Gathering lion DNA in samples: insights into lion research in Botswana

Posted on 22 August 2012

As camp managers, we like to get out on game drives whenever possible. But today we’re planning a different kind of safari. Today we’re after lion. And not just to watch and photograph them – to shoot them.

Now before you close this page and vow never to read my posts again, I don’t mean shoot to kill, I mean shoot for samples – DNA samples. Our resident lion researcher, Simon Dures, has invited me on a thrilling afternoon of lion stalking and shooting to give me insight into his fascinating research project. We currently have a large pride (14 members) in the Linyanti Concession in Botswana and Simon is eager to get as many DNA samples as possible.

Armed with my Canon 7D and 100-400mm lens, I climb into the passenger seat of his custom built 110 Land Rover, hoping to get some good shots of the action. We sneak out of camp before the guests finish their afternoon tea. It’s crucial that we get to the lion early and gather the samples before they arrive.

In order to gather his DNA samples, Simon shoots the lion with a modified dart that collects a skin sample on contact and falls off. Once the lion has let out a big yelp and run off, he simply picks up the sample and stores it in his fridge. But before shooting the lion, Simon must create an identity card for the individual. On the identity card he gives the lion a unique number based on its location and then maps out its whisker spots, ear notches and any other unique features. Once back in the lab he will be able to match each ID card to its corresponding sample.

After some serious bush bashing we arrive at the place they were last seen. Nothing. We continue deeper into the dense vegetation, scanning carefully under bushes, hoping to pick up a flicking tail or anything that will give them away. Still nothing. Then the radio goes, “Simon you copy?” Its Ace, one of the Savuti Bush Camp guides, “I’ve picked them up, they’re on the opposite side of the road, next to the channel. Your not far, I can hear your vehicle”.

We crash through the bushes and get back onto the road. Its not long before we arrive at the sighting. We’re too late, there are already two guest vehicles watching and another is responding shorty. “Dammit! We’ve missed them” he says in clear disappointment, “with the guests now here I won’t be able to collect any samples”

With nothing else to do but observe, we crack open a cold beer and discuss the project in more detail. I take the opportunity to fire off some questions:


What is your research project all about and what do you hope to achieve?

The research has a number of different elements to it and it is constantly evolving as new questions arrive. There is very little scientific literature on the lions of Botswana, and even less within the Okavango, so there is plenty to ask, however, my focus is looking at how the landscape affects movements within the population. In particular I am interested in seeing how human development and encroachment in and around the region is, and will be, affecting the ability of lions to move through the landscape and thus breed. This has implications for inbreeding, disease spread and susceptibility, and population declines.

Historically there would have been genetic flow i.e. the dispersal of individuals across the whole area, notably between the Central Kalahari and the Okavango, and it is my belief that this no longer happens due to the prevalence of cattle farms (which inevitably leads to conflict). The implications of this can potentially be far reaching but initially only noticeable in the genetics. It is my hope that the research will act as an ‘early warning system’ and hopefully go some way to advising the direction of conservation management in the area.

Fundamentally, the work is not just about lions, they are simply the study species. Alerting people to changes and risks in this population should help with the conservation of many others, as well as open up avenues for further research needs.


Why lion, and not any other species?  

There were three main reasons. The first was simply the way the research idea developed, chatting about wildlife numbers and changing populations, and it seemed that no one really had a definitive answer about the changes in lion numbers. There were lots of opinions and ideas, both for increasing and decreasing numbers, but no one had any definitive answers or evidence behind their thoughts.

Secondly, for working on a landscape level I needed good numbers of animals that covered a diverse area so my sample size could be big enough to be meaningful. I didn’t want to use animals like impala that are so numerous that it would be unmanageable and unrealistic to sample a good chunk of the population. The final reason was far less ‘scientific’; lions are big and cuddly and iconic so people pay attention when you use lions to highlight a conservation issue. They are also rapidly declining across Africa and, more simply, I like lions!


Which countries do you plan to carry out your research in? 

At the moment I am focussing my attention on Botswana to keep things simple until some good results start coming out. However, in an ideal world I would like to incorporate all the surrounding countries, especially those areas included in the Kaza (Kavango-Zambezi) Transfrontier park that has recently been rarefied by the governments of Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Botswana, especially the Okavango delta, is also a fairly unique landscape and environment but despite this there is little published in the scientific literature on the wildlife, and certainly the lions of the area, so there is plenty for me to work on!


How did you get into the field of genetics?

Well I never thought I would, in fact all through my university career I hated genetics. While I was doing my masters degree in Cape Town I was fortunate to have a course on the conservation application of genetics taught by Dr. Jacquie Bishop. She is a fantastic teacher and after two weeks my mind was turned, or at least I now understood the power of applying genetics to conservation questions. When I arrived in Botswana I had no intention of looking at genetics, my passion is for studying the effects of changes in landscapes, however genetics simply turned out to be the best tool to answer the broad questions I was interested in.

With the light diminishing the lion leisurely gather themselves and start moving off. In a vindictive manner they slowly stroll past our vehicle, one by one. I take the opportunity to fire off a couple shots through my canon, but all Simon can do is sit and watch. With each passing lion, a sampling opportunity is missed. Tomorrow he will start again.

Even though I didn’t have the opportunity to witness the sampling, it was an afternoon well spent. I got a glimpse into the life of a lion researcher and our discussions opened my mind to the intricacies of this precious environment and the wildlife that inhabits it. Research plays a crucial role in understanding our natural wilderness areas and the impacts human populations can have on them.

Simon is doing his PhD through Imperial College in London (in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London) on Lion Genetics. If you would like to follow Simon’s progress you can follow his Facebook page at If you would like to contact him you can e-mail him at [email protected].

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