Testing the effects of anthropogenic pressures on African lions and their prey in the Greater Kafue Ecosystem, Zambia
Vinks, Milan Alexander
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Rapid human population growth across Africa has put tremendous pressure on large herbivore and large carnivore populations, and most of these large terrestrial species are now limited to residing within or adjacent to protected area (PA) networks. However, high rates of human encroachment and associated activities around and within PAs are jeopardizing their effectiveness and have become a major conservation concern. High rates of illegal harvest are linked to human encroachment and can have devastating effects on large herbivore and large carnivore populations. Large herbivore declines are often greatest in areas with high rates of illegal offtake and ensuing prey depletion can be a primary driver of large carnivore declines. Kafue National Park (KNP) of central Zambia supports a diverse large herbivore community and the country's second largest lion population. However, KNP is thought to be experiencing human-caused wildlife declines, providing a unique opportunity to evaluate anthropogenic effects on both the large herbivores and large carnivores of this system. Here, we evaluated the status and major anthropogenic and environmental drivers of KNP's large herbivore populations and lion population. First, we estimated population densities and distribution of the ten most abundant large herbivore species using stratified ground-based surveys conducted from 2012 - 2018. These data indicated that population densities were consistently low across species and areas, though there was ecologically important variation among species and size classes. Moreover, densities of larger-bodied herbivores were greatly depressed relative to smaller species. Second, we evaluated population density, survival rates, and demography for the KNP lion population from 2013 - 2018. These data indicated that age- and sex-specific survival rates for settled individuals were generally high, and factors known to correlate with local prey density had small effects on lion survival. In contrast, average lion density was low and recruitment of cubs was poor. These findings suggest that low recruitment might be a better signal of low prey density than survival. Overall, large herbivores and lions appear to be limited by human activities in KNP. Increased resource protection and reducing the underlying drivers of prey depletion are urgent conservation needs to facilitate the recovery of these economically and ecologically valuable species.