Saving lions one bellyache at a time
Ryan Summerlin December 27, 2011
ASPEN – An Aspen-based organization hopes to help save lions in sub-Saharan Africa by making the big cats associate beef with a bellyache.
The WildiZe Foundation is funding research to determine if conditioned taste aversion can prevent lions from preying on cattle. Biologist and Denver Zoo research associate Bill Given received a grant from WildiZe to conduct studies in conditioned taste aversion on captive lions in Grassland Safari Lodge in Botswana.
“These lions were dedicated cattle killers,” said Eli Weiss, founder and president of WildiZe and a resident of the Woody Creek area. The lions were spared from execution, which is usually the fate of big cats that prey on livestock.
The eight lions used in the study are wild but now depend on humans to provide food. Given and his team offered the lions untreated beef bait. Once they willingly consume the bait, they are offered beef treated with a de-worming agent in a sufficient amount to make them temporarily ill.
“It basically causes a bad case of indigestion,” Weiss said.
Once they recover, they are offered untreated beef bait again along with their regular food to determine if they have an aversion to the taste and scent of cattle.
Six male lions, weighing between 350 and 500 pounds, in the study group turned up their noses at beef by the third treatment, and a female walked away.
“Not one of them would touch it, and these are hungry lions,” Weiss said.
The eighth test subject, another female, initially didn’t want to eat at all, which wasn’t the desired effect. The study results were submitted to the Botswana Department of Wildlife and the Kenya Wildlife Service. WildiZe is seeking approval for tests in the wild.
Given also successfully conducted conditioned-taste-aversion tests on captive Mexican wolves in New Mexico and cougars in Arizona.
“We know it works. That’s not the issue,” Weiss said. Earning approval to use it in the wild requires patience and work through the proper channels, she said. (More on the protocol and study results can be found at the WildiZe website at www.wildize.org.)
Conditioned taste aversion could provide an important new tool at a critical time to reduce lion conflicts with livestock. Some of the wild lands of Botswana are being gobbled up for cattle ranges with huge herds. Prey is migrating elsewhere; the predators aren’t so adaptable because they stake their territory. Prides of lions in certain areas are attacking livestock now that their usual prey is reduced, Weiss said.
In Kenya, conflicts are more often with smaller farms and community collectives. In both countries, lions are almost always instantly killed when they mess with livestock. That is one of the reasons lions are threatened with extinction, Weiss said.
Fifty years ago, there were an estimated 450,000 lions across their range in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Weiss. Today, there are only about 23,000, she said. The greatest losses have come in the past 20 years.
“We do have to turn this around in the next five years,” she said.
Part of the solution will be to work with the people at the small community collective farms in Kenya and the big ranches in Botswana on baiting programs if conditioned taste aversion is ultimately approved. The natives have to buy into the program if it is going to be successful, Weiss said. It cannot be a case of Westerners telling Africans what to do.
That’s the principle WildiZe follows with all its work. The organization recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. It doesn’t undertake programs itself. It provides grants to worthy projects that focus on wildlife conservation, education and sustainable community development in sub-Saharan Africa.
Weiss said about $160,000 in grants was issued in 2011. WildiZe has provided funds to 75 grantees over 10 years. At any given time, it is involved in 15 major projects.
One way WildiZe is promoting sustainable development and raising funds for its work is through an African Market featuring fine-art artifacts made by Africans, typically from small towns. The African Market will be held Thursday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Weiss’ home at 0730 Twining Flats Road. Access is off Highway 82 approximately five miles west of Aspen.