Klaserie River Sands

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.

HOWEVER …

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.

Conclusion

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.

Speculation

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.

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