This process aimed to remove the radio collar from one of the Tuli lionesses because the collar was ending its two-year lifespan. The lioness involved was Sabatana, a 4-5 year old female. The process had four main stages: bait preparation, attraction to the bait, darting, and post-darting.
The bait used in the process was a male impala, taken to the location where a radio signal from Sabatana had been picked up earlier in the day. Once at this location, the bait was tied to the back of the Land Rover and dragged to an area of open bush where the darting was to take place. Dragging the bait in this way created a scent trail, which ideally the lionesses would follow and thus lead them to the bait and subsequently, the darting could occur. The bait was then tied to a tree at the darting site so the lionesses could not drag it away and out of sight to feed, which is their natural behaviour.
Attraction to the bait
The ‘call up’ method was used along with the scent trail. This method involves playing the sounds of a distressed animal to entice a predator to what it thinks are sounds of prey. In this case, the call of a distressed young buffalo was used. At first, this attracted brown hyenas to the bait; however, they were scared away as we did not want the bait to be taken by anything other than Sabatana! During the call, the atmosphere was tense as everyone awaited to see whether Sabatana and Mabele (Sabatana’s mother) would come. Telemetry equipment was used intermittently during the call-up to determine whether they were moving in closer. The signal from Sabatana was getting closer, confirming that they were, and after approximately 20-30 minutes, we saw her. She appeared out of nowhere and was very close to the vehicles. Tentatively, she approached the bait and initially tried to drag it out of sight behind the tree. She didn’t start feeding on it immediately because she had a stomach index of 5, meaning she had not been long without food. She was aware of our presence; however, this did not cause her to leave the bait site.
Once Sabatana had settled down, it was at this point that the researcher who would carry out the darting was able to move to a different position — one which gave a clear aim of Sabatana’s rump, as the dart needed to be shot into an area of thick muscle. Once darted, Sabatana took approximately 20 minutes to go down completely from the anaesthetic. At this point, the bait was cut away from the tree and placed on the ground away from Sabatana to give Mabele, Sabatana’s mother, who was also in the vicinity, a distraction while the researcher was dealing with Sabatana. We put the vehicles in between the newly positioned bait and Sabatana for safety. While Sabatona was under, the collar was removed, blood samples were taken, and measurements of her body were made. It was thought that she may be pregnant — however, further tests would need to be carried out to confirm this.
Once the darting had taken place and the researcher had done all he needed, we stayed with Sabatana until she came round from the anaesthetic — this was essential as we needed to ensure that she fully came around with no complications and that she was kept out of danger. At the same time, she was weak and unable to defend herself. It took approximately 1.5 hours for Sabatana to reach an acceptable state for her to be left in. During this time, Mabele’s calls to Sabatana could be heard, again creating a fairly tense atmosphere as she was the more aggressive of the two, and we knew she was close. However, she was not sighted. Jackals were seen feeding on the impala carcass when we were driving away from Sabatana — unfortunately, she lost out on what she thought was a free meal that night!! We all felt incredibly privileged to get so close to a lion and have witnessed this event.
Roy, Tina, Meena and Sarah, Tuli Volunteers