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  • Writer's pictureLion Landscapes

Identifying Lions

Why do we identify lions?

Identifying lions allows us to build an ID database so everyone can recognise the wild individuals in the field. Recognising individuals helps us understand:

  • Where and how far they roam / how they disperse

  • The degree of connectivity between groups

  • Where conflict may occur

All of this information can be used to better understand lion behaviour and manage potential conflict, working with multiple stake-holders to help develop successful conservation initiatives.

A male lion

How do we identify lions?

There are a variety of features we use to help us ID lions, ranging from whisker spots to ear tears, scars or missing teeth and tail tips. As new lions are being born, and acquiring new distinctive features throughout their lives (e.g. ear tears, scars or missing teeth or tail tips), we need to constantly keep our database updated. There is however, one unique feature that doesn’t change throughout a lion’s life.

Whisker Spots: The Lion Fingerprint!

Did you know that the whisker spots of a lion are as unique as the human fingerprint? They are one of the only characteristics that don’t change throughout a lions life, which makes them ideal for identifying individuals as long as we have clear photos for the left and right side - check out the example below! Traditionally, the whisker spots are classified manually by counting the number and recording the position.

Whisker spots on a lion

Lion Ranger Wilson Sambaine, took this picture of this Borana female lion. For the left side, she has eight spots on her second line, and two on the top. These two ‘reference spots’ lie between spot 3 and 4, and 4 and 5. Along with clear photos of her other side (right), this unique patterning allows us to successfully ID this female if we come across her again in the field. If the whisker spot photos aren’t completely clear, we can use other features to support our identification, like the ears, nose, eyes, teeth and even scars!⁠

Left Side Reference Whisker Spots of Borana Female

Left Side Reference Whisker Spots of Borana Female . Reference spot 1 lies in between spot 3 and 4. Reference spot 2 lies in between spot 4 and 5. Along with clear photos of the right side, this unique patterning allows us to successfully ID this female if we come across her again in the field.

Lion Landscapes ID catalogues

Once we have clear photographs of lion features, we can add individuals to our running catalogue. This can be used by Rangers and Researchers to quickly identify lions in the field from their facial structure, whisker spots, and any distinguishing features on their ears, nose and eyes. See the example catalogue pages for Bradymark, a female lion residing on @boranaconservancy, below!

ID Catalogue for Bradymark, a female lion on Borana. Whisker spots, along with other distinguishing features, are collected to create an ID sheet for each lion.

The Lion Identification Network of Collaborators (LINC)

Lion Landscapes is part of a community of conservationists, that currently span Kenya and Northern Tanzania, in using LINC to upload and share our Lion ID’s. LINC is an open source platform that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help identify recorded lions if they are uploaded to the system. This app uses facial and whisker recognition algorithms to allow users to compare photographs of unknown lions to an expansive database of individuals, helping to identify lions who move beyond an organisation's study areas. Since its launch in 2015, over 450 individual lions have been identified on LINC.

lions identified on LINC

You can help

If you are visiting Laikipia, you can always contribute to our conservation efforts by sharing your photos of the lions you have seen on your safari. Follow the attached guidelines on how to take your photographs. If you have visited Laikipia in the past and have photographs of lions, we are still very interested to receive these images, even if they aren’t taken according to these guidelines.

Please contact us at info@lionlandscapes if you have photos to share and we’ll invite you to a web folder where you can upload the files.

Your sightings will be added to the LINC system, and LINC’s AI recognition tool will identify each individual that you’ve seen. By doing this, you will be contributing to the long-term dataset on the lions in this ecosystem, and helping to inform actions to protect them.

Volunteer and help from home!

Our small volunteer network has been vital in helping us build ID databases for Laikipia’s lions. We are always on the lookout for new volunteers to help us with lion ID by cropping key features from survey images. If you are interested, please contact us for more information.

Hear from one of our volunteers Menina below:

“My name is Menina and I have been IDing lions for Lion Landscapes for the last 10 months. The ID process comes with great amusement and reward. With each crop I take and every ID that I make, I get to know the unique personalities of Laikipia’s lions. It’s a really inspiring job that makes my day, everyday! The identification of lions is such a critical part of our conservation program and knowing that I am contributing to saving a species that I have got to know and love is a totally unparalleled feeling.

If you are interested in conservation or helping to save a species, I cannot urge you enough to get in contact with Lion Landscapes - you won’t regret it!”

If you would like to keep up to date on the lion research & conservation efforts of the Coexistence Co-op in Laikipia, please subscribe to the Lion Landscapes newsletter.

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