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Geoff Gilfillan: Lions of the Okavango Delta

Geoff is investigating why Lions in Botswana’s Okavango Delta roar. With an interest in animal communication and bio-acoustics this is the perfect project. With luck he might be able to play lion roar recordings from a loud-speaker to scare lions away from cattle posts and farmlands, so that lethal control can be avoided.

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Name: Geoff Gilfillan

Species: African Lion (Panther Leo)

Location: Botswana

Twitter: @geoffgilfillan

Bio: Geoff also holds a BSc degree in Zoology from the University of Durham (UK), and has previous ethological experience with the golden monkey in Uganda, and meerkats in South Africa. One of Geoff’s primary interests is animal communication and bio-acoustics in particular. As a consequence, how and why lions communicate through roaring has formed a central part of Geoff’s research.

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How did field experience with Meerkats lead you on to studying Lions?

My path towards large carnivore conservation began at The University of Durham, U.K. Having decided that I was ready to leave academics and go out in to the ‘real’ world, I next headed out to South Africa where I became a Research Volunteer at Cambridge University’s ‘Kalahari Meerkat Project’. I believe the experience I gained at the meerkat project was then invaluable to me securing a Research Volunteer position with The Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT). The BPCT works towards the conservation of the entire large carnivore guild in Botswana, and it was here that I began to form my research ideas that ultimately formed the beginning of my PhD research.

Finally, when I returned to the U.K I was accepted as a PhD student at the University of Sussex, U.K, and obtained funding through ‘The Study Abroad Studentship’ offered by The Leverhulme Trust.

So tell us more about lions, how does this link in with the bigger picture of conservation across Africa?

The lion which is the largest carnivore in Africa. Being the apex predator, lions are fundamentally important in maintaining the balance of the ecosystems they inhabit. Lions drive the movements and behaviour of many prey and rival predator species. Consequently, the conservation of entire ecosystems will often require a healthy and viable lion population.

Lions are also one of the most important species to African ecotourism. Through which, lions can be said to be creating employment and delivering wealth to local communities who are vital in the conservation the ecosystems they live within.

LEFT: Lion stalking in the Okavango Delta. RIGHT: Other megaufauna in the area!
"..spending all night with a lion pride on a buffalo carcass.."
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What does your research focus on?

I am currently studying the acoustic communication of lions in northern Botswana. One of the main goals of my research is to test the feasibility of playing lion roar recordings from a loud-speaker to scare lions away from cattle posts and farmlands, so that lethal control can be avoided.

Working out in the Okavango Delta must be challenging and unusual to say the least, what can you tell us about the experience?

I work just outside of Moremi Game Reserve in Northern Botswana. The closest town is a 2 hour drive and is called Maun. The research camp is very well equipped: there are about 5 researchers at any given time, and 5 local staff members. There is a chef who provide us with excellent food, and there is also a mechanic who is vital in keeping the camp running. We live in large canvas tents and are supplied with 24 hour electricity via solar panels. We get around by driving Land Rover Defenders and follow our study animals from the safety of the car.

ABOVE: Male lion and research vehicle. BELOW: Lion cub playing.
"Lions are also one of the most important species to African ecotourism."
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Can you tell us about the highlights and challenges?

Seeing animal behaviour that I would never otherwise be able to witness, even when on safari. For example, spending all night with a lion pride on a buffalo carcass, only to be startled out of a daydream by a rival pride coming in to take over the kill.

The hardest aspect of working with lions in the Okavango Delta would be overcoming the environmental challenges whilst trying to conduct the research. For example, deep sand or deep mud can give you hours of hassle if you are not careful. [we know all to well! – DC]

ABOVE: Female Lion jumping down from a tree.
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Lastly, what advice do you have for anyone who finds themselves working on a similar project?

1) Be independent. Sometime you are the only person who can get yourself out of a sticky situation.

2) Accept that some things are out of your control. I.e. Immigration.

3) Learn the local customs to help ease your work within a new country.

4) Keep an open mind to adapt your research to new discoveries and challenges.

5) Most importantly – enjoy yourself!

6) Lastly, the best advice I could give would be to open minded to volunteering. Everyone likes to get paid, but sometimes volunteering can open up doors that would otherwise be shut.

Thanks Geoff!

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