School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

UKZN’s Dr Samantha Nicholson at Graduation, and on an Endangered Wildlife Trust lion collaring project in South Africa’s Kruger National Park

200 Young South Africans Award Winner Passionate about Lion Conservation

A 2022 winner of the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans award and project manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), UKZN doctoral graduate Dr Samantha Nicholson, heads up the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group’s African Lion Database – a conservation project that collects and analyses key data on the species to inform conservation-related decision-making.

IUCN SSC is the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Special Survival Commission.

By creating a repository of reliable information, the database aims to bolster the capacity of governments and organisations to assess the impacts of their interventions.

Now Nicholson has earned a doctoral degree through UKZN for work done to assess the African lion population. Her aim is to contribute to a better understanding of the status and conservation of the iconic species and what contributes to their population declines.

‘Samantha critically assessed the current conservation status of Africa’s most iconic carnivore, the lion,’ said her supervisor Professor Rob Slotow. ‘She determined the best methods to survey them, their conservation status, how fragile different lion subpopulations are, and the perceived threats to them across their range.

‘Her work will contribute to effective and targeted conservation of declining lion populations, guided by the best available data, as is required to ensure that lions do not go extinct.’

Nicholson’s work included determining the most up-to-date estimates for lion populations and the trends for each population since the 2015 red list; confirming the most-up-to-date distribution of lions across Africa; and identifying and attempting to quantify the threats to lions across their range using survey data and anthropogenic mortality data.

She also determined the fragility of the wild lion population by investigating their ecological fragility based on factors such as population isolation, population estimate, geographic extent of the population, percentage of the population covered by protected areas, and cattle density with the geographic extent of the lion population and intensity of edge effects.

She also determined their socio-economic fragility using factors such as Gross Domestic Production (GDP) per capita based on Purchasing Power Parity, political stability, human development index, GINI index, human population density and human population growth rate.

Nicholson’s research offers valuable insights into the species’ status and provides innovative recommendations that could enhance the management of lions across their range. This includes conservation interventions that target specific threats while incorporating socio-political and ecological factors which contribute to a population’s fragility.

‘As lions remain listed as “vulnerable” and lion populations continue to decline, I recommend that the regional strategies be updated based on improved data and information available,’ she said.

‘To ensure that population data gathered is reliable and robust, harmonised survey methods need to be developed and implemented across the species range, especially in areas where survey data are poor or lacking.

‘In a world where we are losing species at an unprecedented rate, effective and targeted conservation is needed, that is guided by the best available data, to ensure that the lion isn’t one of those species that disappears,’ said Nicholson.

The 34-year-old has always been passionate about carnivore conservation and chose to do a PhD both as a career challenge and to grow as a conservation scientist. ‘In 2018, I took up a new career role focusing on the conservation and status of one of Africa’s most iconic cats: the lion. While working on this project, it was clear that there were research gaps and through my work I aimed to fill them,’ she said.

After officially meeting Slotow at a Lion Management Forum Meeting in 2019 they discussed the possibility of her doing a PhD through UKZN with him as supervisor owing to his experience and expertise in large mammal research.

Nicholson, who works at the EWT as a senior carnivore scientist and manager of the African Lion Database, plans to continue working in carnivore conservation with a focus on filling critical research gaps in an effort to contribute to their effective conservation.

Nicholson said that tackling a PhD on top of a full-time job and becoming a new mother had not been easy, ‘especially with the realisation that the insurmountable amount of pressure would never ease and the workload would never get lighter.

‘With the unwavering support, love and strength from my husband, family and friends, I made it to the light at the end of the tunnel and was able to proudly hand in my PhD,’ she said. ‘Never say no to something that you can learn from and that could provide opportunities to grow in your career.’

She thanked Slotow for his invaluable advice and guidance that helped her develop as a scientist; Dr Hans Bauer, her mentor at the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group’s African Lion Database, and Dr Lizanne Roxburgh, her manager at the EWT and co-supervisor for her PhD.

With her doctoral studies done and dusted, Nicholson hopes to be able to spend more time with her husband and lively three-year-old daughter as well as enjoy her hobbies of travelling, wildlife photography and reading.

‘Never stop learning!’ said Nicholson.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini and Supplied