Kyle Burger and Robynne Kotze have been carrying out lion research in the Okavango Delta for four years now. Living in a tent and spending six months of each year traversing wild community concessions with their tracker Solomon Gaofengwe, this bush-loving couple is living out their childhood dream. While Robynne is utterly besotted with big cats, Kyle’s main project looks at how flooding has affected the population of herbivores over the last few years, ideally complementing Robynne’s lion research. Sitting by the pool at Mombo camp, I had a chance to ask them a few questions…
Me: What led you to researching lions in the Okavango Delta?
Robynne: I’ve been in love with big cats (and all wild animals) since I was about five years old. I used to read these books about two brothers who were always out in the bush with animals and I knew I wanted to be a zoologist. I went to Pretoria University and studied Zoology. After getting my honours I spent a year working and saving money to start our lion project in the Delta.
Kyle: I was introduced to the bush pretty much by my parents, going on remote African trips where we would just camp on the side of the road or in campsites as we moved along. I gained a love for the bush, and then with programmes like National Geographic the passion just developed. I’ve always had more of an attachment to animals than people, so the more animals I see and work with the better. I especially like really hands-on work with animals that can affect change and essentially make a difference.
Me: How has it been going so far?
Robynne: It’s been going well. The beginning was quite tough because our study area is large and the water makes it a complicated range to work in. Also, the lion densities were quite low when we started so it was difficult to find prides, especially females. We ended up having to collar males and then follow them to find the actual prides in the area. We’ve now spent quite a bit of time with them and they are much more comfortable with us, especially the prides that are far away from the camps because they don’t know vehicles. So it’s been a slow process but it’s picked up a lot of momentum bit over the last year-and-a-half. I’ve collared eight cats and I’ve since removed 3 of those collars and the rest will come off in the next three months.
Me: Tell me about current condition of lions in Botswana…
Robynne: The Botswana lions are really important in terms of Africa’s lion population as a whole. The current estimates of lions in Africa are under 20,000, which is not a lot. In the Okavango Delta it’s thought that there are more than a thousand lions so part of what we’re trying to do is to establish exactly how many there are, where they are, which areas they’re using, and the threats they are facing. There have been recent surveys in other parts of Botswana like the Central Kalahari and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park so next year we’re all going to meet together and basically combine all of our research so that we can come up with a number for Botswana.
Me: Are you positive about the future of lions in Botswana?
Robynne: I am. Botswana is a very conservation-orientated country and I think that whatever the outcomes of our research are, we can communicate them to the government and the Department of Wildlife and they are always positive and keen to use the information that we give them to address the problems we identify. It’s a collaborative relationship, which I think is very important.
Me: Tell me about a day in your life…
Robynne: We get up as soon as it’s light and set out to do track counts of all the large carnivores – we’re using this method as an indirect way of estimating their numbers. The reason we’ve been at Mombo for the last ten days is actually to evaluate the effectiveness of this system, because guides here have a pretty accurate idea of how many lions there are in the area. In our study area we also do herbivore counts because lion numbers especially are closely linked to the abundance of prey. Then we go through a particular pride’s home range we use our tracking antennae and then spend time with the group and collect information. Survival rate of cubs is specifically important as an indication of the overall population success.
Me: Mombo has earned a reputation for its big cats, could you tell me more about present lion pride dynamics?
Robynne: Five or six years ago there were five prides and close to 80 lions on the Mombo concession. I’ve heard reports from guides who used to see something like 76 different individuals on a drive. Now there are three prides that live in this area: the Western Pride, the Moporota Pride and the Mathata Pride. At the moment there is a coalition of five adult males in the Moporota Pride that have basically taken over Mombo and pushed all the other males out of the concession so that’s been quite an interesting dynamic.
Me: Cats are known for their dislike of water: how do the lions in the Delta cope with this?
Kyle: Our lions love water! Well I guess they do, we’ve seen them walk through water with small cubs with no worries at all.
