The extraordinary tracking skills of the San people, problems with desert-adapted lions and modern global positioning technology – these are some of the ingredients of a project in the Kunene Region that will see the first carnivore management plans being developed for communal conservancies.
The project was started as scientists gained better knowledge of the desert-adapted lions of the north west and realised that communities needed more information on the carnivores with which they daily live in conflict. “It was the next logical step,” says Dr Flip Stander, co-ordinator of the Predator Research Programme of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). “At community meetings it became very clear that their experiences with carnivores and the understanding of problems can be improved.”
The Kunene Region is one of the few places in Africa that supports five large carnivore species. Lion, leopard, cheetah, spotted hyaena and brown hyaena occur in relatively stable and healthy populations in the region. With the exception of brown hyaena, they are all formidable predators that occasionally prey on livestock.
The project promotes the idea that communities which suffer stock losses will eventually see some kind of benefit in tolerating predators. According to Dr Stander, the Ministry will be much more inclined to give approval that problem lions can be trophy hunted with efficient carnivore management plans.
The project was started in 1999 with five communal conservancies that lie in lion territory and are the worst affected, namely Khoadi Hoas, Torra, Ehirovipuka, Sesfontein and Marienfluss. They were identified through research information on the desert-adapted lions of the Khorixas District and Western Etosha National Park.
In the first phase of the project community game guards received basic training in identifying, understanding and monitoring carnivores. Skilled San trackers from the Ju/Hoansi and Hai/om communities provided training in the art of tracking, while game guards also received training in the use of Global Position Systems (GPS). By using tracking and GPS they will be able to record carnivore numbers and their distribution.
Stander believes that the use of traditional tracking skills in communal conservancies is an important way of monitoring and managing carnivores. Large carnivores are generally difficult to count, observe and control.
“Tracking and counting their spoor and reconstructing their behaviour accordingly have become recognised techniques in studying large carnivores,” he says.
Combining traditional tracking skills with technology and modern wildlife monitoring and management techniques is an approach to monitoring carnivores that he has tested with great success in the Tsumkwe district with the Ju/Hoansi San people.
In the second phase each conservancy will appoint a person as their future Carnivore Management Officer, who will receive further intensive training.
Training in respect of large carnivore behaviour and ecology, livestock protection techniques, problem animal identification, management options, capture techniques and effective trophy hunting skills to target probe carnivores will be given to the guards. In addition, they will receive basic training in scientific methods such as data recording and record keeping.
They will return to their conservancies at the end of the project to monitor carnivore populations and to advise conservancy members on effective livestock management techniques to prevent losses. The project is aimed at building capacity within conservancies to solve carnivore problems and to monitor their carnivore populations. Says Dr Stander, “We realised they needed to gain an understanding of how to protect their livestock and improve livestock management to decrease losses.”
A carnivore management plan for each conservancy will also be developed in the second phase. Other communities in the country will be able to use it as a blueprint to develop their own plans. This presents communities with physical plans to deal with different carnivores and measures that can be implemented to reduce stock losses. “The plan will enable them to be more effective in addressing carnivore problems,” he says.
It will also empower the community to apply for problem animals to be trophy hunted, because “the plan will prove that they have done what they can to prevent losses”. With the growing tendency of communal conservancies taking charge of their wildlife resources in terms of monitoring populations and implementing sustainable utilisation programmes, there is an urgent need to include large carnivores in these management activities.
Large carnivores are regarded as a valuable natural resource that can be utilised to the benefit of communal conservancies.
The first true estimates of Namibia’s large carnivore population densities show that the country may have more carnivores than previously suspected.
According to Dr Flip Stander, Co-ordinator of the MET’s Predator Research Programme, recent research information compiled in the Large Carnivore Atlas of Namibia indicates that there are between 2 600 and 8 099 cheetah in the country. A national figure has never been established before. “This figure replaces all the figures that have been used in the past,” he says. “It is the best to date.”
The ATLAS project is based on data that is being compiled through the Predator Research Programme on different carnivores in several study sites in the country to establish real population densities. Information on large carnivores that is collected countrywide through data forms completed by the tourism industry, conservancies, farmers, government employees and other interested parties are also used.
The new figures on carnivores are averages obtained from minimum and maximum figures that have been compiled from the data. These show, for instance, a minimum of 2 659 and a maximum of 8 099 in respect of cheetah. However, large differences between minimum and maximum figures show that there is still considerable uncertainty in respect of these figures. More reliable information will gradually become available as research progresses.
Another national estimate shows that there are almost 700 lions in the country – this figure is calculated from a minimum of 467 and a maximum of 916 animals. A count for leopard has also been established for the first time as being between 3 377 and 9 060 animals. Further data indicates that between 291 and 3 215 spotted hyaena and between 479 and 702 brown hyaena occur in the country. The figures on wild dog range between 222 and 1 228.
The Large Carnivore ATLAS of Namibia is aimed at establishing baseline biodiversity information that will aid all relevant conservation organisations and Govern-ment to develop and implement effective conservation strategies and formulate appropriate policies. The baseline information will also be crucial to conservancies and farmers in developing tourism and sustainable trophy-hunting enterprises.
Stander is of the opinion that the new figures will help conservationists to break away from the concept that everything is endangered and near extinction. He believes that the new information will help towards facing the problems with carnivores and developing real solutions instead of crying “wolf” all the time.
“It is an emotional bandwagon that everyone is climbing on,” says Dr Stander. “We can’t constantly say that these animals are endangered, because it doesn’t take us anywhere.” Better information will help the Ministry to protect populations when it is absolutely necessary. “It will carry more weight when we see a decline in numbers to say a certain lion group is endangered.”
In Namibia, as in the rest of Africa, the biggest threat to carnivores is loss of habitat. “An increase in livestock farming and uncompromising livestock practices will offer the biggest threat to carnivores in the future,” says Dr Stander. “This indicates that people don’t value animals other than their livestock and are not prepared to lessen their losses through stock management techniques.”
This is why people who are affected by carnivores have to benefit from them to see their value. “We can’t just protect and conserve carnivores at the cost of people,” he explains. “People must benefit from them.”
One of objectives of current research under the Predator Research Programme is to investigate and assess the extent of conflict between carnivores and people and to develop sustainable utilisation activities to the benefit of local communities.
Future challenges will include the effective and sustainable use of lions and other carnivores as a resource. “The information obtained from the research will help us not to be afraid to allocate trophy hunting of, for instance, lions when a problem occurs.”
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.