High-tech helicopter, drone to help find missing Karoo lion

2019-03-08 15:52
Lion walks in the veld. (File photo)

Lion walks in the veld. (File photo)

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The search for a missing lion from a Karoo park is set to step up a gear as a company deploys a high-tech helicopter.

On February 15, a male lion went missing from the Karoo National Park near Beaufort West and search and tracker teams have been trying to find the animal for weeks in difficult terrain.

READ: Fresh spoor 60km from Karoo National Park brings new hope of finding lion lost for 2 weeks

On Friday, Bidvest Protea Coin announced that it was deploying its helicopter, which is ideally suited for tracking.

"We have one of only two choppers in the country fitted with forward-looking infrared (FLIR), or thermal imaging infrared cameras, which allows us to pick up heat signatures on the ground over a radius of 10km when flying at night," said company chief operations officer Waal de Waal.

Four team members from Gauteng left on Friday to help search for the lion.

Fresh kill

The lion, estimated to be between 2 and 4 years old, has left trackers precious few clues as to its whereabouts.

READ: Lost Karoo lion evades rangers, but officials appeal for calm

It is believed to have killed an eland several days ago and rangers have not found evidence of a fresh kill.

This is a concern as the rangers are tracking the animal by foot because the terrain makes it difficult for a vehicle to enter.

"No other kill has been found and it should be very hungry by now. The last kill was last week," Reynold "Rey T" Thakhuli, SANParks general manager for Media, PR & Stakeholder Relations, told News24 recently.

The Bidvest Protea Coin team will also have a drone at their disposal.

"We will be joined on Saturday by a drone pilot we use quite regularly, who is also equipped to fly at night. We hope the combination of FLIR and the drone will be able to assist in getting the rangers on the ground closer to the lion," said De Waal, adding that the help was offered for free.

While lions are generally active at night, lion protection organisation LionAid, said it was a myth that lions were exclusively nocturnal.

"If lions have water within their territory that attracts prey animals in the daytime, the lions will be active in the day. Lions are extremely attuned to descending vultures during the day and will follow them to a free meal.

"Lions hunt at night not because their eyesight is better under low light conditions than that of their prey, but because with stealth, they can probably approach their prey closer at night than during the day," the organisation says on its website.

Elusive

It will be risky for team members to get approach the lion to dart it.

According to lion organisation Alert, a lion will eat about 7kg of food per day and can run at 60km/h - more than enough to catch a human.

The Karoo lion has led teams over 110km from the park and despite some clues, such as spoor, it has remained elusive.

"Should the aerial team be able to track the lion down overnight and keep an eye on him while the ground teams are resting, we will have a much better idea of where to continue our search, hopefully from much closer, in the morning," said De Waal.

The current search team consists of 12 rangers and trackers, thanks to help from Addo Elephant, Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra National Parks in the Eastern Cape.

Sightings or evidence of lion spoor should be reported to the police or the public can call the park on 023 415 2828.

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