Biologist Ingela Jansson talks about Tanzania’s Serengeti Lion Project, the future of the Ngorongoro Crater, meeting Maasai and getting close to big cats.
How did you become a lion researcher?
By chance really. After a trip to Africa in my early 20s I knew I wanted to become a biologist and return to Africa; 16 years later, after studying brown bears in Sweden and working as a manager for a safari camp in Tanzania, I joined the Serengeti Lion Project (SLP) as a research assistant.
Why choose Ngorongoro crater?
Ngorongoro Crater is part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), but only takes up 3% of its total area. Lions living between the Serengeti and the Crater are threatened by the growing human population. I came to work for the lions’ conservation and revival.
What makes the NCA so unique?
The NCA was set up to conserve both culture and wildlife.
What does a typical day involve for you?
My days are often divided into field days or computer days. A field day in the Ngorongoro Crater is basically a long safari day, searching as best I can for any lions. A day out with Maasai in the wider NCA is completely unpredictable, often heading out to check for signs of lions or sitting under some shady tree discussing predators and cattle-grazing with the Maasai.
Have you ever had any scary encounters?
My scariest (or, rather, most exhilarating) encounter was when a lion walked up to me in the late evening as I sat outside my car, cooking dinner. I guess he was just curious. Since then I now cook my dinners on top of the car for safety’s sake.
Can travelers visit your field center?
Yes. Groups can book to have us come to their lodge or camp to give a talk about lions and our project. We also hope to have guests come and visit us or join us during field activities in the wider NCA. Donations following such activities will go directly to help funding our continued work.
What impact does tourism have on the lions in Ngorongoro?
For the most part, not much. The Crater lions are so used to having vehicles around they appear to be quite unperturbed by the attention as long as trucks keep a reasonable distance. Lions are lazy and confident cats, and most of their hunting and social interactions happen at night.
What’s the best part of your job?
Being in this fantastic area, following in real time the soap operas of the lions, and being part of this interesting project, which we hope will have a very positive impact on the long-term conservation of the iconic lion populations in the region.
And the worst part of your job?
Far too much driving and being stuck in a vehicle. Seeking and following up on permits can also get really tedious.
What does the future hold for lions?
Unless we take action, the decline of Africa’s lions will continue unabated due to habitat loss and a limited gene pool. In the NCA we aim to follow similar methods as Kenya’s Lion Guardian project, which successfully protects lions by engaging local Maasai in the conservation and research activities.
In the future, lions may again be able to move freely between the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. This would bring in much-needed new blood to the inbred Crater lions. It would also be a success for the NCA, where people and wildlife are meant to live together in perpetuity.
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