(Trapping Lions Part 3- click here to read Part 2 first)
While we were waiting for P4, aka P-Daddy, to succumb to the sedatives we blowdarted him with minutes earlier, I decided to check the next trap in our line. We had seen a second set of lion tracks headed in that direction. I didn't want to miss anything, so I bypassed the winding canyon and scrambled over a ridge to the west. The nearest trapsite was at the top of a tributary where the monsoon rains had carved out a nice little spot that lions liked to mark over the centuries...
The snow was coming down, melting as it hit the ground. I trekked through the mud across the plateau toward the trapsite. If there was another lion in a trap, I didn't want to waste any time getting to it with the wet weather.
We took the weather into account when we laid out our trapline. The traps were set in places where an animal could seek shelter, underneath trees or a rock ledges. I made my way through the towering Ponderosa Pines lining the tributary and scrambled into a little box that flowed during floods. The foot-hold snare was anchored by a small boulder in a concave rock wal, eroded away over the past few millennia by waterfalls that come to life during the violent monsoon storms. The trap was empty. I de-rigged the snare and set the safety. I wouldn't want P4 to get caught here after we release him.
I scrambled back to Rock Cave along the rim so I could peer into the canyon where I'd last seen the lion tracks, but didn't see anything. Lions know how to stay out of sight. When I got back to Rock Cave, P4 was sprawled out on the slope in front of the cave. He'd rolled over on his back with his front legsup in the air, definitely sedated. Eric and I approached and we released his paw from the snare. We carried him to the back of the cave to protect his warm, now defenseless body from the weather.
We laid P4 on a thermarest to keep him war, and started. We checked his vitals, measured his length- from his massive head to the black tip of his tail. We estimated his age based on his gums and weighed him by tying his paws together with rope attached to a hanging scale tied to a log that was about 10 feet long. Eric and I each hoisted up a side and took a reading from the scale.
We chose the largest GPS collar we had and affixed it securely around his neck, but with enough room for some "play." You don't want to choke them. We'd been saving this collar for a big male that could accommodate it. It had a larger-than-usual battery, meaning it would last longer than the standard one year. To date, we'd collared 3 other lions. Two out of 3 of those collars functioned properly. The third collar was on a young male called P2. It stopped working about the day we placed it on him, and we hadn't heard from it, or him, again.
The GPS collar would attempt a GPS location several times a day for up to two years. It was up to me to radio-track P4 and download the stored GPS points remotely to a receiver once a month. I would search for a radio signal on foot, by car, and from a fixed-wing that circled up, down, and around the Grand Canyon, making me give up eating breakfast all together. With the GPS locations in the receiver, I could upload them to my laptop and map them using ArcGIS, and set out on foot to investigate "clusters," areas where several GPS points near eachother indicated that he settled down to feed on a kill, take a nap, lie in the sun or do whatever lions do... it was up to me to find out.
Over time the GPS data would paint a picture of the lion's home range, tell us what habitat he prefers, how large his range is, where he hunts successfully, what he's eating, whether his range overlaps that of other collared lions, where he crosses roads, and whether he uses the same trails and areas that hikers, visitors, or residents of the park do. Someday, they might even tell us where and how he dies.
We hung out in close quarters under the rock outcrop for over an hour., then gave P4 an antidote to counteract the anesthesia and started packing up our gear. Normally, this would be the post-climactic part of the day. Trapping done. We would check any remaining traps, clean the equipment, and head home to clean ourselves up and celebrate our catch with the traditional tequila. On this kind of special occasion, we were known to order a disappointingly bland overpriced pizza from "We Cook," a luxury in this remote corner of the world.
The tequila was Eric's tradition, he thought it brought luck. He wrote on the bottles with a sharpie to indicate how much we drank in anticipation of, or to mark the occasion of, catching each lion. The empties stood guard over the top of the refrigerator in my Park Service trailer. We'd invite friends and neighbors over to pour over the photos and relate our trapping story... But this day was not over. We hiked across the canyon so we'd be well placed to see P4 off. He hopped up on all four paws, gave a cursory glance around, tail swishing, and swiftly disappeared, bounding up slope and out of sight. We wished him well and started heading west. We still had another trap at Bob Cave to check.
Click here to go to Part 4...
Photo caption: Emily and P4, March 2005, Rock Cave.