Lately I’ve been privileged to have received invaluable insights from the leaders in lion conservation in Africa, and I have used their information for a series of blogs uncovering the primary reasons for population crash of this Big Five leader.
Making lions a priority in my research has not only emphasised the extent of the avalanching Eastern market for exotic animal products, it has also led me in the direction of the hundreds of projects, initiatives and platforms for animal activism that are blossoming all over the world. I have trawled the internet, following articles link by link, reading about the good, the bad and, most devastatingly, the ugly. In Namibia, a special project run by a special man is accomplishing wonderful successes in the field of lion conservation…
We all watch as the number of rhino deaths in South Africa climb by the hour. We read endless reports about the trade in big cat skeletons and study interpretive maps of Africa illustrating the disappearance of its lions. It’s a nightmarish enlightenment that points fingers directly at humans. It may be our expanding population that is spreading into the savannas originally inhabited by lions; the human–wildlife conflict in rural villages, where the inhabitants are forced to protect their livestock by killing the predating lions; the trophy hunters in search of the ultimate African trophy – the shaggy head of a pride leader; or perhaps the most dangerous force of all – the insatiable South-east Asian market, where the demand for tonics made from lion bones is booming.
It is a wide world of information that, ingested in bulk, can be toxic to the brain and crushing to the soul. But, when it’s studied section by section, there is a range of projects and programmes that have been established to work to uphold conservation, and we can rejoice in the progress that they are making, piece by piece, in the areas that matter most.
I was recently introduced to an organisation that directs its efforts toward the redemption of an almost-lost lion population. Desert Lion Conservation, founded in 1998 by Cambridge zoologist Dr Philip ‘Flip’ Stander, has rescued Namibia’s inimitable lions of the Kunene from just 20 individuals to an estimated 130 today. An image of a lioness on the seashore of the Skeleton Coast, feeding hungrily on the carcass of a seal, is a memory recalled by Dr Stander as the watershed moment that has determined the path his life has taken.
I was delighted to be invited to attend a talk Dr Stander was giving in Windhoek. Beforehand, we chatted about his work. Bearded and rough around the edges, yet incredibly gentle, Flip (we soon fell into first-name terms) talked about his life with lions like there was no other way to live. He visits his base camp once every 4-6 months, while every other day and night is spent in his beloved Land Cruiser, or alongside it on the sandy floor of the desert. With the help of sponsors and donors, facilitated by Namibia’s TOSCO Trust (Tourism Supporting Conservation), Desert Lion has taken strides in the protection of the resilient, patient, fluid prides of the Kunene.
Lions walk massive distances are walked by the lions in order to increase the likelihood of finding food, as prey species are few and far between in this habitat. Rarely drinking water, the lions keep hydrated through the food they consume – an adaptation that is vital to their survival in the harsh desert. A blessed increase in their numbers has led to an unfortunate overlap in territories between rural farmers and the lions. The hunters – the females – prey on the cattle, resulting in a devastating loss to the cattle owners. The people of the Purros conservancy (among a number of others) rely on their cattle’s milk and meat for nourishment, their leather for clothing and shoes. Their donkeys are used for transport and as water-carriers, making them an equally devastating loss. In retaliation, the lions are shot or poisoned. The conflict is a well-known one in southern and East Africa, where many areas are shared by humans and predators.
Namibia treasures its wildlife as one of its primary national assets and the presence of these free-roaming, golden dune hunters adds an unrivalled quality to a Kunene safari. The fenceless and boundary-free Kunene is where Dr Stander focusses his attention
Before settling down for our interview, he mentioned to me that this was the first time he had spent time in the capital city in seven years. His work is not in the city. The lions, and the men and women whose lives are intertwined with the animals, are ‘out there’ in the conservancies, so that is where he chooses to be. He takes little credit for the positive effects the Desert Lion Conservation project is having, and emphasises the difficulties the people face with the lions. ‘They are entitled to kill the lions if they feel threatened or suffer the loss of livestock,’ he told me. ‘My value lies in teaching these people the value of the animals.’
Since 1997, when Dr Stander moved his research from the Khaudum National Park to the Kunene, he has revived a population of lions that was believed to be extinct. He has polished the rough diamond of tourism in the deserted wilderness of northwest Namibia and has tended to lion threats and livestock deaths. He has also listened to complaints about the devastation caused by the lions, yet he has managed to relay the importance of the lion to such an extent that there are now villagers whose job it is to anticipate and peacefully disperse conflict between the wild kings and the cattle.
The talk was an exceptional occasion – Dr Stander had never addressed such a large crowd nor had to summarise his life’s work into an informative slide show. The room filled, the lights dimmed and the voices hushed as the lion expert started from the beginning. He gave an illustrated journey of his relationship with the Kunene lions, explained about the collection of ecological data, described the impact of the lions on local people, the moments of suspense and sadness, and those of victory and joy. It was a moving and enriching evening that clearly touched the hearts of the city-slickers of Namibia.
That night, TOSCO Trust successfully raised an estimated N$170 000 for Desert Lion Conservation. Flip got just one look at his gloriously canvassed photographs before they were snatched up on auction, and his offer of a three-day Desert Lion Safari climbed to the highest bidding territory before one audience member walked away with the ticket of a lifetime.
Find out more about the desert lions of Namibia with Sun Safaris www.sunsafaris.com/safari/namibia/skeleton-coast/