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How Zoo Boise Is Working To Save African Lions

Samantha Wright
Boise State Public Radio
Paola Bouley watches the lions at Zoo Boise during her visit to Idaho.

Lions are in trouble and need our help. That’s the message from a lion researcher in Africa and Boise’s own zoo, which together are trying to help lions survive in the wild.

Paola Bouley is the Director of the Gorongosa Lion Project in central Mozambique, Africa. As part of its conservation efforts, Zoo Boise has raised $50,000 to fund her study of lions inside Gorongosa National Park.

Bouley says lions have been disappearing from Africa for decades.

“One hundred-and-fifty years ago, there were an estimated half a million lions across the continent," says Bouley. "Today there are 32,000. We’ve seen a massive decline in the population across Africa.”

That decline included Gorongosa National Park, which is in the Great Rift Valley near the Indian Ocean. Fifty years ago it was a thriving wildlife park. But two wars left the park in ruins, with most of its animals dead.

But Zoo Boise is working to reestablish the park. Director Steve Burns says the zoo has pledged $2 million over the next ten years to restoration projects in Gorongosa.

“Last year, we accounted for five percent of the Park’s operating budget,” says Burns. “Which is really cool isn’t it, to have a zoo in Boise, Idaho account for five percent of an operating budget of a place that’s 10,000 miles away.”

It’s all part of Zoo Boise’s conservation mission. “We’re still a zoo, but we sort of changed the reason why we’re a zoo,” Burns says.

$50,000 of that is funding Bouley’s research on lions. “We’re the first science-based lion project in the park,” says Bouley. Her job is to find out if lions are recovering -- and if not -- why not. She says her work has just gotten started.

“In the past two years of our work we’ve established an intensive study area and in just 15 percent of the area of the park, we’ve documented 63 lions,” says Bouley. That’s in just a small fraction of the 1,500 square mile landscape, about half the size of West Yellowstone.

Bouley says people are the biggest obstacle lions face. “[The human] population is growing, the pressures on protected areas are increasing. And lions are coming more and more in contact with people, in various ways.”

One of the biggest problems for lions in South Africa is snaring.

“There’s a growing bush meat trade, a lot of it illegal," she says. "People secure that bush meat through snaring. Lions are incidental catch. People are not actually trying to snare lions, they’re trying to get buffalo, warthog and yet lions are dying in these traps.”

She’s using money from the Boise zoo in her work as she tracks lions in the park using satellite collars, trail cameras, and on-the-ground observation.

Zoo Boise Director Burns says the organization's conservation work in Africa is making a difference. “The scientific data coming out of Gorongosa is showing that the number of animals is increasing,” he says. “When I was there six years ago, there were probably 10,000 hoofed animals. The latest survey showed that there were 72,000 hoofed animals. When you come to Zoo Boise, you are putting animals back into the wild.” The zoo is also planning to build a Gorongosa National Park exhibit in Boise.

Bouley says her work in Gorongosa is just beginning. She says finding 63 lions in just one small part of the park is cause for optimism. She thinks there are more lions than originally thought in the park.

“I’ve worked on so many different species, but I’ll probably work on lions until the day I die now. They’re magnificent animals -- they’re obviously a charismatic animal and we all love them -- but they’re so important ecologically too.”

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio

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