Lion Conservation and Sustainable Use

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Words: Dr. Chris Brown

Namibia has a population of about 800 lions, similar to the period 1965 to 1980. The main population, population, between 450 and 500, is in Etosha National Park, with other populations in Khaudum and Bwabwata National Park in the northeast of the country, and very small populations in Mahango, Mudumu and Nkasa Rupara. Over the past 25 years, a fluctuating population in the Kunene Region in the northwest has increased from 20-30 animals to about 140-160. It is the only really significant lion population outside of protected areas in Namibia. The rest are all contained within national parks, except for small populations in some private wildlife areas.

Most farmers are not able to survive financially with a large lion population because livestock farming and lions are not really compatible. The only place where farming and lions are compatible to some extent is in large open systems where people move around with their livestock and where lion density is relatively low. In the northwest of the country, for example, part of the lion population lives in such low rainfall areas that people seldom go there with their livestock. That gives the lions some protection. Some of the farmers in that area are also more tolerant of lions than in other places in the world. They are prepared to live with lions at a reasonable population density. When the lion population gets too large or when the wildlife numbers in the area decline – for example during droughts, when wildlife either dies and/or moves eastwards out of the area – the lions are left stranded with a very limited food supply. That is when they turn more to domestic stock, which then causes conflict with farmers.

Lions are fast breeders. Females produce litters of up to four cubs at a time. Etosha for example, with its 450 to 500 lions, produces a surplus of perhaps forty to sixty lions every year. The park cannot carry more lions because their territories and home ranges determine their spatial distribution and density. The population strategy of the lion is designed to produce excess animals for rapid population growth because they are naturally faced with boom and bust situations due to changing prey numbers. Also, lions often get injured or killed in their normal practice of hunting. Since the growth of lion populations is higher than natural mortality, there is a net pressure on the population for surplus animals to move out of the park and find new territories and expand their range. This pressure mainly affects young lions. Lions that are not able to join existing prides are usually forced, through competition and aggression, to leave Etosha, typically as many as forty to fifty lions per year. Males in particular are forced out, resulting in young lions looking for new prides and exploring new territories. Those “territories” around Etosha and elsewhere are generally freehold or communal farmland where farmers breed livestock. Therefore the lions and farmers inevitably come into conflict around the national parks.

People feel that the Ministry of Environment should simply build bigger, stronger fences. First, that is hugely expensive. Our large national parks would require literally hundreds of kilometres of fencing to erect and maintain. Etosha alone has a border of about 500 km. Do we want to put Namibia’s limited financial resources on putting up fences to separate people from wildlife? A normal game-proof fence around Etosha would cost about N$35 million. But a normal fence does not contain lions and elephants. That would cost five times more. So, do we want to spend up to N$200 million to stop a few cows from being killed? Are we that much driven by emotion and that little by rational thought? Rather, let’s invest in helping farmers to protect their livestock, generate income from wildlife, and then spend the rest on important things like education, health and access to urban land for housing.

Second, it’s very difficult to maintain those fences. A lion can jump over a ten-foot fence. Other animals dig holes under fences, and lions crawl out. And even a reinforced cable fence is pushed over from time to time by elephants, allowing lions to leave the park. To maintain a fence in a condition that is absolutely lion proof is simply impossible and attempting to do so is enormously expensive and time-consuming.

Around much of Etosha, particularly in the south, it has happened that farmers have turned to a more appropriate and lucrative form of land-use: a wildlife-based economy that includes tourism, trophy hunting, game meat harvesting and live sales of surplus high-value wildlife species. These farmers are making much more money than they did farming cattle and they are no longer in conflict with lions and other predators. Communal conservancies on the northern side of Etosha are starting to do the same.

Any cattle farmer will tell you that farming is a tough business with narrow margins, and losses in poor rainfall years that have to be recovered in good rainfall years. Declining beef prices, increasing costs, government interference, impacts of climate change and rangeland degradation through bush encroachment all combine to make a farmer’s life increasingly difficult and the financial returns ever smaller. Cattle farmers’ income is based on the quality and quantity of meat (protein) that can be produced, which in turn is based upon soil quality, rainfall and management. There is a limit to what good management can do. Our soils are generally poor, and rainfall is low and highly variable. Everything is stacked against the farmer. The income ceiling is low – it is essentially a ceiling defined by primary protein production. So how do you break through that low ceiling? You need to move beyond primary production to include service industries. Wildlife offers three service industry components in addition to the primary production of game meat. They are tourism, trophy hunting and live sales of high-value species. In all three cases the animals are being “sold” for well above their protein value. Then the neighbouring national park is no longer an enemy, unable to contain predators, but becomes a friend, offering marketing opportunities. The park neighbour is no longer in a conflict zone but in a mutual support zone. Thus we then have mutually friendly neighbours with far higher economic returns and with far more resilient ecological and economic systems.

Trophy hunting takes off one % of the national herd while animals are breeding at a rate of 15, 25 or even 35 thirty-five percent. You anyway have to deal with the surplus grazer and browser pressure on your land every year because the animals are breeding at this rate. Unless you want total habitat degradation and damage, you’ve got to manage those pressures on your land. Trophy hunting takes off a very small percentage while the farmer still has to deal with up to 35% of those animals, depending on the species, to keep your livestock, your animals in your veld in balance. Trophy hunting is a very high return, low impact type of activity and essentially it’s also a service industry.

