Working together to save Zambia’s big cats from a silent killer

By Anna Kusler (ZCP/Panthera), Ben Goodheart (ZCP) and Dr. Kambwiri Banda (ZCP)

When most people envision the issue of “wildlife poaching” in Africa, they likely imagine the graphic scene of an elephant or rhino resting in a pool of blood, its tusks or horn hacked away, to be sold on the black market. What most people don’t think of is this: a little piece of wire.

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But these wire snares – loops of inconspicuous metal that constrict and trap the legs and necks of unsuspecting animals – are silent killers. Laid by poachers to trap and kill animals for the illegal bushmeat trade, snares are indiscriminant; antelopes, warthogs, lions, leopards, even elephants can fall victim to their grasp. It’s unknown how many animals die each year from snaring, but the number is easily in the tens of thousands.

So you can imagine our horror when, one sunny afternoon, we came across a snare binding the lower foot of a young male cheetah.

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This cheetah, nicknamed “Lunga”, and his brother “Lu” are known as the Lwengu Males. The brothers, who form a tightly-bonded coalition, live in northeastern Kafue National Park, in central Zambia. Lu is fitted with a satellite GPS collar and is part of a monitoring and research effort conducted by the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP), a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of Zambia’s large carnivores, and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. And our routine visit to the Lwengu Males could not have come sooner; we had to get this snare off Lunga’s foot before it caused any serious damage, because a three-legged cheetah is a dead cheetah. Occasionally, group-living animals such as wild dogs, lions, and hyenas can survive the loss of a snared limb thanks to the support provided by their pack, pride or clan. But a cheetah – an animal who needs its speed to take down prey and escape larger predators – won’t last long with a wire noose around its leg.

Thankfully, we were able to call in Dr. Kambwiri Banda, ZCP’s field-based veterinarian. Dr. Banda was on the other side of the country working to de-snare a similarly unlucky hyena in Liuwa National Park, but after a sleepless night and driving hundreds of kilometers, Dr. Banda was able to arrive and successfully remove the snare from Lunga’s leg. Thankfully, because we had detected the snare so quickly, Lunga had no permanent damage. By the next morning, he was already on the move with his brother and had successfully killed and fed!

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And although Lunga’s story is one of success, his plight is unfortunately all too common. Not more than three weeks prior, our routine monitoring of a lioness uncovered yet another snared carnivore – this time her 6 six month old cub, his leg held tight by the branch of a sprung whip snare. Without the fast response by our team and partners, that cub would have inevitably died, either from starvation, thirst, or a poacher’s spear.

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Interestingly, it’s actually quite rare to see a snared cheetah or lion cub. It is much more common to find an unlucky hyena or adult lion trailing one of these deadly wires. Why might that be? Well for cheetahs, it may be because they’re good at avoiding snares in the first place. Cheetahs are typically found in grasslands and more open habitats, so perhaps they’re able to avoid snares by living where there are fewer trees and game trails where the snares can be set.  

But perhaps, unfortunately, we do not often see snared cheetahs and lion cubs because they’re too weak to pull themselves free once trapped. This means they remain connected to the snare and its anchor – just like that young cub – and die soon thereafter. Without a tracking collar to inform us of their location, we never have the opportunity to find them and help them escape.

This is why the work of ZCP is so important. Working with our partners the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, Conservation South Luangwa, and Panthera, we work tirelessly to monitor and protect the large carnivores roaming across Zambia’s vast landscapes. The collars we fit on these animals are equipped with GPS transmitters that send us their locations via satellites. These locations allow us to visit and monitor the collared animals and the prides, packs, clans, and families with whom they live.  So although Lunga and that lion cub were not collared, the collars on their brother and mother saved their lives. So just one collar on an individual can provide protection to the entire group.

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Through intensive on-the-ground monitoring and de-snaring efforts, satellite GPS collars provide immediate protection for hundreds of lions, cheetahs, and African wild dogs. But they also do more; the valuable GPS data collected from the collars also provides us critical population information, informs us of crucial hunting grounds, and of where the animals den and raise their young. Once ZCP determines which areas are most in need of protection, the DNPW and partners are able deploy anti-poaching units to patrol and remove snares from these areas. This effort creates a “halo effect”, providing a halo of safety where the animals need it most.

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To date, ZCP and its partners have successfully removed dozens of snares from lions, cheetah, and wild dogs. And thanks to tireless anti-poaching efforts and our “halo effect” program, we are seeing fewer and fewer snared animals.  Here at ZCP, we continue to expand the range of our monitoring programs to include animals that live along the edges of the park’s protection and within its adjacent Game Management Areas. Here, unfortunately, we find that snares are still all too common, which highlights the importance of increasing our intensive monitoring in these areas. Cheetahs and wild dogs, in particular, have vast ranges, and often move well beyond the relative safety of the park boundaries. For now, close monitoring remains our best measure to ensure the well-being of these animals. But as the anti-poaching efforts of our partner organizations grow, so too will the safety of these incredible carnivores and the magnificent landscapes in which they live.