Calling in the lions
by Megan Cattau -- August 23rd, 2010
Have you ever spent two consecutive hours projecting the grating sound of dying pigs and buffalo from loudspeakers into the African darkness in the hopes of attracting predators? Well, we have. As we’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, our research objectives here in Mozambique are to estimate lion distribution and to identify threats to lions in the Tete Province. In addition to interviewing local villagers (which we will discuss in later posts), we have been conducting calling stations. Basically, conducting a calling station involves driving to an isolated area, projecting distress calls of prey animals, waiting for the lions to arrive, and counting them. I recognize that attracting a hungry predator that is expecting to feed toward you does not sound like the safest way to spend an evening, but it’s actually a standard practice for estimating lion numbers in an area. It’s a method commonly used at the famous Kruger National Park in South Africa to survey their resident lions. In fact, we borrowed our speaker system from Kruger.
So, around dusk, five of us would cram into our Ford Ranger (our only rental car that was not dented from a run-in with a bull fight earlier in the research trip) and head out into the Miombo woodland. After driving down bumpy, dirt roads long enough to be out of earshot of local villages (we certainly wouldn’t want to attract hungry lions and curious villagers to the same location), we would set up our speaker system and start the calling station. Huddled together in the darkness of the cab with the sound of distress calls in our ears, we would pass around the Bushnell night vision binoculars, each feeling sure that a lion was just about to leap out of the bush and into one of the open car windows.
After many suspenseful hours spread out over several evenings, we saw a total of 0 lions. Yes, that’s correct, 0 lions. This dearth of lion sightings certainly does not indicate that there are no lions in the area. Instead, we expect that the behavior of lions in the study area is influenced by the hunting activity that occurs in Tete. Calling stations have only been used to estimate lion numbers in protected areas, where lions are accustomed to seeing humans and cars and don’t perceive them as a threat. However, this may not be an appropriate survey method in areas such as Tete where lions are more fearful of people (and justly so). With no lions sighted during our calling stations, we’ll be relying entirely on our interview questionnaire results for the analysis. In addition to reminding me that animal behavior can be heavily altered by human interaction, I’ve learned from the calling stations to appreciate my earplugs.