Some 1,200 lions still live in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, up to 70 of them along the northern border of the UNESCO’s 1,000th World Heritage Site. But lions keep being shot and sometimes also poisoned in this area. In most cases, the underlying reason is that lions attack people’s livestock. In the last one-and-a-half years alone, more than 150 cases have been recorded in which lions have killed free-roaming cattle.
In cooperation with researchers of the predator conservation organization CLAWS Conservancy, we help mitigate this conflict with modern information- and communications-technology. The group’s approach involves a unique development. Based on virtual risk boundaries that are informed by lion and cattle movements, but also human activities, we developed the first ICT-based lion alert system for rural communities, merging expertise from ecology, ethnography and socio-informatics. The communities now receive near real-time alerts as GPS-collared lions approach village and cattle grazing areas, enabling them to take precautionary action.
This type of early warning provides a new trans-disciplinary mechanism to improve the coexistence of communities with free-ranging lions. The group provides a detailed empirical evaluation of the general method (based on a two-years pilot study), outlining early warning strengths and weaknesses, followed by the design of an autonomous, versatile, ICT-based lion alert platform that synthesizes biological data, modern tracking and telecommunications technology, and community participation feedback.
Amongst others, we evaluated system cost, livestock losses between experimental and control groups, GPS technology performance, community perceptions and actions, lion movements in relation to virtual boundaries and risk extrapolations for improved geofence placement. The collaborative study demonstrates that information sharing via early warning engages communities in lion research and conflict mitigation, eliciting important changes in human risk management.
Most importantly, however, we employed a co-design strategy that directly involved community members, thus providing a customized solution. The study provides a template for the successful design of coexistence strategies with rural communities. The group critically peruses the evolution of their system, demonstrating the importance of a multi-disciplinary research and development process that reflects conflict complexity and community heterogeneity.
With this new alert platform, the group moves lion conflict mitigation into the 21st century, and away from its historic paradigm of reactive management, for example by compensating livestock losses financially, or relocating conflict lions to other areas. The study clearly demonstrates that early warning can elicit important changes in human behavior, such as improved livestock protection, which resulted in significantly reduced losses. We also highlight that our approach is flexible, possibly finding additional future applications in other areas of wildlife conservation such as anti-poaching or disease transmission control.
“Lions at the gates: Transdisciplinary design of an early warning system to improve human-lion coexistence” is currently under review for Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.
Konstantin Aal is currently a research assistant and PhD Candidate at the department for Business Informatics and New Media of the University of Siegen. His research focusses on the use of social media during the Arab Spring, facilitating human-animal relations in Botswana and access to technology in rural Morocco. Click here for more.