Desert lions: A fight for survival

Community conservation
September 3, 2015
Enjoy a green holiday in Namibia
September 3, 2015
Community conservation
September 3, 2015
Enjoy a green holiday in Namibia
September 3, 2015


The fight for survival continues as desert lions vanish in the desert

Text Elzanne Erasmus

Photographs Will and Lianne Steenkamp

We were making our way down the Hoanib when he came out from behind a bush on the riverbank. He was beautiful. Strong and young. And by the collar around his neck I immediately knew who he was. His brother followed soon after and the two young male lions made their way down the dry river toward an unknown destination.  


Just 15 minutes earlier we had been sitting on a couch discussing photography and debating the pros and cons of having Wi-Fi and DSTV in the desert. Then came a call over Clement, the lodge manager’s two-way radio, with a key code word (which I am not at liberty to divulge) and we were off to find the ever-elusive desert-adapted lions of the Namib.

If this seems like an easy everyday sort of activity to you, you are mistaken. With approximately 120 of their kind left, the desert lions are a rare group of carnivores that have adapted to survive in one of the harshest, most unforgiving landscapes on earth. With their numbers dwindling as poaching and human encroachment threaten their future, sightings are few and far between.

It astounds me to think of the amount of work it takes to keep tabs on them in this vast landscape and treacherous terrain. Dr Philip Stander is devoting his life to this cause and through his Desert Lion Conservation Project he has set a course to fight for the survival of these spectacular felines. Even stranger still is the thought of how difficult it must be to encapsulate such an epic story of survival into a single narrative. But it has been done… with an immaculate film produced for them and by them, which tells a story so special that you will walk away with a flame in your heart that burns only for them.


Photo ©Will & Lianne Steenkamp

As the music starts and the last scene fades, a round of roaring applause resounds through the theatre. With timid relief I notice that I am not the only spectator with tears in my eyes. Other members of the audience also seem to have difficulty deciding whether it would be worth it to stop clapping long enough to wipe their wet cheeks. The ovation signals the end of the hour-long premiere of Will and Lianne Steenkamp’s film Vanishing Kings. The documentary, two years in the making, follows the trials and tribulations of the Hoanib pride of desert lions in north-western Namibia, as they fight for survival. With stunning cinematography featuring breathtaking scenery and unimaginable moments captured in cinematic splendour, encapsulated in an enthralling narrative, Vanishing Kings is a wonder of silver screen nature documentary. The cameras follow the pride on its home territory as two young mothers, under the watchful guidance of an old queen, teach their five male cubs (the ‘five musketeers’) the skills of survival. While the voice-over narrative often evokes giggles from the crowd around me, followed by gasps of horror and crestfallen faces as nature takes its course on screen, I see a storyline unfolding with great weight and depth of meaning. The film is in no way limited to the kind of amazing slow-motion shots of a lioness leaping as she attempts to bring down a fully grown giraffe bull, or of wind and sand enveloping her when she lay dying. It is a storyline that was not intended to just awe and thrill, but to make you think about the pride of lions long after the credits have rolled.

Same as when watching a film about mythical beasts, one becomes enthralled by the romanticism that surrounds a story such as this. It then seems surreal when you realize – or in my case experience – and thus finally understand that these animals and their struggles are real and not stories of legend.

In 2014 one of Dr Stander’s collared lions, the Terrace Male, was shot when he “made a nuisance of himself” by encroaching on human farmland. A sad end to such extraordinary lives should not induce pity and trepidation but rather respect and hopeful optimism for a future where these animals still exist. Unnecessary and unlawful kills, however, should be met with harsh and strict criticism, and human-wildlife conflict should be an important topic of discussion every single time conservation plans are set into motion. The plea has been made. It is a global one and the fight must continue. Not just to save now-famous animals like the desert lions, but for all of them.

Photo ©Gerhard Thirion


The five young brothers still frequent the Hoanib River area of Damaraland, but their territory stretches to the far reaches of the surrounding plains and landscapes where they learnt to hunt and endure without their mothers’ help. They are among the last males of their kind and therefore hold the key to the survival of the desert lions of the Namib.


Vanishing Kings was produced and created by Into Nature Productions with support from Wilderness Safaris and B2Gold in Namibia. After its premiere in Windhoek in July 2015, the production team took the film on a roadshow through Namibia with screenings in Swakopmund and also in villages and settlements (Wêreldsend, Bergsig, Sesfontein and Purros) that acted as the backdrop and supported Will and Lianne in their endeavours. These places are also key stakeholders in the lion conservation effort, as they are most at risk of coming into human-wildlife conflict, something the creation of a film like this is set to educate about, and hopefully, helps to diminish. The film has even been translated into Damara, the local language spoken in these villages.


  1. Namibia is one of the few African countries where wildlife numbers are actually growing. It is the only African country in fact, where giraffe numbers are growing.
  2. Namibia is the first country in the world to have included conservation of natural resources into its constitution.
  3. Today, more than 46% of Namibia is under conservation management.
  4. Namibia is home to the largest population of free-roaming cheetahs in the world as well as thriving populations of lion, black rhino and mountain zebra. Although the rhino population is under constant threat from illegal hunting, it continues to thrive in communal conservancy areas in Kunene.
  5. Revenue and benefits generated from conservancies for local communities in Namibia exceed N$ 70 million annually.
  6. As of October 2014 there are 82 registered communal conservancies in Namibia covering a total of 161 900 km² of land.


Prior to Namibia’s independence in 1990, wildlife populations in common areas had plummeted as a result of poaching and drought. In the mid-1980s an innovative program was introduced to inspire communal stewardship of wildlife. In 1990 the program evolved so that communities could identify areas with defined borders, governance structures, membership and management plans. These communities have rights to manage and distribute benefits from wildlife resources in their areas, also known as “conservancies.”

To learn more about Dr Philip Stander and Desert Lion Conservation visit Watch the trailer for Vanishing Kings at To experience the magic of Wilderness’ Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp visit

This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of Travel News Namibia.

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