A Human-Wildlife Tragedy – Namibia’s Desert Lions

Aug 12, 2016 Conservation
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All causes need champions, and all champions need support. One man, provided he has sustained backing, can make a huge difference.

Today, just three days after celebrating World Lion Day on 10 August, we mourn the lives of three desert-adapted lions killed this week after being poisoned in a Namibian human-wildlife conflict incident. The Five Musketeers captured the hearts of people from all corners of our planet – their story is one of survival, triumph, hardship and tragedy.

It was with gut-wrenching disbelief and sadness that we received the news on Wednesday that three of the four (originally five) Musketeers, the famous desert-adapted lions of the Namib Desert, had been poisoned by pastoralists and that their bodies and satellite collars had been burnt. Now just one lion from this cohort remains – Tullamore (XPL-93).

This news came at the very time the lions were about to be translocated from the Tomakas settlement to the Uniab Delta (an area that would be safer) as a last-resort effort to solve the on-going human-lion conflict with these villagers. The Uniab Delta was ear-marked as the safest territorial option by Dr Philip Stander, the conservationist who has dedicated 25 years to researching Namibia’s desert-adapted lions and who has made it his life’s mission to protect these desert survivors.

The fifth Musketeer, known as Harry (XPL-89), met his fate earlier this year when the lions came into perilously close contact with settlers at a temporary cattle post (12 km west of Tomakas). Harry died of a bullet wound to his chest.

Human-lion conflict is obviously a big challenge in this area and a situation that Chris Roche, Wilderness Safaris Chief Marketing Officer, elaborates on below:

“One of the challenges for Namibia’s population of some two million people (and the reason it is this low in the first place) is that, except for small portion of the extreme north east of the country, Namibia effectively straddles two deserts – the Namib and the Kalahari. As a result, carrying capacity for livestock as well as agricultural productivity is very low. This is most marked in the north-western parts of the Kunene Province – the areas of Damaraland and Kaokoveld that these desert-adapted lions roam.

Rainfall here varies with annual averages from maybe 25 mm to certainly less than 100 mm. People and livestock are able to exist at the eastern edge of this continuum where rainfall is highest. Wildlife ekes out an existence on the western part of the continuum. Add to that the current drought conditions being experienced in this part of the country and access to the few remaining watering or grazing resources bring these two worlds into conflict. Where lion prides use predictable ranges they are able to avoid this conflict. It is the wide-ranging lions on the edge (and dispersing males such as the Musketeers fall squarely into this category) that are vulnerable to the conflict. This is what is referred to as an ‘edge effect’ and is the primary threat to the survival of large mammal species (and particularly predators), not just in Africa but across the world. The cause of the edge effect of course is the growth in human population and incursion into previously wild territory.”

The question on everybody’s lips now is of course, ‘What will happen to the remaining lion?’ Dr Stander has reported that XPl-93, also known as Tullamore, has been moved from Tomakas to the mouth of the Uniab River. He is now recovering from his sedation and has been feeding on an oryx carcass. This morning he was reported to be fully recovered and has started exploring his new territory. Naturally his movements will be monitored closely.

Chris continues, “Hoanib Camp is operated on a lease and revenue share basis from the three community conservancies surrounding that area. Employment is also community-centric (together with skills training and the like). The resident people are in fact well-disposed to lions since they see the benefits of a tourism partnership. When drought causes people from outside to move into new areas with their livestock this balance and harmony is vulnerable to upset and this is what tragically happened in this case.

What can we do to change this situation around? Essentially continue to do what we have been doing in this area, together with partners such as Dr Philip Stander and the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife and the NGO Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation, and hope that the success of camps like Hoanib and documentaries like Vanishing Kings (and a planned sequel that tells the conclusion of this tragic story) can attract others to our cause until we achieve a sea change in attitudes and a revolution in rural economies.”

What else is being done?

The H.E.L.P project

H.E.L.P (Human Elephant Lion Project) is a new programme that is a co-operative venture between the Desert Lion Conservation Foundation, the Desert Lion Trust, the Desert Elephant Project, the IRDNC and the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism. The project aims to secure donations and funds to create pro-active management and action for desert-adapted elephant and lion. The programme, with enough funds, will be launched in early November 2016. Will and Liane Steenkamp, filmmakers of Vanishing Kings, have already donated a year’s salary, satellite phone and basic camping gear for the first lion guardian in the area and together with the Desert Lion Trust and TOSCO are actively assisting local farmers to avoid more conflict.

Why do we believe in desert-adapted lion conservation?

  • The range of the desert-adapted lion, and its population in the Kaokoveld and Skeleton Coast has grown dramatically over the past 15 years
  • Community attitudes continue to change and despite continued conflict, lion mortalities are declining
  • The success of our own camp in the area is attracting others and these will continue to bring benefits to Namibia’s remote, rural communities
  • We have built a research centre and secondary home base for the Desert Lion Project at Hoanib Camp and supported the making of a documentary that has brought the plight of this population to the world’s attention

What about the other lions of the Namib?

The Floodplain lionesses, also seen around Hoanib Camp, recently brought three healthy cubs into the world. Camp manager Clement Lawrence has shared his photographs in an album on our blog.

Guests at Desert Rhino, Damaraland and Doro Nawas Camp, as well as those on our mobile Explorations safaris across the region, regularly share their amazing sightings of the lions.

For daily updates on all of the lions Dr Stander monitors in Namibia, please follow this link http://desertlion.info/news.html.

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By Wildernessblogger

All Wilderness staff have their say here and share their experiences.

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Inge Rüsen  Sep 5, 2016

I feel so grateful for your activities . Thank you.

Don Hamilton  Aug 31, 2016

This is just sickening!!!!!! Tragic, that in 2016, we can't make better decisions.. I'm off to Tanzania next week, hopefully i can witness a share a better post!!