Namibia supports a unique population of desert-adapted lions that survive in the harsh Namib Desert. The “desert” lion is a prominent feature in Namibia and is highly valued, both aesthetically and financially, by the growing tourism industry. Namibia has received international recognition (e.g. CITES) for successful conservation efforts, such as the Communal Conservancy Programme, which has lead to significant increases in wildlife numbers, especially in the arid areas.
With the growing wildlife populations, however, the conflict between lions and the local people has intensified as lions are killing livestock more regularly. In protection of their livestock, farmers often shoot, trap, or poison lions. These local communities bear the costs of living with lions, but do not share equally in the benefits from tourism, and they receive little assistance in managing conflicts.
The value of the unique “desert” lions to tourism in the Kunene Region in particular, and to the Namibian tourism industry in general, is of great significance. However, for the long-term conservation of desert lions to succeed, there is a need to monitor their population ecology and to address human-lion conflicts.
This long-term study therefore aims to learn more about this unique lion population and assist local communities with conflicts whenever and wherever they occur. This knowledge will help in the successful conservation of the species will benefit both the tourism industry and the local communities which generally bear the costs of living with these predators. Both lions and people will thus benefit from the project.
Researcher: Dr Philip Stander
Organization: TOSCO Trust
The Desert Lion Conservation Project was started by Dr Philip Stander in 1998. He worked for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism for 23 years, studying the ecology of large carnivores. He completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 1994, and his thesis on the evolution of sociality in felids, was awarded the “T H Huxley Prize” by the London Zoological Society. He is considered the Namibian “lion expert,” especially when it comes to desert-adapted lions, which he has studied full time for the last 14 years.
- Collect baseline ecological data on the population dynamics, behaviour, and movements of lions.
- Monitor the key ecological and biological parameters of the desert lion population.
- Monitor the frequency and impact of conflicts between people and lions.
- Develop and implement human-lion conflict management plans at local community level.
- Develop and promote specialised “lion eco-safaris” and other forms of sustainable utilisation.
- Collaborate with Government, local communities, and NGOs to further lion conservation.
- Make important information available to the world, through publication and the Internet.
Darting and measurement taking is the primary technique used. Large carnivores, such as lions, are generally difficult to study, especially in a desert environment such as the Kunene Region. Lions, like all other felids, are “stalkers” – they make use of cover and camouflage to stalk up to their prey, followed by a quick final rush. As a result, lions are difficult to locate and spot in the vastness of the Namib Desert.
The study area is covered systematically by tracking spoor, setting out bait and using sound playbacks to locate and capture individual lions. Adult and sub-adult lions are captured and individually marked with a hot brand, and several lions in each sub-group are marked with a radio collar.
A light aircraft is used to systematically locate radio-collared animals. Aerial locations are followed up by ground observations to record group composition in relation to individuals and age/sex structure, and the ratio of marked to unmarked individuals. Life tables are constructed and updated to compute survivorship and mortality rates. The population dynamics of lions are evaluated by monitoring, since 1999, a core group of 13 radio-collared lions. These analyses include several population parameters, such as birth rates, mortality, fecundity, exponential rate of increase, and age-specific survivorship. Home range analyses are based on locating the daytime resting spots of lions by radio telemetry, with at least 24 hours between fixes. Home range size is calculated using the Minimum Convex Polygon (MCP) and Kernel Contour methods.
Managing Human-Lion Conflict in the arid environment of the Kunene Region is complex. Sporadic and variable rainfall patterns, typical of arid environments, result in large overlapping home ranges amongst the lions that often clash with local farmers in search of suitable grazing for their livestock. Lions are important to the growing tourism industry and there is an urgent need to manage Human-Lion Conflict in the region. Long-term data collected for more than 20 years on the ecology of the lion population provide a sound basis to develop and implement a management strategy to address the conflict.
Our priorities over the past months were to build relations with farmers and communities, establish and prove our credibility and reduce livestock losses where possible. The Rapid Response Team really excelled and this was achieved by tirelessly responding to incidents, call-outs and information sourced from the Early Warning System.
A training course for a large group of Lion Rangers from six different conservancies, including Tsiseb, Sorris Sorris and #Khoadi//Hoas, was held at Wereldsend where the Lion Rangers were exposed to practical fieldwork, and participated in the darting and radio collaring of three lions near Driefontein.
During this period, it became increasingly apparent that successful lion conservation in the Kunene Region is not just about lions. Rather, it encompasses a holistic approach to communities and their perceptions and needs. For example, in response to localised rain in an area just north of Anabeb, a herd of elephants moved in and remained in this area for several weeks. Children trying to walk some ten kilometres to school were chased on several occasions by these elephants. For several weeks, one of the Rapid Response Team transported children back to their village on Friday afternoons and returned them to school on Sunday evening. Helping farmers herd their livestock to safety when lions were around was also a critical contribution to limiting losses. These were not merely public relations exercises, but also helped cement credibility and reputation locally.
The implementation of the North West Human-Lion Conflict Management Plan has been ongoing. A total of 23 lions are now fitted with radio collars in support of the Early Warning System. The second satellite Early Warning collar was fitted in February (the first one was fitted in October) to the 12-year-old lioness Xpl-67 of the Agab Pride near Driefontein. There are now four functional Early Warning Logger corrals: at Driefontein in the Torra Conservancy, Mbakondja in the Anabeb Conservancy, and two in the Ugab River.
