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LION DOCUMENTARY: The rare tree climbing Lions of Uganda

In Uganda lions are mainly found in the three largest savannah parks: Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), Kidepo Valley National Park (KVNP) and Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP).

African lions (Panthera leo) are the largest and most imposing carnivores in Africa.

They are the only true social cats and have special cultural significance in most countries on the continent. In Uganda, lions enjoy a reputation as ‘king of the beasts’ and are popular symbols of royalty, strength, and bravery.

Lions live in a ‘fission-fusion’ society which is a fairly rare social system similar to chimpanzees. Individuals have different home ranges that overlap so that they regularly meet and come together. Males are thrown out of the group at the age of 3-4 years by the dominant male(s) and will try to take over pride when they get to 7-10 years old.

Males usually hole a pride for 2-3 years only before being ousted by another male or coalition of males.  Females generally stay in the same area as their mothers, occasionally moving to an adjacent pride when subadult, and rear a litter of cubs every two years. The highest mortality of lions is in the cubs with often whole litters being killed by other predators or buffalos.

In Uganda lions are mainly found in the three largest savannah parks: Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), Kidepo Valley National Park (KVNP), and Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP).

In QENP, the Ishasha lions are known for their unique behavior of climbing trees and have been branded the “Ishasha tree-climbing lions” by tourists.

Lions, after mountain gorillas, are the most sought-after species by tourists visiting Uganda. A WCS assessment in 2006 showed that each individual lion in Queen Elizabeth National Park generated about $13,500 USD per year for the national economy in terms of the revenue it brought into the country. An influencing factor was that tourists are willing to stay longer just to see lions. Ecologically, lions play an important role in maintaining ecosystem health and balance by predating on herbivores, often targeting sick individuals and thereby keeping disease down, and disposing of carcasses. This makes lions important to Uganda’s economy and ecology.

Queen Elizabeth is the only park in Uganda where tree climbing lions can be found (PHOTO/File)

Main threats to lions in Uganda

Globally, large carnivores are facing population declines as the ever-growing human population reduces habitable landscapes in which they can live.

A 2009 Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) national census of lions showed a decline from an estimated 600 a decade ago to 400 today. Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP) had the biggest decline from about 320 to 130 within a decade. T

his significant decline can largely be attributed to accidental snaring in traps set for antelopes and conflict with communities neighboring the park.

The lion population in the Ishasha sector of QENP has declined over the years:  the number of Ishasha lions per square kilometre declined from 6 lions per 100 km2to 4 lions per 100km2 in the last 10 years. The two main threats to lions in QENP are snaring and conflict with pastoralists following predation of livestock or injury to humans. The majority of livestock keepers do not attend to their animals especially at night, which leaves them susceptible to lion predation.

This human-lion conflict often triggers the retaliatory poisoning of the cattle carcasses killed by the lions and death of any animal that then feeds on it. This may often be scavengers such as hyaenas and vultures as much as the original culprit.  Additionally, many lions have been speared to death by communities neighboring Ishasha and other parts of QENP.

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