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Opinion: Too many lions in Kunene

Five desert-adapted lions in Namibia

© Desert Lion Conservation Foundation

Opinion post: Too many lions in Kunene, written by Garth Owen-Smith

We live in a world where social media is overriding professional journalism and scientific research as our source of information about the world around us.

The mobile phone, a simple tool which increased access and made communication cheaper, has now become a smartphone, which has opened a Pandora’s box of tweets, amateur blogs and Facebook pages that are undermining reliable reports getting to decision-makers and the general public.

The entertaining, but potentially catastrophic Donald Trump show in the United States of America is a good example. But the phenomenon is worldwide, including Namibia.

Apart from providing misinformation, the social media can also be intimidating. A decision-maker who receives hundreds or even thousands of emotional tweets or emails from persons who may be well-meaning but do not understand the situation, can be influenced in how he/she responds to an issue.

In Namibia, this includes the major lion problems faced by livestock farmers in the Kunene region.

In my previous article in The Namibian, based on over 35 years of conservation work in the north-west and north-east of Namibia, I explained that the present human-lion conflict being experienced there was to be expected after rains fell at the end of a prolonged drought.

Put simply, during droughts, predator numbers increase because hunting is easier, while their prey populations decrease due to little or no reproduction, higher drought-related mortalities and increased predation. In communal areas, this predator/prey imbalance causes lions to turn on the easiest alternative available – the local farmer’s livestock.

Whether tourism operators and armchair lion-lovers like it or not, there are now too many lions in some parts of the Kunene region, especially in Torra and other conservancies bordering on the Palmwag, Etendeka and Hobatere tourism concessions.

Trying to save the lions that are killing livestock, or harassing the farmers who kill them, including impounding their firearms, will not serve the interests of conservation in the region.

Ecologically, this is because their present high numbers inhibit the recovery of gemsbok, zebra and kudu populations, which is essential to create a more balanced predator/prey relationship in the future. But it is important because it has caused many local farmers to rethink whether conserving wildlife is a benefit or liability to their livelihoods.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a similar drought situation prevailed. But then, professional hunter Volker Grellman, senior nature conservator, the late Chris Eyre, and staff of the Namibia Wildlife Trust (where I worked at the time) assisted in reducing the lion population.

The support to the farmers in their time of need undoubtedly played a crucial role in our getting the traditional leaders and local communities’ support in stopping the major poaching of rhino and elephant occurring then.

In 2015, local information led to the arrest of 10 rhino poachers. In this year, there have been at least six cases of community members alerting the environment ministry or police of poachers from outside the area before they had killed a rhino.

Recently, seven arrests were made after a rhino was poached in the Grootberg area, hopefully bringing to an end the poaching there, the only part of the Kunene region where rhino have been killed since 2015.

The Torra Conservancy has also increased the number of its rhino rangers to nine, with 36 more rhino rangers patrolling in other conservancies that have rhino.

The local communities are thus bringing their side to stop rhino poaching. The environment ministry now owes it to them to not be influenced by Facebook conservationists, and instead assist the livestock owners in dealing with the lion problems they are facing.

In a recent survey, Anabeb Conservancy farmers reported that over 80% of their cattle and 50% of their small stock died in the drought which ended this year. Since then, 71 cattle and 130 small stock have been killed by lions (with many more by other predators).

In spite of most of them having less than 10 cattle left, and some none at all, 34 out of 40 Anabeb farmers still said it was important to have lions in their conservancies for tourists and their children to see, but that in livestock areas, the people’s livelihoods must come first.

There is also the threat to human lives. At the end of the drought in 1982, an emaciated lion went into a hut at Sesfontein, and killed and ate a small child. Twice this year, rhino monitors have been attacked by lions. In Torra Conservancy, two male lions shot on the carcass of a cow they had killed were found to be extremely thin.

In Kunene recently, while we were sitting around our campfire at night with guests from India, eight lions approached us, the closest coming to less than 15 metres. This was in spite of the fact that people were moving around the camp preparing dinner.

With the recent rains in western Kunene, the game will become more dispersed and harder for lions to hunt, causing livestock losses to increase.

A starving lion is also a potential man-eater, and while cattle can be compensated for, human lives are irreplaceable.

Garth Owen-Smith

Garth Owen-Smith is a Namibian conservationist. He was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1993, jointly with Margaret Jacobsohn, for their efforts on conservation of wildlife in Namibia, where illegal hunting was threatening species such as elephants and black rhinos. His book "Arid Eden" is a must-read for serious conservation-minded people.

  • Stephanie Fuchs

    Thank you for an interesting and informative article by someone who actually knows what they are talking about. And thank you again for pointing out here that the local communities do their part to protect rare wildlife, something that many people in the western world just do not want to believe.

  • Dave Marshak

    Opinion: Too many people… everywhere.

    • Percible

      You’re right. Too many Dave Marshaks. Perhaps Dave will do the honourable thing and take one for team planet earth…by taking himself out. What do you think, Dave?

    • Brian

      This is just stupid armchair activism. Meanwhile, Garth Owen-Smith has done a helluva lot more to protect Africa’s wildlife

      • Dave Marshak

        I’ve worked on conservation projects in 13 countries and two continents, so don’t talk to me about “armchair activism.” This includes depredation prevention with large carnivores. You should probably avoid talking sh** about people who you don’t actually know anything about.

