Technology that Promotes Coexistence: Utilizing Collars to Track African Wild Dogs and Lions

As we celebrate World Wildlife Day 2024, Mpala Research Centre is  highlighting two projects conducting groundbreaking research on carnivores. Carnivores are exciting to see, but they can become at risk when they come into conflict with livestock owners, usually when there is competition and need for food. Two of Laikipia’s most prominent carnivores are African wild dogs and lions. Researchers at Mpala have long been intrigued by these animals, and they have pursued projects to study them. This can be done by utilizing technologyーin this case collarsーto collect location information on a select number of wild dogs (per pack) and lions (per pride).

A collared African wild dog on Mpala property. Photo credit: Zoe Kaldor.

Tracking African Wild Dogs

The Samburu-Laikipia Wild Dog Project based at Mpala has been studying African wild dogs since 2015. Dedan Ngatia, a PhD student at the University of Wyoming, is the project manager for the project. “We always target collaring between 1-2 individuals per pack: one with a GPS collar (tracks location at set time intervals) and one with a VHF collar (​​sends a pulsed radio signal that can be tracked using a receiver and directional antenna),” he shared. “At the moment, we are following three collared packs in Laikipia.”

Dedan putting a collar on a wild dog. Photo courtesy of Dedan Ngatia.

Collaring wild dogs has many benefits. Researchers can: 1) monitor population growth or decline; 2) easily and quickly identify and respond to any threats affecting wild dogs like disease outbreaks; 3) monitor wild dogs main behaviors, including denning and dispersal, which are vital processes for population growth;  3) work with local communities and guide them on either the presence or absence of wild dogs in their herding areas, and subsequently, (4) reduce conflict between herders and wild dogs, preventing wild dogs deaths at the hands of people; Lastly,  (5) collaring boosts tourism by enabling visitors to see wild dogs with relative ease. These benefits then trickle down to the local communities by protecting their livestock and increasing profits from tourism.

Tracking Lions

Harvard University PhD student Lucrecia Aguilar studies human-lion coexistence. She has collared seven lions across four prides. She works in collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Lion Landscapes, using a type of Species Movement, Acceleration, & Radio Tracking (SMART) wildlife collar. These collars allow her to not only track lion movements, but also gain insight into their behavior.

Lucrecia fitting a female lion with a SMART Collar.
Lucrecia fitting a female lion with a SMART Collar. Photo credit: Summer Smentek.

For lions, collaring can save their lives. Lion collars provide data that can alert organizations like KWS and Lion Landscapes when lions are in an area frequented by community pastoralists and commercial ranchers. They can alert these people, so they can move their livestock away or be on higher alert. People’s livelihoods are protected, as well as the lives of the lions who people often kill in retaliation for killing their livestock. “Over time, fewer negative interactions and more positive interactions (such as seeing more direct benefits from wildlife) lead to greater coexistence. Additionally, research based on collar data helps us understand more about the nature of human-lion coexistence and conflicts, which can directly inform on-the-ground coexistence initiatives,” Lucrecia shared.

While collaring has its benefits, researchers have taken critical steps to ensure lion safety. The methods used to capture lions and the anesthetic drugs KWS uses are very safe. The collars also have a remote drop-off mechanism, so the lions don’t need to be recaptured to take the collars off. Researchers and organizations also protect the data collected by the collars, so that people with ill-intentions can’t find the lions.

Ronnie, one of the collared lions that comes to Mpala, at Ol Jogi conservancy. Photo credit: Zoe Kaldor.

Thanks to the collars, researchers like Dedan and Lucrecia can gain insights into the behaviour of these species that would have been much much harder to get otherwise. For communities, these insights can inform them on what precautions to take such as reinforcing the livestock enclosures at night. Collaring thus protects both wild dogs and lions.