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Why Namibia’s desert lions are being killed

Namibia’s desert-adapted lions are being killed off in a sad whirlpool of human politics, with the recent killing of the last of the famous ‘5 Musketeers’ being one such example.

Screaming Namibian newspaper headlines and vocal activist outbursts on social media speak of what looks like the systematic removal of some of Namibia’s last free-roaming lions in that area by livestock farmers, intent on the eradication of the enemy.

But scratch a bit deeper and you soon see that although the root of the problem lies in human-wildlife conflict (HWC), the situation is magnified by an information vacuum – leading to a sad cocktail of simmering tensions and intolerance. Why the information vacuum? I speculate at the end of this post.

lion kill, Namibia

Lion killed in the Etosha area. ©Namibian Sun

Look, let’s not pretend that humans killing off the competition is a new thing – most of the western world has been sanitised of dangerous critters, and their former wild areas have been tamed and converted into comfortable, non-threatening lifestyle collateral. And so too the remaining wild areas in Africa are under massive threat as humankind rolls out its exclusive-use model. But what makes this situation so desperately sad, is that Namibia is a shining light when it comes to increasing wildlife populations in the face of human pressure.

There are now about 150 desert-adapted lions in the arid 52,000 km² rangeland of north-western Namibia, up from 25 in 1999. And this success comes off the back of involving and empowering affected rural communities in the management of wildlife – a strategy that makes Namibia a leader in the field.


I started asking questions in February this year about Namibia’s desert-adapted lions after reading a 2010 report by researcher Dr Flip Stander that illustrates an alarming drop in male/female ratios. Stander’s Desert Lion Conservation Project is a long-standing research project, mandated by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). My interest was further triggered by ongoing reports via social media about the double whammy of the selective trophy hunting of large male lions and the ongoing loss of lions to HWC.

MET is pretty transparent that they do allocate annual trophy hunting permits, and I had assumed that these would be based on a sustainable strategy and hard facts resulting from scientific research. I was curious about how many male lions of breeding age there are currently in the population of 150, and how many male lions are dying each year from human-wildlife conflict incidents – because these facts would surely influence how sustainable the trophy hunting quota is.

And so, in February I started digging. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where the fun started.

Approaching the tourism companies

My first port of call was to various tourism companies that operate in the area. They could not provide the answers, and referred me to MET and the project website.

Tourism companies have played a fundamental role in providing significant employment, skills training, anti-poaching support and a myriad of other conservation benefits and services in the area. I was surprised that the experienced tourism industry people I spoke to seemed to have no knowledge about the current status of the lions, other than the total population figure which they hold up as evidence of the success of their own conservation objectives.

I do, though, understand the sensitivities surrounding their relationship with MET and affected communities, and their reluctance to engage on the topic.

Approaching MET

I also approached MET with a request for information. I was impressed that several high-ranking officials engaged with me, and provided some information after a fair amount of prodding.

The thing is though, that in reply to my question, How many breeding age males and breeding age females are in that population of 150? How many territory/pride males?’, MET replied: “… we are still awaiting latest results to give us further information.”

And in reply to my question, ‘How many lions killed due to HWC were firstly adult males and secondly adult females?’, MET replied: “The accurate figures in term of age and sex is not available at the moment.”

So, MET has no current data relating to how many male lions there are and how many die each year due to human-lion conflict. And yet each year male lions are shot by trophy hunters on the basis of a MET quota.

Does this not seem strange? Note that the number of lions killed by trophy hunters is generally less than those killed due to HWC, but the placing of lions on hunting quotas is a pro-active strategy that could be stopped if found to be unsustainable.

The questions that MET did reply to:

1. Are hunters prohibited from shooting territory/pride males, and if so how is this differentiation enforced?

MET: “Hunters are prohibited from shooting females, and encouraged to hunt post productive males. This is difficult to enforce at the moments because operators do not have to be accompanied by MET officials in conservancies where there are conservancy game guards available.”

2. What is the annual trophy hunting quota for desert-adapted lions in this area and how is it calculated?

“The quota for lions in 2016 was a total of four lions.”

3. How much does the community receive of the ±$80,000 fee for a lion trophy hunt such as this? And how much does government receive? Lastly, with regard to revenue, how much stays overseas?

“The conservancies, on average receive about U$10 000 for a lion. Government does not receive any money for hunting in conservancies unless through government concessions when lions are part of the package and if they are hunted as problem animals. In this case, N$10 000 is paid into the Game Product Trust Fund for each lion and the rest is paid to the conservancy where the animal was declared.”

