods that had previously been used in sites across the country, resulted in a confusing picture and as early as 2008 KWS had identified a goal in their National Strategy of standardised survey methods. So when KWS approached us about helping with a national survey and using the methods we had helped to develop in the Mara we were thrilled to get involved.

Survey goals

In most instances, obtaining accurate and precise estimates of wildlife at a national level is impractical and attempts to do so usually result in figures that are over-simplified and are fraught with uncertainty, thereby limiting their usefulness. With this in mind, a planning workshop was held in 2017 that brought together a large group of scientists and conservationists with the aim of developing a plan to determine the status of lions and other large carnivores in Kenya using a science-based approach. During this workshop and subsequent meetings with key stakeholders, the following goals were set:

Dr Femke Broekhuis talks about the survey

  • To accurately assess lion numbers within all potential source populations.

    This would be done using the scientifically-sound approach (SECR) that we had helped to develop in the Mara that was adopted as the standardised framework for the survey. In addition, only lions over the age of one year would be included since lions under one year of age usually suffer from high mortality and including them may be misleading.

  • Determine lion presence outside these source populations.

    Lions are known to occur outside these source populations. However, they may not be resident, or may occur at very low densities and in areas with security concerns. Obtaining reliable population figures in such areas would require massive investment and so a different approach was agreed upon: in these areas, the probability of occupancy would be estimated using data collected through interviews.

  • To build capacity to ensure long-term monitoring of lion populations

    The ultimate aim is that continued monitoring in source populations is carried out using the same robust methods so that population trends and vital rates can be explored. To this end, a major goal of the exercise is to build capacity in all aspects of the survey methodology.

These key parameters, together with data collected during the 2017 workshop, were used to inform the national survey plan, which can be seen in the map below.

Anticipated outcomes

At a national level, the outputs from this survey will be used to inform the updated national strategy for lions (due to be released in 2020). At local levels, the surveys will provide key insights into the status and distribution of lions and other large carnivores that will help to guide conservation interventions and plans. For example, our pilot survey in Lake Nakuru National Park (which was published in a scientific journal and can be found here ) highlighted important management implications and is already leading to changes. The true strength of robust monitoring comes over time and as local sites continue to monitor their lion populations using these methods, there will be tremendous insights to guide and evaluate conservation interventions.

The Technical Team
Patrick Omondi, PhD—Kenya Wildlife Service
Nic Elliot, PhD—WildCRU, University of Oxford, consultant (KWT)
Femke Broekhuis, PhD—Consultant (KWT)
Shadrack Ngene, PhD—Kenya Wildlife Service
Linus Kariuki, MSc—Kenya Wildlife Service
Bernard Kuloba, MSc—Kenya Wildlife Service
Monica Chege, MSc—Kenya Wildlife Service
Stephanie Dolrenry, PhD—Lion Guardians
Kasaine Sankan, BA—Field consultant (KWT)
Irene Amoke, PhD – KWT
Arjun Gopalaswamy, PhD—Wildlife Conservation Society, Global Programs

Technical team (Phase I surveys – Southern Kenya)
Yussuf Wato, PhD—WWF-Kenya
Jenny Cousins, PhD—WWF-UK

The Partners

This is a collaborative venture between the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Kenya Wildlife Trust and local and international non-governmental organisations. This multi-stakeholder approach is designed to be both transparent and inclusive, making full use of the skills and knowledge of local stakeholders while being supported by national and international bodies. For each survey, we aimed to collaborate with the various local stakeholders in all aspects of the survey. By assisting in data collection and participating in analysis workshops our intention is that the national survey evolves into long-term monitoring within all important lion populations. Indeed, much of the fieldwork outlined in this report was carried out by local stakeholders with the support of the technical team. In many cases, local partners provided their staff and vehicles throughout the exercise – these contributions cannot be overstated.

Partners logos

The Supporters

This is a hugely ambitious project and we are grateful to numerous organisations for supporting this initiative and seeing the value of this work. We thank the ICEA Lion Insurance Group for providing the initial funding to carrying out the critical standardisation workshop and pilot survey of Lake Nakuru National Park. Funding for the sightings-based and interview-based surveys were provided by the Lion Recovery Fund, Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation and the National Geographic Society. WWF-Kenya provided some of the survey equipment and provided funding for the sightings-based surveys that were conducted in Southern Kenya. Additional funds were generously provided by the African Wildlife Foundation at a crucial time in the Tsavo survey which enabled us to continue the work and helped to ensure its success. The capacity building and analytical workshops that were held in 2019 and 2020 were funded by the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation, the Siemiatkowski Foundation, the National Geographic Explorer Community Fund and the African Wildlife Foundation kindly provided logistical support including a venue and catering. Femke Broekhuis would like to thank the Remembering Wildlife initiative for funding some of the cheetah-related work of this survey and Arjun Gopalaswamy thanks WCS for the partial funding and logistical support provided to be involved in the survey.