THE NAMIBIAN LION TRUST - PROTECTING NAMIBIA'S LIONS THROUGH WORKABLE SOLUTIONS TO HUMAN-WILDLIFE CONFLICT
The African lion (Panthera leo) is probably one of our most iconic species, yet it is a species in crisis having suffered a catastrophic decline both in terms of numbers and range. Just over a century ago there were more than 200,000 lions in Africa, today there are around 20,000, a decline of 90%. Since Disney’s The Lion King premiered in 1994, lion numbers have halved. In addition, they have disappeared from approximately 95% of their historic range and are now extinct in 26 African countries. Of the 28 African countries where they can still be found, only 6 are known to have populations in excess of 1,000 lions. To put this in perspective there are more wild rhinos, elephants and gorillas respectively than lions remaining in Africa, yet in comparison lions receive far less press coverage about their decline and the threats facing them.
The threats are numerous: habitat loss and fragmentation, human-wildlife conflict, the illegal bushmeat trade where they are often caught in snares meant for other species; and the illegal wildlife trade with demand for their body parts escalating. Poorly regulated and unsustainable trophy hunting and ceremonial killings are other factors contributing to their decline.
Namibia’s Lion Population
Estimates vary as to how many lions there are remaining in Namibia, although it is believed the population has been increasing steadily in recent years and now exceeds 1,000. Certainly, Etosha National Park, in the arid north west of the country, has a healthy population which has expanded westwards from the Park across the Kunene region to the Skeleton Coast. Perhaps inevitably this has brought them into conflict with people, particularly cattle farmers, as they move into communal lands which border the Park and where the Namibian Lion Trust is based.
Its population of desert-adapted lions, of which only 25 individuals survived in the mid 1990’s, has also been steadily growing and currently number around 150 individuals. Numbers are also increasing in the riverine wooded area in the north-east of the country.
This increase in numbers, at least in part, must be credited to Namibia’s internationally recognised communal conservancy programme.
Prior to independence from South Africa in 1990, the country’s wildlife population on communal lands had plummeted for a variety of reasons, an apartheid regime which alienated communities from their wildlife, uncontrolled hunting by the military during the struggle for independence, extensive poaching and severe drought.
In 1996, the Namibian Government gave communities the right to create conservancies, whereby they were permitted to manage and benefit from the wildlife on communal land. Since 1998, 86 communal conservancies have been created and now cover approximately 20% of the country and are vital in not only providing protected areas for wildlife outside of National Parks, but also creating large areas of connected, intact habitat where wildlife is able to move freely. Of course, it is not only wildlife that benefits, they improve rural lives by generating both cash income and in-kind benefits for local people. In 2018, the total cash income and in-kind benefits generated by conservancies was estimated to be worth N$ 147 million.
However, community conservation is not without its challenges. Human-Wildlife Conflict (“HWC”) poses one of the greatest threats to Africa’s wildlife, especially some of its most iconic species such as the lion who are mostly found within or surrounded by human-dominated landscapes. Numerous studies have shown that in landscapes where livestock production is the main source of income, there is a decline in the number of large carnivores, the decline being driven by retaliatory killings in response to predation on livestock.
However, other studies have indicated that large carnivores are able to survive in human-dominated landscapes, if there is human tolerance for such species.
Namibia is no exception to this and ironically the success of the community conservation programme in increasing wildlife numbers has led to heightened conflict between people and wildlife, the most significant of which is attacks on livestock with conservancies reporting, on average, 6,000 incidents of livestock attacks annually since 2015.
As elsewhere in Africa, the issue is exacerbated by a growing human population and the corresponding pressure this puts on the land, as well as prolonged, severe drought which has decimated both wildlife and livestock and as a consequence has had a serious impact on people’s livelihoods.
