Butcherman was an alpha male for just 7 months when his rear left foot made a fateful and inadvertent step into a poacher’s snare. Wire snares are unfortunately widely used in this region for bush meat (mainly hartebeest, waterbuck, or kob) but are indiscriminate weapons that are just as capable of capturing an ungulate as they are an elephant. I was part of the team that helped to free Butcherman from this snare all those years ago. When we found him he was exhausted from his hours-long effort of trying to get clear of the leg hold. The snare constricted so tightly around his leg that it shut off all blood supply causing the tissue to become necrotic. We had to amputate Butcherman’s entire lower leg, from the knee down. I remember clearly thinking at that moment that Butcherman’s days as an alpha were done. It would not be possible for a 3-legged lion to defend his alpha male status. Or would it?
Though Butcherman was licking his wounds, he returned to the safety and comfort of his Delta Pride where he was looked after by both the pride females and a beta male named Bernie. Butcherman made a relatively swift recovery, but had great difficulty moving as he hobbled along through his territory. What became clear was that he was completely unable to hunt preferred lion prey (medium to large ungulates) independently. But the skill that Butcherman fell back on was his cleverness. He knew that his roar, his mane, and his capability for intimidation were not affected by his leg. In this way he mated, reared, and ruled over the Delta Pride for an unbelievable 3 additional years. Now this story brings us almost to the present when just 3 months ago Butcherman was overthrown by two rival males (Ricky and Raphael) and vanished into thin air.
Dr. Robert (Bob) Montgomery, both the director of RECaP and my graduate advisor, has traveled half way around the world to join in the search for Butcherman. We are interested in understanding exactly how snaring effects the ecology of lions. We are pursuing questions such as; What proportion of the MFNP lion population is affected by snares? How does snaring cause change alpha male tenure? What are the effects of snaring on the ability of lions to survive and reproduce?
Today, Bob and I drove out of our remote camp site at day break heading southwest. Our plan was to visit the core range area of the Delta pride first, then work our way outwards in a sweeping and ever-increasing circle. At over 200 km2, the Delta Pride home range is vast and comprised of a mix of expansive open savannahs dotted with thicketed acacia bushes. The western edge of the pride range is the Albert Nile which also marks the northwestern part of the park edge lined with swamp marshes where prehistoric looking shoe-bill storks reside. The sky is lit in golden strands, an oribi (a small antelope) races across the road drawing our attention. We briefly stop to investigate the cause of alarm but see nothing interesting. Without exchanging words about this, I gently ease my foot off the clutch pedal and guide the land cruiser off the road and along the ridge on high ground. If we are going to find Butcherman, we are going to use every trick in our basket.
Pakuba airstrip is a marram surface 1.5 km long runway with service housing on its side. The entire infrastructure is protected by an electric fence to keep wildlife out. The area around Pakuba airstrip has got open fields with few trees and occasionally a young borassus palm thicket. With the kob whistling and displaying forward vigilance behavior, we were almost certain in which borassus bush concealed this lion. As we drew near, we held our breath. When I positioned the RECaP truck into full view of the lion, it became clear that this was not Butcherman but another male lion. This lion had all the four limbs and a much darker mane. With large exhales, we re-grouped. A couple of snaps of the animal’s whisker pattern to identify him (we will compare the image with a booklet of identities of lion in this system) and we were off.
Then suddenly Bob said, “Here we go.” Directly off the left-hand side of the car just 20 feet from our position was a huge male panting heavily in the cooling shade of a large bush. The mane looked like Butcherman, but we couldn’t yet see his legs. I repositioned the vehicle so that the animal revealed more of himself. The mane looked dark. Like a rock falling through water, a sensation went through my gut. This wasn’t Butcherman. Not only was it not Butcherman, but I strongly suspected that it might be the exact lion that displaced him from the Delta pride leadership. Before making my pronouncement I asked Bob to tell me what this animal’s hind legs looked like. Bob said, “This one is missing all of the toes on one of his hind feet.” Damn, I was right after all. This was Raphael who, along with his brother Ricki, knocked Butcherman off of his pedestal.
After some more observation and the sun now firmly above our heads, I accepted the fate that today was not the day that we were going to find Butcherman. I slowly drove us back to our camp site with a flood of questions still lingering my mind. What happened when Butcherman was toppled by these brothers? Was it a fatal takeover of the delta pride? If not, then how could he find food in exile? One thing that I am sure of is that the search for Butcherman is far from over. We will be widening the search to include parts of the park that I know to be out of current pride ranges. These would be the safest places for Butcherman to live in exile. Though I desperately want to find this male that I have known for the entirety of my professional career, I am beginning to think that we might only find the ghost of the 3-legged lion of Uganda that once reigned over the Delta Pride. But until we determine that for sure, the search continues.