Bringing Lion Conservation Full Circle: From Lincoln Park Zoo to Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

April 13, 2023

A first-person account from Arielle Parsons, Research Scientist in the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology

“There’s a hole just there,” Charles Foley, Ph.D. informs me—rather too unconcerned, I think, as I nervously pilot our Nissan 4×4 through a sea of wildebeest and zebra on the Tanzanian shortgrass plains.

An instant later, we hit the cleverly disguised hole with a lurch. The Nissan bears the impact stoically and we continue on. The surrounding wildebeest politely pretend not to notice my deficient driving skills as they communicate amongst themselves in a cacophony of cow-like moos.

The sea of grazing wildebeest as seen from our 4×4’s window.

First Time in Tanzania

This was my first visit to Tanzania and I was being given the royal treatment by the Lincoln Park Zoo team: sitting shotgun the entire way to marvel at the gorgeous scenery, getting treated to amazing food and even being given an off-road driving lesson—with mixed results, as I have explained.

The beautiful scenery of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.


But, this was not a vacation. I had come to Tanzania with other Lincoln Park Zoo staff including Lisa Faust, Ph.D., Senior Director of Population Ecology, and Charles Foley, the Senior Conservation Scientist of the Tanzania Conservation Research Program, to work with one of our field collaborators, Ingela Jansson of KopeLion.

The plan: Ingela would show me how KopeLion collects field data and introduce me to local communities to better understand the research and how it is applied. In turn, I would help train KopeLion’s staff how to use the studbook database I built and we would sit down and brainstorm data analysis ideas—YAY, SCIENCE!

KopeLion’s Work in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

KopeLion, of which Ingela is director, monitors the lion population of Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) and its surroundings, an effort that has been ongoing for more than 50 years. In the NCA and across their range in Africa, lion populations have dwindled to around half their size from 30 years ago, in great part due to increased conflict with humans.

KopeLion and Lincoln Park Zoo are committed to reversing this decline by fostering coexistence between lions and people. Working directly with the local pastoralist communities of the NCA, KopeLion trains community members, some of whom were former lion hunters, to be lion guardians (“Ilchokuti” in Maa), implementing an early-warning system by tracking lions in the area and providing incentives when communities allow lions to move safely through their lands.

Ingela Jansson (left) discussing recent lion sightings with two KopeLion Ilchokuti (lion guardians): Kinyi Olendolok (center) and Musa Noongirimban (right).


Lion-Spotting and Science

Ingela took us out lion-spotting—literally. Ingela and the Ilchokuti can identify each individual lion in the NCA by their whisker-pot pattern, and yes, it is as tricky as it sounds for a newbie like me. Fortunately, I managed to get at least a couple right and not injure my field biologist reputation too badly.

By identifying each individual lion in the NCA, we can track their births, deaths, movements and family ties which allows us to analyze whether the population is growing or shrinking, whether they are reproducing, and what might be impacting their survival. These are all key to understanding how best to allocate conservation actions.

While out lion-spotting, we ran across some old friends—lions that Ingela has known since birth. She can recite every major movement they ever made and their family history by heart. It’s truly impressive. From building the KopeLion studbook, I feel like I’m getting to know them too, and it was thrilling to see some of them in the flesh.

A young male lion we ran across while lion-spotting, named Lopirr.


A long day of lion-spotting done, we settled into Ingela’s cozy house perched at the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater to brainstorm ways we can analyze the data KopeLion collects and share the results of their work with the world. From a scientific perspective, the data that Ingela and collaborators have collected on the NCA lions is amazing and the possibilities myriad and exciting.

Ingela Jansson (left) using Swedish licorice to explain the finer points of Ngorongoro lion pride dynamics to me (right).


In the year following our trip, we at the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology will be analyzing how lions move through human-dominated areas in the NCA and how KopeLion efforts may be assisting those movements. We will estimate demographic rates (survival and reproduction) and try to better understand what factors affect pride dynamics. All of this research will help us better understand the lion population of the NCA and what conservation actions might be most valuable to maximize their chances of long-term persistence.

As I left Tanzania on my way home, my plane passing by the barren peak of Mount Kilimanjaro as it rose above the clouds, I reflected on the beautiful landscape I had experienced and the welcoming, generous people I had met. The connections I made in Tanzania will stay with me and help shape my work going forward. They will give me greater insight into addressing the questions that are important to preserving the species, environments and ways of life that make Tanzania so amazing.

Making Connections

Over the course of our three lion-spotting trips, we ran across some new lions and received the rare honor of naming them. This was a wonderful gesture from Ingela but also a poignant way to demonstrate the connection between the wild lions of Africa and the lions in zoos around the world, both of which will play critical roles in preserving this species for generations to come.

At the time of our trip, Zari, a lioness at Lincoln Park Zoo, had just given birth to three lion cubs and they needed names too! To bring it full circle by having local NCA community members choose the names for Zari’s cubs felt like the perfect idea.

And so, young female lions Silafandoo (see-la-fawn-do; I named her “a gift after a long journey” in Mandinka) and Lisa (named by Lisa Faust) will continue their lives in Tanzania, napping under trees, enjoying the rains, hunting the still-plentiful wildebeest and having cubs of their own someday.

Meanwhile, here in Chicago, lion cubs Pesho (pe-sho), Sidai (see-dye), and Lomelok (low-mey-lock) are about to make their debut at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Pepper Family Wildlife Center, surveying their new domain and giving us all hope for the future of lions everywhere.

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