4. Is the baiting of lions permitted? 

“Baiting is permitted, but using live animals for baiting is not permitted.”

5. How many lions have been shot as hunting trophies in the region in the past 10 years?

“In the past 10 years about 15 lions have been trophy hunted in the region.”

6. How many lions have been killed as problem animals in the region in the past 10 years? Of these, how many were killed firstly by community members/farmers, secondly by MET officials and thirdly by trophy hunters?

“In the past 10 years, ±17 have been killed due to HWC, of which six are by professional hunters with a MET permit, and the rest by the community. It is very possible that some cases are not reported to MET.”

Approaching Dr Flip Stander

And, of course, I approached researcher Dr Flip Stander, who is the leading light in this vital research project. It appears that he alone has the information I seek. I have never met Stander, but have high regard for him. He is by most accounts totally committed to the cause and has dedicated his life to it. He is, however, a recluse operating in an extremely remote area, and unfortunately did not reply to my emails – although his assistant did and promised feedback. I am still waiting, and recent reminders have been ignored.

Stander published a report, The impact of male-biased mortality on the population structure of desert-adapted lions in Namibia, in 2010, in which he discloses the following facts, amongst others, relating to the period 2000 to 2010:

♦ 47 collared lions died, of which 32 were killed by people – 20 as a result of HWC and 12 by trophy hunters. 77% of these lions killed were male.

♦ Stander collared 31 young male lions – of which only eight were alive at the date of the report – two adults and six young lions. Of these collared male lions, 19 were killed by people – 11 of those by trophy hunters. Of the trophy hunting killings, five were on quota permits and the remaining six were so called ‘problem animals’ – a gap in legislation which permits communities to nominate ‘problem’ lions that trophy hunters are invited to kill. Stander’s comment in his report speaks volumes about this practise: “In all six cases, however, it is arguable whether the adult males that were shot, were in fact the lions responsible for the killing of livestock.”

♦ Stander’s stats reflect a serious decline in the ratio of males to females, and he concludes: “The long-term viability of the Desert lion population has been compromised by the excessive killing of adult and sub-adult males. There is an urgent need to adapt the management and utilisation strategies relating to lions, if the long-term conservation of the species in the Kunene were to be secured.”

And that is why I have been trying, since February, to obtain current statistics relating to male desert-adapted lions.

Spats with social media-empowered keyboard warriors have driven Stander even further underground. Judging by some of the comments I have seen on Facebook, some keyboard warriors think that Stander should go beyond the clearly defined boundaries of his project and assist with hands-on human-wildlife conflict prevention and mitigation. Lack of engagement by anybody from the project has fed the flames and got some keyboard warriors all riled up – some have even accused him of colluding with MET to cause the downfall of these lions!

The activists and concerned citizens

I am in constant contact with many activists and concerned citizens, who feed me with valuable raw information. Some Namibian-based activists have stepped into the breach by monitoring some of the lions, and providing practical livestock protection assistance to communities. But these good people do so in their spare time, and with limited resources.

Unfortunately other activists simply feed the spiral of confusion and anger with their emotional outbursts and conspiracy theories. Others call for boycotts of Namibian tourism – clearly not the appropriate solution.

Approaching a community representative

I also approached a community representative who was referred to me as the go-to person in this regard. After a Facebook message promising feedback, he slipped off the radar and ignored all subsequent emails and Facebook requests for feedback.

Fundamental to understanding the Namibian situation is to respect the fact that rural Namibian communities are the key to solving this crisis. They have to live with dangerous animals in the neighbourhood – animals that threaten lives and livelihoods. For this problem to be overcome the relevant communities have to see benefits that outweigh the costs and risks – their expectations are no different to yours and mine.


Despite the existence of a long-running research project, it would appear that the key decision makers (MET) are flying blind, awarding trophy hunting permits without current desert lion population statistics. This is disappointing, considering the comparably stellar record that Namibia has with regard to increasing wildlife populations.

Most importantly, the vital support and understanding of some rural communities seems to be on the wane, as frustration leads to tension and even vigilantism – a clear and present threat to fragile desert lion populations and other species like cheetahs, rhinos and elephants. What a damming reflection on all concerned.


Allow me the freedom to speculate about why there is an information vacuum. It’s on record that by 2010 the proportion of males in the desert lion population had fallen, enough for Dr Stander to be concerned about the future of these lions, unless things change for the better. Seven years later, is that situation likely to have changed for the better? On the contrary, my observation based on our own and other media reports and social media chatter has been that male lions are still being targeted.

