Namibia's Desert Lions

The vision of the Desert Lion Conservation (DLC) consists of a problem, their goals and the conclusion. Nobody involved in the conservation of animals can simply look at a conclusion without considering the problem. Especially if that problem entails human interference.

Let's look at Namibia's "Desert" lion. Where exactly are they found? They live in an area as wide as the Skeleton Coast Park, stretching deep into Kaokoland and Damaraland. But some lions, like the Terrace male, wander even further and travel deep into Angola. Officially the study area of the DLC is the greater Kaokoland. An area devoid of roads, transport and communication. Then why are the lions struggling to survive?

In recent years, conservation has done a lot to re-establish the wildlife populations in North-Western Namibia. As the wildlife increased, the lions came further down into communal lands to hunt. An additional factor is that North-western Namibia had a good rainy season in 1995 which caused the local communities to move their animals deeper into Kaokoland in search of good grazing - often directly into lion territories. Lions are clever and soon discovered that cattle are much easier prey than a fit young antelope. Cattle form the livelihood of the nomadic Himba and are priceless in their culture, as with the Damara and other local communities. The local communities started to set traps and shoot the lions - rapidly decreasing their numbers. According to Dr Philip Stander, "the "Desert" lion is a prominent feature in Namibia and is highly valued, both aesthetically and financially, by the growing tourism industry." Unfortunately, "these local communities bear the costs of living with lions, but do not share equally in the benefits from tourism, and they receive little assistance in managing conflicts."

The lion's second threat comes from a much more powerful force, namely trophy hunting. The problem with trophy hunting has many facets. Every year the Ministry of Environment & Tourism (MET) decides on a hunting quota for the different conservancies. Currently Dr Stander provides the MET with lions that will be suitable for hunting. These are mostly young male lions in areas where there are too many males. Unfortunately the permit does not identify the specific lion, and no professional hunter wants to shoot a young male if his permit is unclear and provides a loophole.

Hunters are not allowed to shoot collared lions, but this unfortunately does not prevent them from shooting the adult males they want. The second problem is with local hunting. When a lion becomes a "problem", a permit will almost be released overnight to solve the "problem" at hand. In this case, Dr Stander and his team hardly have any time to try and re-locate the lion or discuss management strategies with the locals. It is argued that more lions are killed in this way than by professional hunters. Of course, the arid and often inhospitable landscape can be seen as a third factor which is keeping lion numbers down.

But how does one approach a problem over so many different income brackets in an area that nobody would choose to live in? Dr Stander argues that "there is need for proactive management of human-lion conflict to ensure the long-term conservation of the species." Back in 1998 when Dr Stander started the DLC, he had to do extensive research on a population of lions of which virtually nothing was known. He not only had to collect ecological data, he also had to address the human-lion conflicts - getting to know the Himba and convincing them that lions have a benefit for everyone. In recent years, lions have been tracked by using GPS, a light aircraft also fitted with radio-tracking equipment and of course, by vehicle. Lions over the age of two are marked or radio collared. Those that move into new areas or move close to human settlements, are very closely watched and monitored. The human-lion conflict is thus constantly addressed and management programs have been developed to help everyone.

Namibia's "Desert" lions have become invaluable to the tourism industry and a voice for many conservation projects in Namibia. When an alpha male, like the Dorob Male is then hunted for a trophy, it is a blow to every conservationist and to the lion population as a whole. However, the publicity it creates can be used to the advantage of the lions by making people from all over the world aware of the great work that the DLC put in to protect the lions. But like Dr Stander so rightly concludes; "to ensure the long-term conservation of Desert lions, we need to monitor their population ecology and manage human-lion conflict."

But can these free roaming lions still be seen? Yes. Wilderness Safaris has three camps ideally located for finding the desert lions; namely Desert Rhino Camp, Doro Nawas and Damaraland Camp. It is also worth mentioning that Wilderness Safaris works closely with Desert Lion Conservation to protect these magnificent creatures. There are several camps and/or lodges in Kaokoland and Damaraland that can potentially be used as a base from which to search for the lions. But a sighting can never be guaranteed and thus this should never be the sole reason for visiting the area.

Let us all put a hand to this project that is up against so many odds. Whether it is by visiting a camp that actively supports the Desert Lion Conservation or by donating to the cause - let's take part.