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 eradicating 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.
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 to 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 managing 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 indicate 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 lodge owners
My first port of call was to various lodge owners that operate in the area. They could not provide the answers and referred me to MET and the project website.
Tourism plays a fundamental role in providing significant employment, skills training, anti-poaching support and many other conservation benefits and services in the area. I was surprised that the experienced lodge owners 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.
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 on 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 based on 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 proactive 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 moment 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 from the ±$80,000 fee for a lion trophy hunt such as this? And how much does the government receive? Lastly, with regard to revenue, how much stays overseas?
“The conservancies, on average, receive about U$10 000 for a lion. The 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 reply 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 the legislation that permits communities to nominate ‘problem’ lions that trophy hunters are invited to kill. Stander’s comment in his report speaks volumes about this practice: “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 activists 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 his 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 constantly engage 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 seem 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.
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