If this is indeed the case, then the current stats would reflect an even worse situation for these lions. Fewer large male lions is a ticking time bomb for this already fragile population. Perhaps the authorities would be compromised if that information was to become public knowledge, as they would come under enormous pressure to suspend the trophy hunting of lions – which could also threaten other trophy hunting revenue streams, thereby unravelling some of the incentive for rural communities to tolerate wild animals. This would be a vicious circle.

I hope that the above speculation is not accurate, and that male lions are making a comeback in this achingly beautiful and special part of the world. My journey in pursuit of confirmed facts based on scientific evidence continues. Keep the passion.

Simon Espley

Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic. His travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, real people with interesting stories and elusive birds. He lives in Cape Town with his wife Lizz and 2 Jack Russells, and when not travelling or working he will be on his mountain bike somewhere out there. His motto is "Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change". The views expressed in his posts are his own. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

  • Ed Camilleri

    Beyond disgusting. Stop this madness. It is hard enough for these lions to live in such an inhospitable land, they don’t need selfish stupid and ignorant hunters

    • Voice of Reason

      Nor do we need keyboard warriors. Stop this madness. It is hard enough for conservationists to work in such an inhospitable world, they don’t need selfish and ignorant activists.

      • Ed Camilleri

        Ignorant are those that seek the last animal alive and kill it for their stupid pride. go and kill it using your hands, and not with a rifle. Then we will know who is the warrior.
        And for your information I’m not just a keyboard warrior. I have already visited the namib desert 7 years ago and know first hand what locals and wildlife face. But for sure the least they need are selfish mad hunters.

      • Denine Mishoe

        IGNORANT are those that would talk out the wrong end without knowing any facts about said person!

      • Denine Mishoe

        …said the simpleton who has no idea with whom he speaks to, but still the diarrhea continues to flow from said orifice!

  • Ana Zinger

    And yet Namibia supports trophy hunting. Namibia is a conservation bullshit.

  • David Francois Joubert

    Trophy hunting per se is not the problem, it is more likely that there is not sufficient adherence to the rules (e.g focussing on old males past their prime)

    • Denine Mishoe

      They are all apart of the problem. Please don’t insult my intelligence with the ‘trophy hunters are conservationist’ spiel as it has been proven over and over to be lies.

  • Gail Potgieter

    Good article, Simon. Thanks for keeping an open-minded approach on this very thorny issue.

    I think you hit a critical point in your Speculation – that this could turn into a vicious circle. From a purely biological standpoint, it seems that trophy hunting should be stopped until the population can bounce back and normalise itself (going on the available information, of course). However, from a social standpoint, such an action could lead to disaster. More communal farmers will simply take to shooting lions themselves, as they do north of Etosha (and as commercial farmers south of Etosha have been doing for many years now). Even worse, they could resort to poison – less dangerous, cheaper, and very unlikely to be caught doing it. Without real benefits accruing specifically due to the presence of lions (not wildlife in general), conservationists are left with very little to bargain for on the lions’ behalf.

    Another of the key issues is that this is a resurgent population, which means that the current generation of farmers have had many years of lion absence, which allowed them to relax their livestock husbandry efforts. Going from living in a lion-free environment to one that has lions is not an easy transition to make, and certainly not one that farmers make willingly. Release a pride of lions amongst the sheep farms in the Karoo in South Africa, and you will see what I mean.

    In general terms, the community conservancy system was supported by the locals of a way to increase the kinds of wildlife they don’t mind living with – mainly antelope. What only a few realised at the time was that predators follow their prey, and it is very difficult to maintain healthy populations of prey animals without getting predators… just ask your average commercial game farmer in Namibia.

    So we (collectively – all concerned stakeholders) need to find a way that allows people to tolerate the predators that have moved into their backyards. This is the tricky bit, and something that is very difficult to achieve at the landscape scale. Working with farmers one at a time to reduce livestock losses is a start, but the killing will continue for as long as there is no broad scale plan to make lions (living ones) beneficial for local farmers. Up until now, trophy hunting has played a role in giving conservationists a small bargaining chip for allowing a population of lions to persist, in that a few of those could be turned into conservancy income. However, much more needs to be done than that, and ideally one would be able to offer enough benefit for having living lions such that hunting is no longer necessary.

