Phantoms of the Skeleton Coast – Namibia’s desert lions

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Text Annelien Robberts
Photographs Philip Stander

Lions on the beach. Now there is a notion that is hard to fathom. Especially in the Namib Desert and along the relentless and hostile Skeleton Coast. Yet, it is far from fantasy. This is one of the world’s most remarkable conservation stories – the desert-lion conservation project that turned into one man’s life-long dedication. This man is Dr Philip Stander. 

He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of lions on the beach. 

– Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea

Leading a life of adventure devoted to the world’s only population of desert-adapted lions, Philip has been working with the lions in this area for more than 20 years. His fully equipped Land Cruiser has become his home and can be seen roving over hilltops and dunes, crossing through the unexpected green oases frequented by gemsbok in his quest to collect information on the desert-adapted lion for conservation purposes. His project is essential to the future of both humans and lions in this arid land.

Most of the desert-adapted lions were killed off in the late 80s as a result of human-wildlife conflict. Despite beliefs that this species was eliminated, rumours started in 1997 that a small group had remained in the hills at Palmwag. Locals reported that they had seen tracks, so Philip started investigating and was pleasantly surprised to discover that indeed lions were still active there. In 1998 the Desert Lion Conservation Trust became a reality.

Little did Philip know how difficult the initial monitoring would be. It was only in November 1999, after two years of intensive work, that he finally crossed paths with the first lion. Shortly afterwards, 14 more lions were immobilised and collared, after which Philip was able to track them in a light aircraft. He recounts that once, while radio-tracking these animals, the aircraft’s engine suddenly failed. Since few aircraft fly over the remote northwest, he did not expect his Mayday call to be answered. 

To his surprise and immense relief, the pilot of Namibia’s presidential Falcon jet with then president Dr Sam Nujoma on board, responded to the emergency. The pilot initiated a search and rescue operation while calmly talking Philip through the landing.

It has been a bumpy, yet fruitful ride that has led to many discoveries in a habitat where one would least expect to find lions. These lions hunt the planet’s tallest mammal, the giraffe, can be seen scaling steep cliffs and climbing to the top of the Damara sequence inselbergs, walk great distances of up to 70 km per day and cross sand dunes in search of gemsbok, ostrich and porcupine. They hunt cooperatively like a team of athletes, each with its own position and well aware of each other’s weaknesses and strengths. The world is intrigued. And if you are too, get your hands on a copy of Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib Desert for the whole story with the most stunning photographs, available at Book Den in Windhoek. Cinephiles will be glad to know that Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib Desert, produced by Will and Lianne Steenkamp, is a documentary film that premiered in 2015. The documentary proved to be a roaring success. In May 2018 the second part of this conservation story was launched by the same producers who also helped in writing the printed version.

For more information on Philip Stander and the desert lions visit www.desertlion.org.

This article was first published in the Summer 2018/19 edition of Travel News Namibia.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

1 Comment

  1. Betty Laatz says:

    I have spent two holidays in Namabia. Namabia has stolen my heart, planning another holiday this year.

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