Image: Ferrison Kalembelembe/Panthera

A lioness that had lost one of her limbs to a snare trap — now known as the “tripod lioness” — was observed living in Kafue National Park, the second largest national park in Africa and one of the most important ecological areas for carnivores.

Dr. Kim Overton, the Cheetah Program Director at Panthera, explained to Roaring Earth: “This lioness had lost her foot to a snare some time before she was found. When a lioness becomes injured and can no longer hunt or contribute to the pride, they tend to get left behind. She was left with a sub adult male and sub adult female, likely her offspring.”

Wire snares used for illegal bushmeat poaching take a cruel toll on Africa’s wildlife, and are the silent killers of many of the continent’s beloved big cats. Unfortunately, animals such as lions, hyenas, and wild dogs missing legs from snares is not an uncommon sight in many parts of Africa.

A snare trap is comprised of a simple piece of wire, wrapped into a loop, and anchored down in an area of high animal activity with the sole purpose of killing wildlife. Although most poachers set wire traps to catch herbivores for bushmeat, these traps often ensnare carnivores as well. 

Image: Matt Becker, Zambian Carnivore Program

Even when snares work perfectly, animals can be held struggling for hours, leading to extensive suffering. Many ensnared animals die slowly from progressive bleeding — if they escape, they’re generally injured or mutilated.

The tripod lioness was in remarkable condition for an animal that had lost her foot. Despite the sadness of her story, there was a touching aspect as well. Reports came in that the young male and female were actually hunting for her.

“At one point they made a puku kill on the edge of a wetland, pulled it out of the water, and put it up on the bank for her,” Overton continued, her voice rising with hopeful joy.

But not all lions get so lucky.

Image: Save Valley Conservancy

Prey depletion due to illegal bushmeat poaching is the number one contributing factor to the decline in carnivore populations across Africa. Recently, big cats are becoming directly targeted in addition to getting caught up in bushmeat snares. Poachers are selling their body parts on the black market.

“2.5 liters of lion fat is worth $150, a pair of eyes is $100, teeth are worth $100, and bones can fetch $50-$100 depending on their size,” Overton reported solemnly.

This alarming development only adds to the extensive threats big cats already face.

In collaboration with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and their partners, Kim’s colleague and husband, Dr. Jake Overton (also of Panthera) recently completed a study on bushmeat poaching in the greater Kafue ecosystem between 2014-2016. From their data an estimated 300,000-500,000 snares are set in the ecosystem every year.

Image: Andy Loveridge

Snared carnivores observed during that time period included 13 lions, one leopard, four hyenas, four wild dogs, and one cheetah. These animals most certainly represent a small proportion of the total numbers.

The saddest truth: The majority of animals caught in snares are not collected by poachers but instead left to rot in the bush. 

In the bushmeat poaching study, interviews of 61 poachers reported killing 25 leopards, 21 lions, and 13 cheetahs poached out of the great Kafue system. And these poachers are only a small sample of the poachers in the system.

Image: Milan Vinks/Zambian Carnivore Program

Although the statistics are staggering and the challenges fierce, Panthera is fighting back with vigor. The organization supports DNPW and Game Rangers International in efforts to dissuade poaching in the Kafue region.

“It’s all about increasing the risk of arrest of poachers and raising the profile of security over particular areas. We also encourage all organizations to lock away their wire because it is the wire that poachers make snares out of,” Overton explained.

Panthera supports the Zambian Carnivore Program de-snaring response team to remove snares. When a member of the public or any other organization in the system reports a snared animal, Panthera is one of the first organizations to receive calls and help mobilize the response.

Image: Game Rangers International/Panthera

Like soldiers on the front lines, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and conservation organizations are joining forces in Zambia to help protect the diminishing wild cat population. And Overton’s team is about to reveal a new weapon.

“Panthera is working to support the Department of National Parks and Wildlife to strengthen their anti-poaching efforts by establishing an additional Anti-Poaching Unit, specifically for central Kafue that will serve to provide a continuous presence to secure populations of big cats and their prey. Alongside patrolling and using tactics to reduce poaching, one of its core activities will be to sweep the area and make it safe from snares. The Anti-Poaching unit should be up and running within the second half of this year.”

This is good news for the tripod lioness — and the remaining big cats in Africa that remain at risk of this merciless silent killer. 

Learn more at panthera.org.