Namibia Desert lions – Return of the King

Conservation profile – A Caprivian dream
July 15, 2012
Diversifying the economic base in conservancies – Benefits from bushes
July 15, 2012
Conservation profile – A Caprivian dream
July 15, 2012
Diversifying the economic base in conservancies – Benefits from bushes
July 15, 2012
by Helge Denker on behalf of the NACSO Natural Resource Working Group with input from conservancy representatives

The king of beasts is returning to reclaim his reign across the vast communal areas of north-western Namibia. After an absence of several decades, desert lions are re-establishing former ranges and the population has increased from a low of around 25 in 1995 to over 120 today.

desert lions

Lioness close up by Dr Flip Stander

Lions are huge, powerful and extremely dangerous predators. They take very large prey, including sheep, goats, cattle and donkeys – and sometimes people. So this is not a simple story of conservation success. It is a story of conflict and tolerance; of finding a balance between people and (sometimes dangerous) wildlife. The lions in question are not living in a national park. They are roaming freely across communal farmland, where people eke out subsistence livelihoods that include livestock herding in harsh environments.

The desert lions of Namibia are near-mythical beasts. In the 1970s, National Geographic articles and documentaries by Jen and Des Bartlett showed them roaming along the shores of the famous Skeleton Coast, shrouded in mist and feeding on Cape fur seals and stranded whales. The lions added another dimension to this legendary landscape and at the same time, their presence here expanded our perception of the king of beasts into another realm of our imagination.

Dr Philip (Flip) Stander first saw the desert lions on a remote beach of the Skeleton Coast in 1976. By the time he started his research on the lions of north-western Namibia in the mid-nineties, they had not been seen near the coast in over a decade. Much worse, they had all but disappeared from most of the north-west, shot out as a threat by farmers who received no benefits from wildlife.

Sense of ownership

Over the years, as the lions returned, Flip Stander’s work has provided us with amazing insights into the behavioural adaptations and survival strategies of these desert nomads. In the process, his name has become synonymous with Namibia’s desert lions. He has become almost as famous – and elusive – as the lions themselves. His efforts in working with communities as the lions reclaimed their range are making a huge difference in the early acceptance of the predators.

Flip once brought an immobilised lioness that had been causing trouble into the village of Purros. He gave the community the option of killing it, saying that it was their lion and their choice. After long debates, the community decided against killing the lioness, and stressed that as long as the lions were monitored to minimise conflict, they would be tolerated. A key element in this story is a sense of ownership, which is motivating communities to try to live with dangerous wildlife.

Today, Bennie Roman of the Torra Conservancy takes the idea further: “Our community has great tolerance for lions because most understand that ecosystems have positive and negative effects on their lives – they must take the positive with the negative to protect the whole.” Such holistic approaches allude to a bigger vision for the area – the vision that facilitated the comeback of the lions.

Overall conservation goal

desert lions

Etosha lions drinking by Paul van Schalkwyk.

The return of the king is the result of forces much greater than the work of individuals. The story is linked to a bigger story of conservation success and community development – the communal conservancy programme of Namibia. The conservancy legislation passed in 1995, which gives local people the right to manage, utilise and benefit from wildlife, has created the framework for livelihood diversification that includes wildlife. As a result, wildlife populations have rebounded.

When the legislation was passed, lions – just like other wildlife – gained an economic value for the people living with them. Tourists love to see lions, and are willing to pay for that experience. The growth of the communal conservancy tourism sector is based to a large extent on the experience of seeing charismatic wildlife such as desert lions,- elephants and rhinos in the stunning settings that Namibia’s communal areas offer. Through conservancies, communities now benefit directly from these tourism developments.

Trophy hunting is another important tool in mitigating conflicts and at the same time generating significant cash income for communities, which offsets some of the incurred losses. Limited quotas are given to hunt individual lions- in the areas where most conflict occurs. At face value, this may sound like a major contradiction. Some want to see and conserve the lions, others want to shoot them. But conservation gains cannot be achieved by conserving the life of individual lions at an unjustifiable cost to local people. The aim is to protect the overall population within the vast landscapes across which they roam. Hunting individual lions contributes to this overall conservation goal.

Communities become very upset about uninformed judgements by people living in cities and by newspaper reports condemning communities – or the hunting operator they work with – for shooting a problem animal. “It is a very sensitive issue, especially when a [human] life has been lost and people in Windhoek say the animal should not be shot. People are defending themselves and are controlling damage. Animals are not being shot for nothing.” Leonard Hoaeb of the Doro !nawas Conservancy echoes the sentiments of most conservancies.

desert lions

Etosha lions by Paul van Schalkwyk

Put it this way: Would you like a lion in your backyard? Or lurking in the bushes along the path that your kids take to school? Killing a dozen sheep out of your small flock in a day? No? This perspective changes things, doesn’t it? Local people are living with these threats and some balance needs to be found.

Complex relationships

The issue of lion conflicts is a pressing one. Where lions occur it comes up regularly in all community meetings. Tour operators are habituating lions to vehicles and people to provide a more exciting and fulfilling visitor experience to their clients. But lions with a reduced fear of people create an increased risk for local communities and their livestock, who have to live with the lions on a daily basis. These are complex relationships in a dynamic system, which includes nomadic wildlife populations and people with shifting priorities.

Conservancies are well placed to find a balance between all the (sometimes) conflicting needs and aspirations of people and wild animals. They create a local management structure that has a real interest in managing and conserving wildlife for the benefit of people. Collaboration with the conservancy by all stakeholders is the first step. Zoning conservancies for different land use is another part of the solution. Still, the north-west is an unfenced, open system and lions move according to prey availability and wanderlust. Benefits created by tourism, trophy hunting and creative conflict mitigation schemes, which offset the costs of living with wildlife, are vital in ensuring long-term community commitment.

The return of lions to the magical landscapes of the north-west should be seen as much more than a great tourist attraction, more even than the successful conservation of a charismatic species. It should signify a return to a healthier state of the environment in which the full range of predators and prey create a balance – in an environment that includes people. It should also be seen as a healthier state for the people living there, who benefit from all the resources that a healthy environment has to offer.

This article appeared in the 2010/11 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.

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