Namibia has a unique population of lions that have adapted to life in the Namib Desert and the Atlantic seaboard in the north-west of the country. They are a unique tourist attraction and visitors from all over the world come to see these very special predators. But their range overlaps those of livestock ranchers, and the threat of conflict is high, as the landowners retaliate with lethal consequences for lions that kill their domestic animals. Now an innovative project is underway to keep the peace between the lions that earn tourism dollars and the ranchers whose livelihoods depend on the survival of their stock.
Namibia’s successful communal conservancy programme has resulted in the growth of wildlife numbers and diversity, especially in the arid areas in the north-west. The growing herbivore wildlife populations have provided opportunities for predators to increase as well. The lion population of north-west Namibia is one of the few to thrive in the wild, outside National Parks, and it has a number of unique characteristics. The average lifespan of the lions is greater than 18 years; their ability to thrive in an arid environment, including mountains, sand dunes and beaches is exceptional; their prey selection, such as giraffes, birds and seals is unusual; and their early independence is uncommon. This population of lions is the only large terrestrial carnivore (with the polar bear) to prey on marine creatures like seals and birds.
As numbers have increased, the conflict between lions and the local people has grown, as lions kill livestock more regularly. In retaliation, farmers often shoot, trap, or poison lions. These rural stock owners bear the costs of living with lions, but do not share equally in the economic benefits from tourism, and they receive little assistance in managing their conflicts with lions.
Philip Stander grew up in Namibia and became involved with wildlife from an early age. After leaving school at 17, he worked as a ranger in Etosha National Park where he developed an interest in science and especially the behaviour and ecology of large carnivores. During a four-year study in Etosha, Philip discovered that lions hunt their prey using an advanced level of coordinated co-operation, with individual lions repeatedly occupying the same position in the hunting formation. This discovery was new to science, and was published in the Journal of Behaviour Ecology & Sociobiology, Germany.
In 1989 he was offered a research fellowship at Cornell University, USA, where he spent two years writing and publishing scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. He then moved to Cambridge University, England, where he completed his MPhil (1991) and PhD (1994) degrees. His PhD thesis on social evolution and the cooperative hunting strategies of lions was awarded the Thomas Huxley Award by the London Zoological Society.
Over a 36-year period, Dr Stander has conducted studies on all six large carnivore species in Namibia and has published many scientific articles in international peer-review journals. In 1998 Philip started the Desert Lion Conservation Project, where he is continuing a lifetime dedication to the conservation of the desert-adapted lions in the northern Namib Desert. Although not directly involved in tourism, he recognises that sustainable tourism is key to the conservation of lions and other wildlife species. He works closely with the tourism industry and his research aims to promote the tourism value of desert-adapted lions in Namibia.
Lions are fitted with radio collars and are tracked and observed to record behaviour, movements, grouping patterns, reproduction, and mortality. Lions are tracked using GPS and satellite technology from a light aircraft (fitted with radio-tracking equipment) and by vehicle. Direct observations and monitoring lions in the field for extended periods are the primary means of collecting data.
Lions over the age of two years are marked or radio collared, and individual records are kept of all lions in the population. Emphasis is placed on monitoring lions that disperse and occupy new habitats, and on those that live near local communities. Human-lion conflict is addressed by developing localized conflict management plans.
In 2017, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) approved the Human-Lion Conflict Management Plan for northwest Namibia, developed by Dr Stander and the Desert Lion Conservation Trust (DLCT). The goal of this plan is to reduce the number of conflicts in order to protect the farmers’ livestock, and to preserve the unique population of desert-adapted lions of the Namib. Male lions are killed more often, which leads to an unbalanced ratio of males to females 1:3. This is not sustainable for a healthy population.
The Desert Lion Conservation Trust has a website at www.desertlion.info. This has lots of detailed information about the work of the DLCT, as well as links to some excellent video material.
To reduce the conflicts, the plan implements a variety of measures to protect livestock at night, alert the communities to the presence of lions and to deter them when they are close to human settlements. The following measures are being used:
- Mapping ‘high-risk corridors’;
- Studying and tracking the movements of the lion prides;
- Reducing predation by building lion-proof corrals;
- Implementing a network of ‘logger early warning systems’ to alert settlements and scare approaching lions;
- Advocating the importance of the project to the local communities by educating and training farmers, game guards, tourists, guides, and residents on living with lions and promoting the value of lions; and
- Involving the tourism industry and operators in the conservation of lion populations.
The Logger Early Warning System is of particular interest and consists of several components.
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) collars that include a GPS recorder, a special RFID tag, and a VHF transmitter. These collars are attached to lions in each pride that is being monitored in the project area.
The Early Warning Logger consists of an antenna, an electronic circuit board that acts as a small computer processor, four powerful LED floodlights, and a siren, all mounted on top of a four-metre steel pole.
The unit is also fitted with a solar panel and a 12 Volt battery to provide sufficient electrical power throughout the night. The logger is orientated so that each of the four LED floodlights point towards one of the four wind directions (North, East, South and West). Each logger continuously transmits RFID signals to scan for any RFID Tags (fitted to the lion collars) that may be nearby.
When the Logger detects a RFID lion collar, it will instruct the collar to record a GPS position every five minutes and relay the information to the Logger, which calculates the direction and distance of the lion from the settlement, and triggers one or two of the LED floodlights to ‘point’ in the direction of the lions. The floodlights are very powerful and will allow people to see the lions as well as deter the lions from approaching the corral.
A control/display unit that is mounted lower down on the Logger pole will display the distance of the lions from the settlement. When the lions reach a distance of 200 metres from the settlement, a powerful siren is triggered to deter the lions from approaching any closer. Generating disturbances associated with settlements, people and livestock is an effective way to scare lions away and thus prevent conflict.
Another important component of this lion-human conflict management project is the employment of ‘Lion Rangers’ by various community conservancies in the project area, providing jobs for people where there is very little formal employment. This is another example of Namibia’s innovative wildlife management policies, which make it a leader in this field on the continent. Wildlife tourism, subsistence hunting, and trophy hunting all co-exist in areas where people live with their livestock, in a unique and economically viable land-use system.
Dr Stander has written an amazing book about these desert lions of Namibia. It contains some truly astonishing and unique photographs of these unique carnivores and the spectacular landscapes within which they roam. For more details see: https://vanishingkingsbook.com/
Acknowledgement: The material for this column was gleaned from a document submitted by the DLCT to the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, which is one of several financial supporters of the project. John is a Trustee of the WWT.
Dr John Ledger is a past Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, now a consultant, writer and teacher on the environment, energy and wildlife; he is a columnist for the African Hunting Gazette. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. John.Ledger@wol.co.za