As Namibia prepares for the 2012 Olympic GamesJuly 26, 2012
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by Ron Swilling
Lions. Gold, like the sun of an African winter’s day on long grass. Instinct ripples through powerful muscle, sound reverberates from deep within, echoing back Earth history from the time when they roamed the savannah, kings of the land.
I watch the two lions from the sanctuary hide of the Afri-Leo Foundation. Situated at Kavita Lion Lodge, north of Kamanjab in north-western Namibia, the sanctuary holds six rescued lions, two from the last Namibian zoo, one of which had previously been kept in a small bird coop in a private home in northern Namibia, and four younger lions found in a box trap, their mother presumed poisoned.
Afri-Leo focuses on the conservation and preservation of Namibia’s lions, Panthera leo. Never intending to keep lions, the first were brought to Kavita after the closure of the Okongoro Zoo in Rundu. The foundation now appreciates the value the sanctuary holds for their education programme to raise awareness of Namibia’s lions and of lions in general.
Severe decrease in numbers
Once abundant on the African continent, lions are now suffering from habitat loss. The estimated population of 50 000 fifty years ago has dropped to between 25 000 and 35 000, according to a recent estimate given by the African Lion Working Group. In Namibia itself there are only 600–1 000 free-ranging lions left and the numbers are still dropping as the conflict between humans and wildlife escalates. Around Kavita, situated in the Kunene Region, a large area between the Ugab and the Kunene rivers, the most recent estimate is only 140 lions, with approximately 60–100 lions being killed in Namibia annually through poisoning, gin-traps, trophy hunting and shooting.
What do you do to ensure the survival of a species? Tammy and Uwe Hoth, owners of Kavita Lion Lodge, founded the Afri-Leo Foundation. Uwe grew up on the Kavita property bordering the south-western corner of Etosha National Park, where his family first farmed karakul sheep and later cattle. Uwe and Tammy bought the farm from Uwe’s father in 1989, registered a guest farm in 1995 and by 1997 had sold their cattle and turned to conservation. In the years between 1989 and 1997 they became increasingly aware of the problems of farming livestock on the border of a national park, especially the conflict between predator and farmer and the dilemma of the so-called desert lions of Namibia.
Tammy comes from a family who, despite farming cattle, instilled a belief in their children that alternate solutions to killing should be found, if at all possible. Her family bought the Okonjima farm in 1970. By the early nineties they had sold off their cattle and Okonjima became the centre for the AfriCat Foundation, concentrating on cheetah and leopard conservation in Namibia.
One of the main reasons for the birth of Afri-Leo at Kavita Lion Lodge was to find a solution for the farmer/predator conflict. From there the other programmes of environmental education, research and monitoring developed.
Guests visiting Kavita Lion Lodge can go on an excursion to the education centre to hear about the plight of the lion and later to a hide to experience a close encounter with the king of the animal kingdom, to view this magnificent animal from close quarters. The centre was decorated and named by an Afri-Leo club based in Swakopmund and run by teenagers. It began as an ecology project for a Grade 9 class at Namib High School that supported the lioness Tawala (the surviving lion from Rundu Zoo) for a period of three years by raising funds through events such as cake sales. This developed from a class project into a small club. The name they gave the education centre at Kavita is MEA MBO XAMMI – WE SHALL BE THERE FOR THE LIONS.
Tammy and Uwe are also involved in outreach and education programmes with the schools in the immediate vicinity, believing that teaching the children of the communities to understand and appreciate the wilderness, will bring the greatest results.
Walk for Lions
In May 2008 a Walk for Lions took place to raise awareness and funds for the Afri-Leo Foundation. Fourteen children from the Kamanjab Combined School partnered fourteen Swiss children, spending the first three days walking and camping in the nearby #Khoadi //Hoas conservancy, meeting up with farmers who experience human/wildlife conflict. After that they visited Etosha and the AfriCat Foundation. At the end of the trip they met with the Deputy Minister of Environment and Tourism, Mr Leon Jooste, to give him their feedback, ideas and suggestions. The Swiss conservation group Terre-et-faune supported the programme with Wild at Heart tour operators. RSC Productions filmed the event.
Success stories begin to happen when people start to think differently about their ecosystem and to value their land and animals. When sustainable management of the wilderness becomes a possibility, youth education is just such a beginning.
In the meantime Afri-Leo is trying to find solutions for the wildlife/human conflict in the area, using what Tammy describes as the Maasai concept, where livestock is kept in a kraal (boma or enclosure) at night, at times when predators are spotted in the surroundings, and going out in the day accompanied by a herder. This helps with predators such as spotted hyaena as well as lions, and farmers who are using this method are noting reduced attacks on their animals. Predators also usually move on when easy prey is no longer available.
Dependent on donations, Afri-Leo hopes to launch two programmes: a livestock protection unit, to have a support system for farmers, and a lion management unit, ready and able to get to a farm in a matter of hours, to act as a recovery unit for lion-related issues. The foundation is constantly trying to find practical solutions to avoid destroying these predators, and thereby halting the decline of a species.
The Lion King, who feeds our imagination and our spirits, is still being caught in gin-traps (banned in other countries for their brutality) and poisoned. Without fanfare or romantic notions, Afri-Leo is trying to put a good word in on behalf of these animals and work out a solution that works for the benefit of all.
Times are changing and communities in Namibia are forming registered conservancies, taking control of their land and wildlife. Working in conjunction with the MET (Ministry of Environment and Tourism) and appropriate NGOs, they are realising the benefits of conserving the animals in their areas for tourism, receiving revenue and job creation in return. Systems are presently being implemented in certain areas where farmers are compensated for livestock loss if the animals have been penned and protected. Thinking therefore shifts and wildlife gains value as a result.
Kavita Lion Lodge, besides being the Afri-Leo headquarters, has eight comfortable rock-and-thatch chalets, each with its own private veranda and bush view, and four family rooms. An inviting thatched lapa has a bar, lounge and dining area, and tables are positioned under the shade of trees next to a turquoise pool. This family-run lodge is a place for peace and relaxation, where you hear hyaena during the night and can sit under a heaven of stars. The lodge offers a choice of guided and unguided trails, a guided birding trail, a nature/game drive and the Afri-Leo excursion to the 80-hectare-area where the two older rescued lions are kept. The lodge also offers eco-ethno safaris of one to ten days to destinations such as Damaraland/ Kaokoland, Epupa Falls, Etosha, Owambo and the Kavango and Caprivi regions. A self-drive morning excursion to a functional Himba village on a neighbouring farm can be booked on request.
Sitting in the hide watching the power of the lions is mesmerising. The male glows gold in the late afternoon sunlight. He stops gnawing on a bone and growls. The sound rumbles though the day in waves. He looks up and stares at you. Time freezes. The next moment he is back to crunching on his meal while your heart thumps staccato beats.
Driving back, you still feel the lion’s penetrating gaze. The game vehicle arrives back at the lodge, where an outside fire is burning, surrounded by a ring of chairs, with drinks offered by the friendly staff. Supper is served in the thatched lapa, the table decorated with African marigolds and purple terminalia pods, freshly picked from the surrounding bush. (RS)
This article appeared in the Aug/Sep ‘08 edition of Travel News Namibia.