Lion identification by means of whisker spot patterns

Lion identification by means of whisker spot patterns

WEI hosted Kriszta Josza during April ’21 as an intern in our Balule Game Reserve camp inside the Greater Kruger National Park.  Kriszta was tasked with the evaluation of our WildLog database to determine if it was possible to identify individual lions based on their whisker spots.

This work is the foundation of the WEI lion identification project and will be built on in the future by volunteers, students, interns and staff at WEI.  This project will add to the historical database and the predator monitoring project operating in the north eastern section of the Balule Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park.

Using established techniques Kriszta was able to compare camera trap photos from our WildLog database as well as conventional photos from staff and previous volunteers and students.

The identification method involving whisker spot patterns was first described by Pennycuick and Rudnai (1969) and has become the accepted mode of the recognition of individual lions in the scientific community.  The relative position of the vibrissae spots in rows A and B (shown on Figure 1) is unique in every individual.  Row B is the upper most complete row of whisker spots. It serves as a baseline for the positioning of the spots in row A.  To increase the consistency and accuracy of the observations, a lion identification sheet was used courtesy of Living with Lions (


Figure 1: The rows of vibrissae spots are critical in the accurate identification of individual lions.

Kriszta’s internship was a great success, she was able to identify 11 individual lions! This included members of the resident pride around the WEI camp as well as some nomadic groups and individuals. Kristza was given the opportunity to name the lions that she identified, this included naming the “grumpiest looking lioness” after our Wildlife Manager, Lozanne.  Kristza was also able to identify and name three of Lozanne’s offspring - Sundown, River and Enigma.

It will be interesting to watch these three youngsters grow up develop and learn how to hunt, and defend their territory as they grow older.

Figure 2: Lozanne (female lioness) and her offspring, clockwise from top left: Lozanne (looking grumpy), Sundown, River and Enigma. 

 Lions are currently classified as ‘vulnerable’ according to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Hilton-Taylor & Mittermeier, 2000).  There has been a steep decline of lion populations worldwide since the late 1800s. According to the African Wildlife foundation, there has been a 43% decrease in their numbers over only 21 years (1993-2014), which is approximately equal to 3 lion generations.  It is estimated that 23000 lions live in the wild today. Due to conservation efforts in southern African countries such as Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, their populations started to rise in these regions.

Research suggests that intraspecific variation in predator personality is an important determinant of prey abundance, community composition and trophic cascades in the ecosystems where predators persist (Start & Gilbert, 2017).  Therefore, the identification of individual lions gives researchers a fine scale perspective and is helpful when determining the dynamics of the remnant populations.  Large ‘apex’ predators influence ecosystems in profound ways, by limiting the density of their prey and controlling smaller ‘mesopredators’ such as Caracal (Caracal caracal) and Black-backed jackal (Lupulella mesomelas) (Wallach, et al. 2015).  The monitoring of the individuals within the lion population of our base camp area provide valuable insights into the personalities of the lions and the ecology of the whole territory which the pride calls home.


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