Laikipia Predator Project: Adaptations of Lion Behavioural Ecology in Response to a Conflict Landscape

Large predators have been eliminated from most of the world because they prey on livestock. In much of East Africa, a semi-arid climate makes livestock production the only viable economic land use. Although there has always been conflict between people and carnivores over livestock, today, rapidly expanding human and livestock populations means that conflict with people is increasingly shaping the surviving large carnivore populations.

Lions are typically the first large predator to be eliminated by people in pastoralist areas in Africa indicating that they are the most difficult of the large predators for pastoralist people to coexist with, or that they are the most vulnerable species to persecution. Conflict with people creates a ‘landscape of fear’ for lions coexisting with people and livestock. The ‘Landscape of Fear’ concept was originally used by Laundre et al 2001 (and is now widely used) to explain the ‘non lethal’ influence of carnivores on aspects of the behavioural ecology of their prey species; however it has never been used to explain the behavioural ecology of a carnivore species.

It is possible that carnivores are not only top down players in a landscape of fear for herbivores, but aspects of their own behavioural ecology are influenced by risk of conflict with people. Lions are described as ‘risk sensitive’ predators and are likely to be making trade-offs in order to optimise reduction of risk of conflict with people against associated costs. For example; choosing not to kill livestock despite livestock forming a large proportion of the biomass available in the landscape.

The overall objective of this D.Phil. research is to investigate adaptations in lion behavioural ecology in response to varying levels of conflict risk from humans on a landscape level, and from this knowledge help create a management plan for lion populations outside protected areas.

More specifically this research aims to test hypothesis investigating the main aspects of behavioural ecology likely to be most affected in a landscape of fear for lions i.e:

• spatial distribution/movement patterns
• foraging choices
• selection of specific habitat structure
• changes in activity patterns
• social structure

and thus see if lions are able to adapt their behaviour to reduce conflict with people and livestock on the landscape level.

The study area, Laikipia district in the central Highlands of Kenya, provides the perfect Laboratory for this study as it supports a relatively high abundance of livestock, people and wildlife, including all the large carnivore species; and represents a mosaic of both high conflict and low conflict land uses. The Kenya Wildlife Services has recently identified the Laikipia/Samburu ecosystem in their Large Carnivore Conservation Strategies as one of 3 remaining important areas in Kenya for the survival of Kenya’s large carnivore species.

Understanding how lions respond to people and livestock on a landscape level, and what factors are important in allowing them to avoid conflict, is crucial when determining where conservation efforts should be focused in fragmented habitats which might otherwise be ignored as ‘sink populations’ of lions. Correctly focused conservation efforts in these human/livestock dominated landscapes are fundamental in protecting large meta-populations of all the large carnivore species, supporting and linking the inadequate officially protected areas.