Sue Watt meets the Long Shield Lion Guardians of Hwange National Park, where Cecil the Lion lived, and learns how Vuvuzelas and white tarpaulin are helping locals.
Apparently, lions are afraid of the colour white. This rather random fact was discovered by a poacher who realised that when he wore a white cloth, he could scare a lion and take its kill without any comeback from the so-called king of the jungle.
Now it’s being used to brilliant effect by a conservation group called The Long Shields Lion Guardians in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, part of Oxford University’s WildCRU lion research project.
Hwange got a lot of press attention this time last year. The park had been home to that now famous lion, Cecil, who’s killing by an American trophy hunter sparked a media storm and raised awareness of the plight of lions and their conservation. But many lions die at the hands of local people too, in human wildlife conflict situations.
The simplicity and success of the Lion Guardians project - and the courage and commitment of the Guardians themselves - amazed me.
Essentially, the Long Shields Lion Guardians help cattle-herders to live with lions rather than kill them.
Until recently, if a lion killed cattle, locals would kill the lion. Now, an unlikely combination of modern technology and Vuvuzelas (those horrendous plastic trumpets that gained fame in South Africa’s 2010 World Cup) are saving the predators.
If people see lions, they send a WhatsApp group message from their mobiles and straight away, all the people in that group or village are alerted to their presence.
The Guardians (there are 11 across Hwange National Park) then go to the area and scare off the lions by blowing the Vuvuzelas. Using more high-tech equipment, they also check on their GPS systems for any collared lions that might be in the area so that farmers can move their herds. They search for missing livestock too, and teach people how to build more secure kralls or bomas for the cattle.
And this is where the colour white comes in. Safari operators and lodges in the area support conservation in many ways. African Bush Camps, which owns the beautiful Somalisa camp in the park, funded the costs of a new boma made of white tarpaulin instead of the usual sticks and branches. Villagers put their cattle, around a hundred of them, in the 30mx30m enclosure every night for ten days, before moving it on to another plot.
The cattle can’t see out of the boma, so they don’t panic at the sight of predators. And, scared by the colour white, the hungry lion prowling around outside runs away, leaving the livestock in peace …
The Lion Guardians project, a brilliant example of communities and conservation working together, is a win-win for everyone: the lions, the local people and people like us who travel to see Africa’s beautiful wild places like Hwange.