Incidents of HWC involving lions are well publicised. The documentary “Vanishing Kings” tells the story of five male lions (the “Five Musketeers”) who had to fend for themselves following the death of their mother. In 2016 one of the brothers was shot dead following a confrontation at a cattle post. In August of the same year another three were poisoned near the village of Tomakas in retaliation for killing a donkey. The authorities took the decision to relocate the last remaining male to the Okongue area. However, he too, along with a lioness and two cubs, was then killed following conflict with farmers. In 2018, a male and female broke into a kraal and killed several goats and sheep, a few days after the male killed some donkeys and was subsequently shot dead by officials, and earlier this year a female who had cubs estimated to be around 5-6 months old, was killed in a conflict situation. It has been reported that the cubs are being monitored by the authorities and supplementary fed while a temporary holding camp is built to house them.
As recently as March this year, one of the lions monitored by the Namibian Lion Trust was also poisoned inside the Hobatere Concession, after killing a donkey that was grazing within the Protected Area. The drought in this region has not yet broken, which means for the few surviving livestock on communal land adjacent to the Concession, there is virtually no grazing left. The Hobatere southern boundary fence which allows for the migration of wildlife, also enables livestock to easily move back and forth between communal land and the Concession. Of course, boundaries are a human concept, neither the donkey nor the lion will have known a boundary existed. Investigations are ongoing into the poisoning by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (“MET”) and the Protected Resources Unit.
The lion in question in this case was Hpl-26 or “Sores” (which means ‘Sun’ in the Damara language) as he was affectionately known by staff at the Hobatere Lodge. Many of the tourists who visited Hobatere were captivated by Sores’ beauty and gentle nature, he would rarely show his aggressive side.
Sores was in his prime when he was killed and the dominant male within the Hobatere Concession (34,000 hectares), Kaross block (approximately 14,000 hectares) and a section of western Etosha. He first appeared, together with four other males of approximately the same age (4-5 yrs old), in the Hobatere North Zone in May 2017. By September 2017, three of the five males had been killed on communal farmland west of Hobatere due to HWC, with the fourth male unaccounted for. Two older males, which had dominated the same territory from 2012 to February 2017, had migrated into western Etosha, leaving the Hobatere Concession and Kaross Block without an adult male.
Despite the loss of the other males, Sores remained in the Hobatere Concession. The lionesses within the Concession generally split into two or three groups, the Hobatere North and the Roadside-Kaross Prides, with one or two lionesses from the Hobatere North Pride occasionally visiting the Roadside waterhole. The Namibian Lion Trust’s regular monitoring and data collected from GPS satellite collars, suggest that Sores was the only adult male in the entire range.
Sadly, Sores’ death may not be the only one as a result of this incidence of HWC. During his all too brief tenure, Sores sired more than 13 cubs. If a new male or males move into the area, they may kill some or all of the cubs to bring the females back into oestrus so they can mate with them and father cubs of their own. Alternatively, if new males move into the area it may force the females to move out of the relative safety of the Concession in an attempt to try and avoid the males and protect their cubs. This of course may bring them into conflict with famers on the adjacent communal land potentially resulting in more lions being lost to HWC.
As the above demonstrates, HWC poses a serious threat to the long-term viability of Namibia’s lions.
The retaliatory killing of lions is an emotive subject, especially if it involves the use of poison because of its indiscriminate nature, often resulting in the death of other species such as jackals and vultures. Incidents such as those mentioned above, often generate a lot of negative comments about the people believed to be responsible and the communities involved on social media. Yet is must be remembered that in most cases such a response is born out of fear, frustration and/or desperation. It is rural communities which must bear the brunt of living alongside wildlife and they are often the poorest where the loss of even one cow can have a devastating impact on their livelihood.
The severe impact the prolonged drought Namibia is currently experiencing, now in its 8th year, on livelihoods cannot be emphasized enough. Whilst other regions in Namibia have received good rainfall in recent months, this is not the case for most parts of the Kunene Region, which includes the Hobatere Concession and is the region where the Namibian Lion Trust is based. In fact, so far this year the majority of the region has received below average rainfall. This has resulted in many cattle starving to death due to lack of grazing, with virtually no cattle left in the area because it is simply too expensive for farmers to re-stock, what livestock remains primarily consists of goats. Of course, it is not just cattle that have suffered, wildlife populations have also been decimated, including the lions’ natural prey. As farmers become increasingly desperate to protect what little livestock they have left, and lions seek an easy meal, HWC has spiked in the area.
