The opportunity to track lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park, was an activity not to be missed. The Uganda Carnivore Project, overseen by Dr Ludwig Siefert, monitors the activities of several prides in the park, and a limited number of tourists are allowed to join the research team.
We met the researcher, Kenneth, at the park’s Kaseyni Gate, at 7.30am. We were lucky in that although there were three other vehicles, Kenneth joined our jeep – possibly because we had the best and largest vehicle as there was only our driver and the two of us in the seven-seater jeep, we called The Beast. As we drove across the Kasenyi Plains, I was able to find out more about the project which has two aims. Firstly, research and monitoring of three carnivores, lions, leopards and hyenas, and secondly, community-based conservation. This includes educating villagers on protecting their livestock from predators and compensating them where necessary to prevent them retaliating – $10 of our $50 fee goes to this fund.
Ten lions and leopards are fitted with radio collars, but the animals dislike them, even though they weigh less than 1kg. As they can last as little as 3 to 4 months and cost around $3,000 each, it’s an expensive project and so at present, none of the hyena population are fitted with collars.
Eventually Kenneth stood, with his head poking out of the roof holding up what looked like a TV ariel and began waving it all around him. This transmitted a signal to his walkie talkie which began rustling and bleeping when an animal was in range (said to be up to 10km if the land was flat).
Our first sighting was a lion family comprising mum, dad and two cubs. On arrival, other vehicles were already in the vicinity, but, unlike us, they were not allowed off road (there is a $150 fine in all Uganda’s parks), and they did not have our viewing advantage, which Kenneth said they find frustrating. To demonstrate his point, one of the vehicles joined our group with Kenneth taking their details to ensure they paid. Eventually mum disappeared off to nearby bushes with the cubs and dad following, and we also made a move.
The second sighting was five male lions, aged around two years old, and their manes were just starting to grow but they were all a bit sleepy and unexciting to watch.
It was then the turn of the leopard: a two-year-old female high in the candelabra shrub, Euphorbia Candelabrum, a cactus like succulent that grows to tree like dimensions. Once again, vehicles were already there. We watched for a while, but our view was inhibited, and our driver moved to a better position, but all of a sudden, we couldn’t see the leopard and it wasn’t clear what happened to her.
Kenneth then suggested trying to find the leopard’s mum which we eventually did – this time, we felt that the GPS was needed, and we wouldn’t have found her otherwise. After a while watching, Kenneth agreed with everyone that we would call it a day. I asked whether he had seen or noted anything surprising and he smiled wryly and said, ‘not really’.
We then drove to the scenic Bunyampaka Crater Lake, still a functioning traditional salt extraction site. Here were several market stalls selling a range of souvenirs, loos and a small outdoor food area with a fully functioning bar. Here we ate our overdue picnic breakfast as it was by now 11am, although we were very tempted to try one of the rolex we watched being freshly made (rolex is a popular street food item, consisting of a thin omelette rolled in a fresh chapatti – rolled eggs).
Whilst we would probably have spotted the same animals anyway, this experience allowed us to get much closer than would normally be possible and we felt that we were supporting the research and community. However, if we’d not had Kenneth in our jeep and been able to observe him at work, I’d have felt a little short changed.