By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor
The last time I saw a lion in the wild, it was a few hours after sunset in Botswana, and she’d just been shot with a sedative-laden dart so scientists could change the batteries in her tracking collar. We pulled up in the Land Rover alongside the lioness, now passed out in the grass, and the vet jumped out to tug on her tail—apparently standard operating procedure to make sure she’s really asleep.
Once we got the all-clear, we spilled out of the car. While the scientists changed the batteries and did a health check by headlamps, I held my hand up to her heavy paw. I looked at her long canines. I felt her muscular haunches. From a distance, she looked like a house cat. Up close, she was anything but.
The idea behind these lion tracking collars is to help local livestock owners protect their cattle. Whenever a collared lion is close, cattle owners get a text message alert, giving them time to move the herds somewhere safer. Cattle are one of the main income sources for people in this area, and losing a cow to a lion is a big financial hit. It’s tough to blame residents for wanting to eliminate the predators. Unfortunately, preemptive and retaliatory killings are one of the biggest threats to lions, whose numbers across Africa have dropped more than 40 percent in 20 years. (Pictured above, a lion walking through the dry grass in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.)
Early-alert systems like the CLAWS Conservancy’s tracking collars in northern Botswana are one way people are working to help lions and humans coexist. National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative helped fund that program, which has collared and tracks about 10 local lions, and it funds a number of other initiatives that promote coexistence as well.
Once the work was done, we drove a little distance away and waited—the team needed to monitor the lioness until the sedative wore off. We made a fire to illuminate the pitch black and ate a late meal, waiting for her to wake. Soon enough, we heard rustling and lion vocalizations from her direction. She was awake, and it sounded like a friend had joined her. At one point, it sounded like they were barely 60 feet away. But bright flashlights and some loud yells seemed to make them change their minds. Both none the wiser, they scampered off into the night.
For more big cat adventures, tune in to Nat Geo Wild’s Big Cat Week next Monday through Friday, and learn more about how Nat Geo is working to save big cats at natgeo.org/bigcats. For more on big cats in this newsletter, scroll down to see a map showing how privately owned tigers in the U.S. are traded back and forth across the country.
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Today in a minute
The mystery peacock in L.A.: When the City of Angels was on lockdown, a stranger strode the emptier-than-usual streets. He was hard to miss—iridescent blue with a spray of rainbow tail feathers (pictured above, on a roof in Marina del Rey). Photographer Glenna Gordon has been chronicling his urban adventures. Ornithologist James Maley suspects the bird wandered from Rancho Palos Verdes, which has a number of feral peacocks, 25 miles north to West L.A. looking for a mate. The peacock missed mating this year, but might have better luck next spring.
Found in Florida: Juvenile manta rays have been seen swimming off South Florida’s Atlantic coast, pointing to strong evidence of only the third known manta ray nursery in the world. The rays have been spotted from Miami high-rises and off Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach. “It was an unexpected finding,” scientist Jessica Pate tells Nat Geo. The other two nurseries are in Indonesia and in the Gulf of Mexico.
E. coli and cattle: Infections linked to leafy greens have hospitalized 200 Americans since 2018, and it seems like cattle played a role, the Guardian reports. The strain of E. coli behind the U.S.’s deadly outbreaks is found naturally in the digestive tracts of cattle. Wind, water, or wild animals can carry it from manure to the produce fields.
Gray wolves: In what is sure to be a controversial move, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will lift endangered species protections for gray wolves across most of the nation sometime in the next four months, the Associated Press reports. Many environmental groups oppose the move. The wolves, almost extinct in the last century, have rebounded in parts of the West and the Great Lakes to about 6,000. Are they really still endangered? It depends who you ask, Jason Bittel reported for Nat Geo last year.
Smart tactic: This pig-sized mammal that lived 250 million years ago had tusks like an elephant and roamed with the dinosaurs. Scientists have discovered that to survive the chilly climate of what is now Antarctica, the Lystrosaurus would go into a kind of hibernation. This makes them the oldest known vertebrates to do so, and it may be a big reason why they managed to survive the mass extinction at the end of the Permian period, when 70 percent of vertebrate species on land did not, CNN reports.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Nesting season: Every year around 17,000 Kemp’s ridley eggs are collected and incubated on Padre Island in Texas. The sea turtle hatchlings then are released back into the ocean, says photographer Esther Horvath. Thirty-five years ago, the Kemp’s ridleys were almost extinct. “We’re lucky that we’ve been able to help so much, and hopefully, together, all of us can help save this species from extinction,” says Donna J. Shaver, chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery for the National Park Service in Corpus Christi.
Related: Sea turtles are surviving—despite us
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The big takeaway
Giant Panda National Park? China’s new reserve high up in the bamboo forests of Sichuan Province is just one of 10 pilot parks with the stated goal of protecting habitats of endangered species. Those species range from the clouded leopard (above left) to the giant panda (right) to the world’s last 30 Hainan black crested gibbons. Kyle Obermann examines the tricky balance between conservation and wildlife tourism at the parks, which make up China’s new national park system. Remote sensing technology has shown some of these parks have aggressively expanded roads, power lines, and public buildings that damaged sensitive ecological areas.
At a glance
Tracking the tiger trade: Demand for hands-on experiences drives tiger breeding in the U.S., where many roadside zoos and other businesses charge guests to pet and pose with cubs—an activity that’s problematic for many reasons. We’ve done a series of maps showing how the trade works (detail above, of the trade involving the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center). Today perhaps 3,900 tigers remain in the wild. Tigers hover closer to extinction than any other big cat.
Related: Tigers in the U.S. outnumber those in the wild
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The last glimpse
One species is extinct. Can its cousin be saved? Its last sighting was in 1802, when a specimen was captured off Tasmania and whisked to a museum in Paris. Now the smooth handfish, a shallow-water bottom-dweller with spiky fins and a barb-like protrusion on its forehead, has formally been declared extinct—and all but one of its 13 species of cousins (pictured above, the spotted handfish) are endangered or lack population data. Seven species of handfish—so named because they perch on the seafloor on fins that look like little hands and act like feet—haven’t been seen since 2000. Warming waters may be hastening their decline, Nat Geo’s Douglas Main reports. “If they’re lost from an area,” says marine biologist Graham Edgar, “they’re probably not going to come back.”
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