      • Georg Erb

        Still he’s employed by the WWF to spread their foul pro-hunting pro-hunting propaganda. Btw royal family is synonymous with WWF.

  • daktari40

    Lions today are concentrated in Damaraland. The Kaokoland region has very few lions (from the Hoarusib River until the Kunene river has no more lions, only a few ghosts may be wandering ….). Hunting and trophy hunting along with drought is
    responsible for the low number of prey in the area said in the report. The current number of lions does not inhibit the growth of Namibian wildlife. The extensive livestock breeding system and the old habit of not collecting at night, as well as
    disdain with the predator-proof Kraals, is the predictor of the constant and continuous lion x livestock victim. The report tells of the case of a lion attack in the long gone of 1982, because the truth is that there are no new human victims of
    these lions for many years. Only those who die are the lions! The approach of lions in the tourist campsites is due in large part to the waterholes is not even !. It seems to me that this report is in the service of the interests of the trophy hunting ! It is clear that they are saying that the large number of lions in this area need to be detained for the good of the human population. We can not forget the recent death of the “celebrity lions” of this area, such as the five musketeers, the hoanib lion, the eldest male of the area in full enjoyment and perfect Kebbel health, and the numerous anonymous lions who are yearly victims of poaching mostly poisoned) and trophy hunting. Desert lions adapted, along with the elephants and also rhinoceros adapted desert is a masterpiece of nature and, for which did not move some groups to their old areas of occupation (near the Kunene River). The lions that inhabit the Hobatere Award are not desert lions tailored. There are a few
    groups of lions that inhabit Palwag, Etendeka, Sesfontein, Tora, yet they are groups of females with immature youngsters and youngsters and most were fertilized by the male Gretzky and his brother who was killed earlier this year. The numbers of
    adult males in the region are very low, it is very worrying, and to preach that lions of this region are too many to ask for their reduction is a crime. I want to see is what the MET is going to do against Mr. Andre (son of the village chief Tomakás)
    directly involved in the poisoning of the last musketeer, a lioness and three small cubs, not to mention the implication of his involvement in the poisoning of the other 3 musketeers and, perhaps, the deaths of Rosh and Terrace in 2014.

    Many people read this report with their deductive logic and believe that the diagnosis is true and irrefutable. Social media can not do anything destructive to lions! Journalists and experienced people can, yes, irreversibly jeopardize the future of these lions. A month ago Mr. Muyunda denied the existence of desert elephants, saying they were conservation marketing products to attract tourists. Obviously the same statement is for lions. The truth is that times have changed and the human
    factor is condemning the Namibian predators. Look at how much private concession there is in the country today, how many fences have been put in the last ten years, how many waterholes have been put in to give tourists a bigger view of the
    animals and, consequently, gradually reduce what nature took thousands of years to do in terms of adaptation to the lack or absolute absence of water. The absence of lions, elephants and rhinos in the Kaokoland predisposes that all these animals now inhabit more green areas, more fertile and, consequently, human life concentrators. The man vs. lion conflict is a notorious fact. The answer to this problem lies in human behavior – never in reducing (with murder) the amount of lions in these areas. No one talks about Bushmeat’s heavy consumption in the region. Lions are under pressure and reporting with this is “closing the coffin lid”.

    The Kudu antelope does not inhabit the Kaokoland, and in Damaraland only the areas near Hobatere, therefore, this animal is not a contumacious prey for adapted desert lions.

    “They’re going to say, he’s more of an advocate of the armchair, an uninformed man who does not help conservation in Namibia at all.”

  • Simon Espley

    Tburt your response seems very angry and not really related to the topic at hand, or to Stephanie’s comment.

  • Jo Loveland

    I think it’s disingenuous to belittle “armchair activism”. Many who can’t be at the coalface, so to speak, still make it a point to be knowledgable and if it weren’t for them, we possibly wouldn’t have the protections we currently have in place, regardless of how well or poorly those protections are working. The truth is that what happens with the animals affects us all, whether we’re scientists or not. And I still hold to the view that the crux of the problem is not that there are too many of whatever species we’re talking about – but that there are too many of US.

  • Jhm0699

    All I have to say is why is it that these predators and prey animals have survived for centuries in suitable numbers but now beginning in the 20th century and later man thinks it necessary to control the numbers? Whenever man tries to manipulate nature we end up with imbalances. The biggest problem is too many humans. The animals would be fine if it weren’t for US.

  • Brian

    Tburt, you clearly are the bully. You ought to feel ashamed of yourself for spouting off such vitriol. Do humanity a favor and go live in a lion’s den. I’m sure given their hungry nature that they’d be grateful for your company.

    • Tburt

      hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha OMG you made me bust out laughing on that one. Yes, I have a VERY loud voice, and I will ALWAYS use it for the animals. 😀

      • Percible

        someone was dropped on their head one too many times as a child.

  • Brian

    By the way, you know Stephanie lives with the Maasai, right? She married a Maasa, and lives with wild animals. You probably live in the comfort of your first world armchair.

    • StephenR

      Vested interest ?

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