    I don’t have the answers to this conundrum, and it would require engaging with a scary number of stakeholders, and having absolute patience, in combination with tireless dedication (and the hide of a rhino so that keyboard warriors don’t get you down). There are one or two individuals out there who have what it takes, but rarely receive the support they need to take on this mammoth task. Something needs to be done, that we all agree on, but what that something is, and who is going to do it, are questions that have yet to be answered!

    • Simon Espley

      Thanks Gail, your inout is so considered, and valuable (as usual). This is far more complicated than the emotional energy that surrounds the killing of lions. Are you involved at all in the process with MET, communities, research, NGOS?

      • Gail Potgieter

        Hi Simon, agree with your sentiments completely. Unfortunately, I am no longer working in Namibia. I was working on a two-year contract to look at potential HWC solutions in Damaraland under a Millennium Challenge Account grant. I learned a lot in that short time, and am acquainted with all the main role-players in the area. However, once the funds ran out, I couldn’t find enough support to carry on working up there. The country, and that particular region, is still close to my heart, though.

    • Denine Mishoe

      Excellent point of view. As an avid animal activist I will say, thousands of people across the world are completely fed up with the blatant murdering of these iconic creatures as we read, almost daily now, of more and more poaching, HWC and trophy hunter killings with little to no regard in turning the tides from the local authorities to the government all across the African Continent. There is no positive news, just more and more wildlife murdering and the greed involved on all fronts.

      Many people feel they also have a vested interest in this matter simply because we all can trace our beginnings from Africa and so these majestic animals are our heritage as well. They say the humans are the intruders and have no right to murder these animals and must control their human population and livestock by any means necessary – other than murdering these iconic animals. Still others feel strongly that any human who believes they are better or more important than any other creature on this planet is wrong and all people are becoming less and less tolerable.

      Simply put, extreme anger and frustration is coming to a boiling point and I must say, unless those involved, with the knowledge, the degrees and the power… if they don’t get this under control and stop the deaths from all fronts, people across the world are to the point where they want to take matters into their own hands. I won’t bore you with the specifics, but I’m sure you can imagine (and have probably even read) the pure anger and frustration involved.

      My sincere wish is that those who are able to make change, from all fronts, can come together SOON and realize what is coming to a head across this planet and set down some serious rules, laws, protection and consequences from those that break them and then strictly enforce them – Africa is going to start seeing vigilante justice. I’m just saying, that is want it’s coming to, what thousands of people are ready to do. Rather than take this as a threat (which I am not suggesting), I am hoping, again, those in power can take it seriously and enforce change.

  • Ross Wind

    Some will kill lions to protect life stock. For other hunters. CREATURES DON’T MATTER. IT’S ME MYSELF AND I FIRST. Sadly hunting for sport doesn’t have respect either for human or animal life. Who are these self-loving people that styling wild living creatures from all of us? Egocentric people that are more interested in having their temporally trills and ugly-looking trophies on their walls. It is disgusting to see a majestic “king of the beasts” or any other animal killed this way. They know that lions are in great danger. As a pretext some even claimed they respect the animals. In human history, cruel people were never short of excuses.

    • Denine Mishoe

      Absolutely AGREE!

  • Denine Mishoe

    A comment or two on your article above (or ten)…
    1) In your second/third paragraph you state that “…most of the western world has been sanitized of dangerous critters, and their former wild areas have been tamed and converted into comfortable, non-threatening lifestyle collateral”…. You’re kidding right? Oh buddy, have you ever been to North America (Alaska, The Rockies, and our Huge National Protected Parks, etc), Canada or even South America for that matter (you know, the Mesoamerican jungle – so much untamed wild areas that they are still discovering Aztec & Teotihuacan civilization monuments covered in jungle growth)? You really need a new source of reference next time.

    2) You also state that ‘armchair warriors’ on social medias cry out for blood and cause further dissidence. After years of watching nothing productive being done, all the passive solutions used are worthless and the situation in all areas just getting worse and worse; what would you have these ‘armchair warriors’ say…. ‘oh well, there goes another extinct animal’ or ‘oh well, maybe next year it will get better’? At what point is ENOUGH IS ENOUGH? Even an uneducated fool can see nothing is working… not education, not incentives, certainly not any corrupt government intervention who allow most of this, on both sides (poacher/trophy hunter/villager’s murdering), to continue unchecked. Even when wildlife law-breakers that are caught and brought to trial… again, the city government officials let them go with minimal fines/fees and some even “mysteriously escape” the jail cell… Really?! Anyone with half an education can clearly see that the majority of African’s just don’t care and turn the other cheek when it comes to the wildlife… their iconic heritage…. CORRECTION: All of humanities iconic heritage as all humans can trace their beginnings to Africa. Nothing, except drastic measures, are going to turn things around.

