Lion Trouble In North-West Namibia
September 2015, Volume 13-4

We were lucky. The giraffe was lying right on the track. A large mound of meat silhouetted against yellow grass backlit by the early sun – with the outline of a lion crouched alongside. A male with an impressive mane, appearing almost as large as the body of the giraffe. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, after so many years of travels, to see a fresh lion kill at such close range, here, on the fringes of the Namib Desert, in Torra conservancy in the Erongo-Kunene community conservation area. A once-in-a-lifetime experience even for community conservation veteran Garth Owen-Smith, who was accompanying us, who has lived and worked in this area for half a century and knows more about these lions than most; who woke with a start one night while sleeping out in the veld in Kaoko many years ago, to find a lion yanking at his foot. With a shotgun blast over the cat’s head, he managed to dissuade it of its intentions. A reminder, as we listened to Owen-Smith’s story, that lions do consider humans fair game.

Right now, there are 30 known lions in Torra alone, and over 150 estimated for the north-west. The pride this male belongs to is believed to consist of 14 individuals. The male had obviously brought the young but already huge giraffe down alone, most likely having ambushed it from the cover of a sprawling boscia nearby. Now he was protecting his kill until his pride would join him – which by the next morning some of them had: three females with small cubs, which mostly remained hidden somewhere in dense vegetation near their mother.

For a day-and-a-half, we spent many hours with the lions at their kill. They are relatively unbothered by vehicles and gave us a wonderful, intimate encounter.

It is not even one of the tourism concessions that are considered the wildlife strongholds for the area. It is communal farmland. Land where people generate their livelihood from a mixture of livestock herding, the odd patchy garden and wildlife-based ventures.

The fact that the lions are becoming increasingly accustomed to vehicles and people actually poses an additional threat to the local community, who have to live with the predators on a daily basis.

The conservation of these lions is hugely important in the face of rapidly diminishing global lion ranges and numbers. In Namibia, both lion ranges and numbers are expanding, at least for the time being. Current population estimates for the country indicate somewhere between 600 and 800 animals. Yet Owen-Smith is predicting real lion trouble for the north-west, and says actions must be taken now.

He saw lions starving at the end of the drought of the early 1980s, when lion numbers – and drought conditions – were similar to what they are now. Droughts can be a time of plenty for predators, and the poor and patchy rainy seasons of the last years have given many of the lions in the north-west favorable conditions by concentrating game in the few areas were rain has fallen, or by forcing game to use isolated waterholes.

This has led to highly successful lion breeding and unusually large prides. But game dispersal in search of grazing can also work against the lions, as it did in the early ’80s, and will then bring them into increasing conflict with livestock. Today there are significantly more people and their livestock in the north-west than 30 years ago.

As the drought becomes more severe, farmers trying to access the last available grazing are forced to move livestock into areas frequented by lions. “People do not want to hear about lions,” says Vitalis Florry. “The lions have made farmers poor.” Talking with the Torra conservancy field officer (and livestock farmer), it is clear that the trouble is already here, and brewing.

In the last two months, one horse, two cattle, three donkeys and 25 goats have been lost to lions in the conservancy. One of the three lion-proof stock enclosures built with donor funding to solve the problem, was demolished by elephants last year. The other two are working well, but such enclosures are costly to erect and currently provide only localized relief for farmers.

The lions now range across at least 25 conservancies, and the sentiments of local communities in most of these are similar: the costs and dangers of living with lions far outweigh the benefits. “Lion rangers” are being employed in several conservancies to help monitor lion movements, and alert farmers to herd their livestock to safety to avoid conflicts. Ranger salaries are being paid partly by conservancies, partly by tourism operators and partly by NGOs. But the concept is not as simple as it sounds.

Without remote tracking technology, monitoring lion movements in rugged terrain can be near impossible. While about a third of the adult lions have been fitted with transmitters, mostly by Philip ‘Flip’ Stander as part of the Desert Lion Conservation Project, the ‘early warning system’ that the remote tracking could enable is currently not active.

One of the issues is funding. Another is manpower. Stander and his project cannot do that job alone. Conservation NGO Africat has taken this on in some conservancies, but has thus augmented monitoring in only a small portion of lion range. Flip Stander’s focus is research. He has achieved a gargantuan task for lion conservation and is continuing to gather and share an incredible wealth of data. Yet, as Stander’s work has brought international attention to the lions, that attention has also taken him away from his research to create more awareness, most recently by helping to produce another documentary ‘Vanishing Kings’ about his subjects.

But all the desert lion fame alone will not save them. Most of the people living in rural areas, and especially livestock farmers, want to see fewer lions.

Actively zoning core wildlife areas in conservancies helps. But wildlife moves, especially during times of drought. This is marginal wildlife habitat. All game needs to wander and use available resources to stay alive – for lions that includes the odd livestock meal. More must be done to reduce conflicts. But some conflicts will always occur, and these need to be offset by clear and direct returns from lions.

Tourism is part of that long-term solution. Yet current tourism contributions are limited. It is mostly the joint-venture lodges that generate meaningful returns in their areas of operation. Some operators are still refusing to pay anything. Input from the mobile tourism sector [Editor’s note: mostly 4×4 enthusiast from South Africa, but also from Europe and US] is generally meagre. The TOSCO Trust (Tourism Supporting Conservation) is working hard to change that, and a system of conservation contributions in a few core areas is being tried out. Currently, the claim that tourism returns could fund all conservation initiatives in the north-west is not apparent on the ground.

Trophy hunting is making an important contribution to conservancy income, especially in terms of funding game guard salaries and other running costs. Yet the trophy hunting of lions is extremely controversial. Hunters are accused of always singling out prime males, skewing population demographics and upsetting pride structures.

Desert Lion Conservation Project data shows that significantly more lions are killed by locals than by trophy hunters. Targeted trophy hunting of individual, suitable lions could reduce lion troubles and generate significant conservation revenue. But poor practices by some hunting operators have reinforced the stigma, and around the globe pressure is mounting to ban trophy hunting of lions altogether [Editor’s note: Denker’s article was written before the lions got names].

There is a whole new guard of concerned conservationists fighting the cause of the lions and collecting funds for desert lion conservation. These efforts are making an important difference, especially to lion research, but as long as they remain ad hoc, will only offer short-term relief. If lions are to survive outside national parks for generations to come, more permanent funding streams need to flow directly into conflict mitigation.

Under the Ministry of Environment and Tourism’s Human-Wildlife Self Reliance Scheme, compensation payments for losses are made according to strict conditions. After initial start-up funding from the MET’s Game Products Trust Fund, conservancies now need to pay compensation from own income, reinforcing the importance of generating direct returns from wildlife.

The concept of wildlife incentives is being coordinated by the Natural Resources Working Group of NACSO. The idea includes securing funds from external conservation partners to match tourism operator contributions.

“Funding needs to be used effectively where it is most needed,” says Russell Vinjevold, who coordinates human-wildlife conflict mitigation for Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation. “The problem is finding a lasting balance between the aspirations of people and the needs of wildlife.”

Does it all boil down to money? Actually, it all comes down to people and land use. Lions are large and dangerous predators that are difficult to live with. If we want communal farmers to put up with this threat to their livestock and their lives, we need all the innovation we are capable of. We need to stop talking about saving ‘the last of the desert lions’, because we can hardly expect more than 150 lions to coexist with people in the arid north-west.

We need to listen to the people out there and find solutions that will help them live with the lions that are there now.

Author:Helge Denker THE NAMIBIAN

First published in The Namibian on 2015-06-24