The Importance of a Green Economy

A biodiversity-based green economy is one that is good for conservation because it keeps habitats natural. You keep your indigenous vegetation, all the species of wildlife, as many as you can support of those that are indigenous to that area and all the other forms of life, plants and animals, from insects right up to the bigger mammals. You keep indigenous ecosystems and the animals that live in them, right down to the smallest micro-organisms.

The more people who do that, particularly if they start linking their land into bigger landscapes and collaborate with the national parks, resilient productive ecosystems fall into place. You have scale that allows a group of farmers to come together and set up an abattoir and get the value from that. You can set up a tannery and a whole range of other things. Tourism and trophy hunting in bigger open systems is far more attractive from a marketing point of view than in isolation. Having a full suite of species in these ecosystems, including elephant, lion and rhino, adds more value to the total. If you get to a stage where you are outperforming conventional forms of land use by five, six, seven times and you are really getting good returns in well-managed ecosystems, it is good for the economy, good for job creation and good for conservation. Isn’t that really the direction in which Namibia should be going?

In the northwest of the country, there has been increased conflict in recent years because of a growing lion population linked to drought. The communal conservancies in that area manage wildlife and benefit from it as part of their traditional farming systems. Livestock provides their core household livelihood, but they add well-managed wildlife to that, including all the economic components that are derived from it: trophy hunting, game meat and tourism. But we must never forget that conservancies are primarily farmland where farmers have come together to form these conservancies as a supplementary form of livelihood. Livestock is their primary livelihood at this stage. So, when situations arise where lion populations increase to a critical level, prey numbers decline and lions turn to people’s domestic stock, communities understandably get upset and want to see interventions that prevent further livestock losses. While protection of livestock is part of the solution, there is no good conservation reason why lion populations cannot be reduced and managed to accommodate those realities of people living with lions. As stated earlier, lion populations have evolved to recover rapidly from population declines – that is part of their adaptation to harsh environmental conditions and the tough life that these predators face.

From a conservation perspective the most important issue for the “desert-adapted lions” in the northwest is not that their population may shrink from time to time when drought conditions prevail, but that a genetic link is maintained between this population and the lions in Etosha. The greatest risk is that this relatively small population of lions in north-western Kunene becomes isolated because then they will become less and less viable. It is not a conservation threat to the lion population of Etosha if lions leave the park and enter freehold farmland to the south and communal farmland to the north, and if those lions get taken out through trophy hunting or for the protection of livestock. Indeed, we should allow the use of those lions in adjacent areas to offset people’s costs incurred by living with lions, and to encourage them to change to a wildlife-based economy. We should not get too concerned about the loss of Etosha’s surplus lions because we have a viable lion population in Etosha. Also, all the other national parks that can support lions (considering both ecological and social factors) already do. Therefore the surplus lions in Etosha are in fact a national surplus – we have nowhere else for them to go.

Our focus should be on the western side of Etosha. We need to maintain the genetic “bridge” between the Etosha and the desert-adapted lion populations. Here we must work closely with farmers, communities and communal conservancies to maintain that genetic bridge. This involves creating conditions that allow people and their livestock to live with a low lion population – enough of a lion presence and movement in that area to maintain connectivity between the Etosha and the north-western lion populations.

The desert-adapted lions of northwest Namibia have a remarkable and uniquely specialised lifestyle. This is fascinating from ecological, scientific and conservation perspectives. It is also of great tourism value, a value that will grow in the years ahead. We need to manage this lion population very carefully. The key factor is not that the population may expand and contract in wet and dry times, when prey is abundant or scarce, when farmers are tolerant or have lost patience with lions preying on their livestock – the lion population can absorb these pressures.

So how do we create the incentives for people west of Etosha to willingly live with a low density of lions moving through their area? First, we need to clearly recognise and acknowledge the challenge that farmers living with lions have to deal with, and appreciate their commitment to conservation. Second, we need to provide support mechanisms that reduce stock losses to the bare minimum. This could involve reinforced animal kraals at homesteads as well as mobile kraals for livestock on pastures well away from homesteads, early warning systems to notify farmers that lions are in the area, and interventions to remove lions that become problematic. And third, we need to help conservancies generate as many benefits as possible from wildlife, to ensure that benefits reach the farmers that carry the greatest risks and to thereby offset their losses. It is important to understand that lion populations bounce back effectively. Populations can be reduced at times, if need be. It is unrealistic to try to carry a large population of desert-adapted lions through drought cycles. Lion numbers can be reduced to perhaps half or less of their peak population figure when their prey species have declined. Over time, provided there is interaction with the Etosha lions, the desert-adapted lion population will build up again rather quickly when conditions are right. Historically, long before humans came into this system, lion populations on the edge of deserts were very dynamic.

Arid and semi-arid zones are highly dynamic, and wildlife has evolved to cope and thrive in these dynamic systems. It is people’s minds that have not evolved to cope well with change. We like to lock the world – including our approach to wildlife management – into fixed and stable perceptions of how things should be. Attempting to take the dynamic nature out of nature is actually very bad for nature. It reduces its resilience. Ecosystems thrive on dynamic change. We need to work with change as we manage wildlife, not try to work against change. Integrated livestock and wildlife management in Namibia’s arid and semi-arid systems, perhaps more than most management, requires us to really understand the ecology and evolutionary conditions. These conditions are simply not understood by most western people living in urban environments and getting upset when they hear about lion populations being reduced in number to accommodate farmers. This situation is also not understood by some of the would-be conservation organisations that portray themselves as the champions protecting lions. It may be good for the populist social media mill, but it is not good for long-term lion conservation in Namibia.

Dr Chris Brown, CEO of the Namibia Chamber of the Environment.
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.

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