Robynne: Well they don’t like to swim but they cross water without a problem its just part of their environment and they learn to live with it. They’ve adapted to it quite well and that’s another reason why lions in the Delta are so interesting to study.
Me: What does Solomon’s role involve?
Robynne: Solly has 12 years of tracking experience so his knowledge of the bush and his interpretation of tracks is brilliant. We use him to do the track counts because we’re looking at tracks from the last 24 hours so he’s able to tell us how fresh the tracks are and also to sex the animals. It’s not always easy becauseof the floodplains, so if we find tracks on the road we’ll follow them as much as we can, but once they go into the flood plains, we’re pretty much back to square one. Although Solly is great at interpreting where they could have gone!
Me: Why are there less lions than there used to be?
Robynne: Well that’s part of what the project is trying to figure out. Using long-term data from the previous researchers, I’m basically looking at how prey availability and flooding has changed over time as well as lion numbers. Once they reach carrying capacity, they put pressure on one another and then competition also gets quite high so and numbers start to go down again so it is a very cyclical process. What we’re trying to determine now it if it’s just the natural cycle of things – so are the lions numbers just going down and they will recover again soon, or are there other external factors at play that are causing a decline.
Me: What percentage of lion cubs usually survive?
Robynne: It depends. In the prides that we’ve studied, the survival record over the last two years has been very good. One pride in particular had ten cubs between three lionesses and they raised eight of them to sub-adulthood, which is quite an achievement. In many places, cub survival rates are below 50% or even lower depending on conditions like prey availability.
Me: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Kyle: Being in the wild – we chose Botswana because it’s such a big area with limited fences and animals that are free-ranging, which means you can get a real understanding of their movements and the factors that play a part in their lives. In South Africa the areas are quite small and predominantly fenced so animal’s territories are determined by fences rather than other ecological factors. Secondly, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the Delta so there are a lot of options and when you have backing from the government, there’s a lot you can do. It’s a lot more responsibility out here but that makes it very rewarding. For instance, when we are collaring a lion there’s ourselves and a vet, whereas in Kruger there might be up to 40 people.
Me: What other things have you learnt?
Kyle: Personally I’d say I’ve learnt a lot about fixing a Land Rover! You also learn a lot about yourself and how non-city life works. It’s amazing to feel totally alone with the animals because you’re the only vehicle viewing them most of the time and when you give them the respect they deserve, you see them in a totally natural state. You also learn to always have a raincoat and a good pillow in your bag!
Me: Are there specific individual lions that became your favourites?
Robynne: Yes! The first lioness I collared will always be special to me because it was the first step toward something I have worked my whole life for! I named her Cadey (a mixture of my family’s names) She will always be special to me and that’s why I was so sad when I had to remove her collar recently. It’s nice to have collared animals and to be able to follow them, but it comes to a point where you’ve got what you wanted and then you need to remove it and let them carry on with life.
Me: Kyle, tell me more about your project…
Kyle: Recently, Elephants without Borders and Dr Mike Chase did an aerial survey of the entire Delta and they found that the grazing herbivores, especially tsessebe and wildebeest have decreased in population by up to 80-90%. By collaring some of those animals, I’ve been able to see how they move and behave at different times of the year when the flooding varies. We compact satellite images to get a monthly indication of flood levels within our study area and get an idea of how much palatable grass is there for those animals to eat at different times of the year and to see how the animals move accordingly.
Me: What’s next?
Kyle: We are focusing a lot of our attention on lion stuff presently, but I am also busy writing up my paper.
Robynne: We should be finished by June 2017.
Kyle: A lot of research has been done and not published previously so we’re really wanting to get our PhDs and get that information out there and then move on from there. Maybe we’ll do something totally different like gorillas in the Congo – I’m quite interested in doing things that people think are a bit crazy or dangerous, often these are the areas that are most important.
Robynne: Or we’ll come back to the Delta!
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