    You see, those of you documenting and reporting can provide all the partial facts you want (so and so wouldn’t get back to us or they didn’t have current numbers), but again even ‘armchair warriors’ can read the writing on the wall; perhaps even better than those in the midst of it all because we read it everything, day in and day out, from every source out there willing to report and then we verify like crazy and network (pretty neat trick thanks to social media and the Internet) and so we might even be more knowledgeable than those people in just one area of the conflict or just one region. And when, as you say, even armchair warriors are calling for blood, it’s because we see clearly the uselessness of anything less.

    If you really want to shut up the world this is now calling for blood (shoot to kill on site has become a common utterance, others are calling for professional hit teams to go over and take care of business on a massive scale, some people petition their governments to boycott the whole continent, pull all foreign aid, call in all debts owed from Africa, send all diplomats home, revoke all VISAs and let them riot in the hellhole they’ve created. Still others pray for a biblical plague to hit the whole African Continent), but anyway here’s an idea…. Start educating at the top… those that can make a difference in Africa, make them listen, show them how (other than murder and greed) everyone can profit through tourism and photo hunting tours (not trophy hunting). Convince them to rein in these rural villagers, making it law if necessary. Contain the humans, not the wildlife that were there first and should be considered more valuable than humans in the human/wildlife conflicts. The wildlife can bring in foreign tourism and their money into the economy… wildlife conflict humans can’t contribute to that. Follow China’s example (Africa seems to follow China on everything else – railways, Disneyland, etc) and set the law, one child per family and incentives for no-child families (harsh penalties for breaking that law) and start handing out FREE condoms for God’s Sake (dispensers on every corner!)! Don’t allow humans to squat wherever they please (especially not in or near any wildlife habitat areas and corridors as these animals should be considered more valuable to the world and profitable to their country if they stay alive and multiply). Set strict policies and start policing the humans. Bring in some good urban planners and economists that foresee growth and plan for it; then set city perimeters and make the humans stick to those boundaries (for living areas) or harsh consequences. Reduce the amount of farms/farming as the wildlife need the land more… teach them other ways to make a living. Then teach the rural community families new ways to make a living too instead of with a damn cow or goat. Don’t say it won’t work because that is basically the bare bones of all other 1st world countries and civilizations.

    If something doesn’t change to protect the wildlife (for REAL), the world is just getting more angrier by the day and when the boiling point comes… it’s not going to be pretty…for Africa.

  • Mike D

    The simple fact that all 5 of the musketeers were killed at a young age is testament to the very serious problem there. Dr Standers work and vanishing kings documentary is simply amazing. It is disheartening that lions struggle to survive in this vast wilderness when wildlife populations are allegedly growing. The herders need to be dealt with and educated to value the lives of these iconic animals. These unique desert lions are tettering on the very cusp of extinction. Hopefully the local people and government wake up and realize the value of saving the iconic desert lions. This is their last stand.

  • Alice

    Thank you Simon for this insight report and how difficult conservation is. One thing I don’t understand is that Namibia is a huge country with a small population. How come that there is a human – lion conflict? Or do lions seek out farm stock during the dry season or are those farms huge that they cover the space where wildlife lives?

    I know the problem with keyboard warriors sitting far away without a lion at their front door.
    I lived in Zimbabwe from 1978 – 1984 and as soon I had saved enough money, I was off to the bush. Canoe trip down the Zambezi or to Mana Pools or Matusadona. Worked for a couple of weeks at Imire with Rhino’s and Elephants.

    Hunters: I have some in Zimbabwe in my step family and I don’t understand them. Well I understand their clients even less as they pay a lot of money and they feel heroes next to a dead animal! On the other hand hunters in Europe who just hunt deer or rabbits as there are no predators left and sell the meat, I have no problem with. But in Holland they made a “wilderness”! A area fenced it and on it Konik horses, red deer and Heck cattle. There are too many animals and in the winter they starve to death. Feeding them is illegal as that is not nature. Some idiot Biologists thought this up and with subsidy from the government Holland has a horror place. The animals cannot move away to find food and there are no predators like a pack of wolves. May be a pride of Lions will help.
    The solution will be less people as we are growing with 200.000 a day, which means with 50 million a year.

    Keep up with your good work.

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