Nakawa the lion. (Photo: Courtesy John Walker)

Zambia’s Lion King Is Dead

The only adult male lion in the Liuwa Plain National Park has been killed under suspicious circumstances.
Sep 25, 2014· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Efforts to reestablish a healthy lion population in Zambia’s Liuwa Plain National Park suffered a devastating setback last week when the park's only adult male lion, Nakawa, was found dead.

Park manager Rob Reid said signs of struggling and bloody fecal discharge surrounded the lion’s body, which suggest either poisoning or a virulent disease.

“At this stage we don’t know whether the death was as a result of snake bite, deliberate or accidental poisoning, or disease,” Reid said in a statement. “Body tissue samples are being sent for testing, but whatever the result, this death represents a real setback to Liuwa’s lion pride.”

Officials have spent the past five years trying to rebuild Liuwa’s lion population but have encountered many setbacks along the way. The park was once home to hundreds of lions, but poachers killed nearly all of the animals in the 1990s.

The last lion, a female named Lady Liuwa, wandered the park alone from 2000 to 2009. That year, two males were introduced as potential companions for her. Neither of the males produced cubs with her, so two more females were introduced in 2012. Tragedy quickly followed.

One of the lionesses died in a poacher’s snare the following year, as did one of the males, which had wandered outside the protection of the park. The remaining male, Nakawa (which means “he who gives something back”), eventually mated with both Lady Liuwa and the other female, which gave birth to three cubs in January.

That gave Nakawa only eight months as a father.

Jon Walker, who has been to Liuwa several times and runs the lion conservation website Lion Voice, said he doubts natural causes were behind Nakawa’s death.

“It is very likely that the lion was poisoned,” Walker said. “Death from a snakebite or disease is highly unlikely, particularly for a near-500-pound male lion, which was quite healthy.”

He said the area around Liuwa has changed dramatically in the past decade, putting the lions and all of the park’s wildlife at risk. “There are many more people legally living in and around the park boundaries—some who are not excited by the reintroduction of the lions.”

Indeed, authorities arrested poachers for the murder of the park’s head of law enforcement in June.

Liuwa is in Zambia’s poorest province, and the people who live there are the country’s second least educated. Many of the poverty-stricken people in the region depend on subsistence hunting and farming for food. Poaching has remained a consistent problem in the park.

Despite Nakawa’s death, Liuwa officials said they would continue efforts to rebuild the park’s lion population. But they will not be able to reintroduce another male anytime soon. “We will have to wait about a year before introducing new male lions to the park,” Reid said. “Lions typically kill cubs that they have not sired in order to stimulate the female coming into oestrus, or heat.”

Meanwhile, the investigation into Nakawa’s death is ongoing.