Imagine you’re a scientist out in the field conducting research and scanning the savannah for movement. With luck, you spot your intended subject—a pride of lions lounging under an acacia tree! You get closer – but not too close, safety first! – and scan the faces of each lion, noting the patterns of whiskers and nose spots, scars, and notches on each individual. Now what?
These markings form an effective ‘fingerprint’ for each lion, allowing scientists to know each lion individually and name them for their records.
By monitoring wildlife species in this way, scientists can gather detailed information on population size, birth, and death rates, as well as threats that may affect them. This strong foundation of data is critical to help identify when wild animal populations may be declining, the reasons for such declines, and what conservation interventions might help reverse that trend.
Analyzing such datasets to form recommendations for conservation actions is the focus of the zoo’s Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology. Since 2005, the Alexander Center has assisted in dozens of projects to assess population threats and assist in making management and conservation decisions for wild and reintroduced animal populations. Most recently, the Alexander Center and Lincoln Park Zoo have partnered with KopeLion to study lions in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in northern Tanzania.
The emblematic ‘king’ of wildlife in Africa, lion populations have declined for the past 100 years, with fewer than 20,000 lions remaining (down from an estimated 500,000 in the early 1900s). These strong declines have prompted organizations like KopeLion to take action by studying lion populations, learning their population characteristics and movements, and engaging with local communities to create solutions that protect lions and foster human-lion coexistence. As a result of their work, KopeLion has generated more than 60 years of data on hundreds of individual lions, tracking their births, movements, and deaths. This huge effort makes Ngorongoro lions one of the best-known lion populations on earth!
While the goal is ultimately to leverage the wealth of historic and current lion data from Ngorongoro to better understand and mitigate threats to this population, the first step is to organize the huge dataset! Using the PopLink software (a computer program designed to improve the management and analysis of studbook databases) developed by the Alexander Center, Lincoln Park Zoo scientists are working to consolidate this vast amount of data to facilitate data exploration and analysis.
First, the zoo’s scientists will create a ‘studbook’, which is a database to track each individual animal and its parents, grandparents, siblings, and offspring. This process involves combing through the Access and Excel databases of KopeLion, working with the project scientists to record additional key details that might not be tracked in those databases, and entering key data about each individual lions’ life into PopLink. Within the studbook, scientists will also track where and when each lion is born, where and when they die, and where they travel in between.
While the current population of living lions in the study is approximately 105, ultimately, building the studbook will mean tracing these details for hundreds more lions over a 60+ year period. The result will be an easy tool to understand key metrics of the population, including population size over time or average survival rates and birth rates – critical for understanding long-term population health and viability.
This is the perfect starting point to understand how conservation measures, like community engagement and livestock protection, may be benefiting the lions of Ngorongoro.