Thus, whilst the community conservation programme has undoubtedly been successful in increasing wildlife numbers and creating income streams for the communities involved, it has not paid enough attention to addressing the issue of HWC.
In trying to mitigate HWC a balance needs to be struck between the needs of the people and the needs of wildlife. In 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (“MET”) introduced a Human Wildlife Conflict Policy, which was subsequently revised in 2018. The policy sets out several strategies to try and alleviate HWC, including research and monitoring, integrated land use planning and removal of so-called problem animals to name but a few. In addition, in 2017 a North West Lion Management Plan was developed by the MET with conservation partners to try and reduce HWC in the area.
So, what else is being done to address HWC?
The Namibian Lion Trust (NLT) – For Lions, For Life, For Our Future
The Namibian Lion Trust, formerly AfriCat North, is an NGO whose overriding aim is to improve the protection of and secure the long-term survival of Namibia’s lions.
It hopes to achieve this by promoting tolerance for and co-existence between farming communities and lions through the following initiatives:
- Livestock Protection Programme: this encourages farmers to use strong, predator-proof ‘bomas,’ LionLights and herdsman; farmers are encouraged to make use of mobile ‘bomas’ to better protect their livestock when grazing further afield from their homesteads – these are especially effective during the dry season (and continuing drought) when the remaining graze and available water may force the herds to remain in the field at night.
- Lion Guards: all of the guards come from a farming background which means they fully appreciate the difficulties farmers face in protecting their livestock but also means they are well-placed to promote greater tolerance of predators and advise communities on how best to protect their livestock. It has been shown that local participation in the monitoring of lions both reduces retaliatory killings and promotes positive perceptions of them.
- Research: the Hobatere Lion Research Project was set up in 2013 to study population dynamics and movements of lions in the Hobatere Concession Area and western Etosha National Park (which Hobatere borders). The data collected by the Namibian Lion Trust has been used to develop an Early- Warning System which enables the Lion Guards to alert communities to the potential presence of a lion(s) close by, which in turn gives farmers the opportunity to take safeguarding measures to protect their livestock. Since 2017, the Lion Research Project has extended its study area to include three Communal Conservancies with resident lion.
- Construction, repair and maintenance of boundary fences which can help minimize the movement of lions (and other predators) on to farmland and consequently reduce the number of conflict incidents which arise.
- Conservation Education Programme: by teaching children the importance of conservation and sustainability it is hoped this will not only promote a more positive attitude towards lions but also create new opportunities and new income streams through wildlife tourism.
- Wildlife Tourism: this can provide an alternative or additional livelihood, particularly for young people. As mentioned above, the Namibian Lion Trust has collared several lions within the Hobatere Concession and provides much data to the Concessionaires and the Ministry of Environment & Tourism. In addition, recent research has indicated that communities may perceive lions as a way of increasing tourism and consequently revenues from tourism/conservation leading to an increased tolerance for them.
Further details on all of the above can be found on the Namibian Lion Trust website www.namibianliontrust.org. You can make a donation to help pay the Lion Guards or for all aspects of Human-Wildlife Conflict through Protect Our Pride.
In an ever-crowed world, promoting tolerance for and co-existence with, will be key if the African lion is to survive. There is no quick fix to Human-Wildlife Conflict and trying to address it requires a careful balancing act between the needs of local people and wildlife. There is a constant need to come up with innovative and workable solutions which work for both people and lions. By giving local communities a voice, by empowering them, and by educating them with the aim of promoting a more positive attitude towards lions and indeed all wildlife, it is to be hoped that people will learn to live alongside these magnificent cats thereby ensuring their future and long term viability.