Overall, in this early phase, important foundations have been laid for the programme in terms of trust relationships between the conservancies and the programme. Farmers have shown tremendous involvement in reporting incidents and sightings, and the number of call-outs coming from communities shows a healthy relationship between the communities and the programme.
January – June 2019
During this six-month period our priorities were to build relations with farmers and communities, establish and prove our credibility and reduce livestock losses where possible. The Rapid Response Team really excelled and this was achieved by tirelessly responding to incidents, call-outs and information sourced from the Early Warning System.
A training course for a large group of Lion Rangers from six different conservancies, including Tsiseb, Sorris Sorris and #Khoadi//Hoas, was held at Wereldsend between 11 and 15 Feb 2019. The opportunity was used to expose the Lion Rangers to practical fieldwork and they participated in the darting and radio collaring of the three lions near Driefontein.
During this period, it also became increasingly apparent that successful lion conservation in the Kunene Region is not just about lions. Rather, it encompasses a holistic approach to communities and their perceptions and needs. For example, in response to localised rain in an area just north of Anabeb, a herd of elephants moved in and remained in this area for several weeks. Children trying to walk some ten kilometres to school were chased on several occasions by these elephants. For several weeks, one of the Rapid Response Team transported children back to their village on Friday afternoons and returned them to school on Sunday evening.
Helping farmers herd their livestock to safety when lions were around was a critical contribution to limiting losses. These were great public relations exercises and firmly cemented credibility and reputation locally.
The implementation of the North West Human-Lion Conflict Management Plan has been ongoing. A total of 23 lions are now fitted with radio collars that make use of the Early Warning System. The second satellite Early Warning collar was fitted in February (the first one was fitted in October) to the 12-year-old lioness Xpl-67 of the Agab Pride near Driefontein. There are now four functional Early Warning Logger corrals, one at Driefontein in the Torra Conservancy, one at Mbakondja in the Anabeb Conservancy, and two in the Ugab River, supported by Early Warning collars fitted to lions that utilise the surrounding areas.
September – December 2018
The conservation area in which the implementation takes place, has been expanded. Rapid response and patrolling are now also being carried out in Ehirovipuka and Tsiseb conservancy, in addition to Orupembe/Sanitata, Purros, Sesfontein, Anabeb, Torra and Omatendeka conservancies. The team also helps maintaining the boundary fence of Etosha to stop lions from entering community farming areas.
The capacity of the team itself has been increased due to all the required equipment being added (binoculars, spotlights, GPS, headlamps, bedrolls, tent, chairs, fridge) allowing them to spend a longer period of time in the bush and increasing their operational efficiency. A new vehicle was added in October.
The team has been able to prevent two incidents in which the community would have otherwise killed a lion. Extensive training of the team and associated rangers take place at every opportunity, most of it at actual scenarios.
The team continues to inform and engage with the local community. The number of call-outs coming from communities still show a healthy relationship between the communities and the programme. Game guards and/or lion rangers, which are both community members, accompany every patrol, for training purposes as well as to give conservancies ownership of the programme. Currently, there are 11 lion rangers spread over three conservancies.
Further achievements during this period include the collaring of two adult male lions from the Orowau and Hunkap prides with early-warning collars in early September. Another four adult lionesses were immobilised and fitted with the new early-warning collars. Another 20 lions were collared early October, of which 17 during “trap nights”. Breakthroughs were made when important lions from the areas around Onjoka, Orowau, Elephant Song, Ganamub and Mbakondja were captured and fitted with early-warning collars.
A new Early Warning System tower has been placed in Anabeb Conservancy in October, and five predator-proof kraals have been constructed. Although it is still dry, prey numbers are growing slowly and the prospective for the New Year is more promising.
In this early phase of the implementation, important foundations have been laid for the programme in terms of trust relationships between the conservancies and the program. Farmers have shown tremendous involvement in terms of reporting incidents and sightings. This is especially due to the active role of the rapid response team in informing and engaging the community, and the fact that rangers are employed directly from the community, which shows the community direct benefitting from supporting the programme.
The rapid response team is now on full strength with a third ranger being added to the team. They have come into action multiple times due to relocating of lions after a conflict, and continuous monitoring and patrolling.
The first logger early-warning system that was erected at Driefontein in the Torra Conservancy in April was tested thoroughly. The unit responded well to an early-warning radio collar that was mounted on the rapid-response team vehicle and provided accurate early-warning alerts. In addition, the movements of two collared lions that were moving along the Springbok River towards Driefontein were recorded and information was shared with residents in Driefontein. They responded by moving their livestock away from the area, which showed the success of the secondary early-warning system.
Collaring in this time period was difficult because of exceptional rainfall, which means that lions do not use riverbeds and hence are difficult to locate. In mid-May, the rapid response team together with several rangers launching an extensive search along the upper Hoaruseb River in order to locate a problem lion, which was possibly the cause of livestock losses along the Gomatum River to Purros. It was finally located in the Khumib River close to the border of the Skeleton Coast Park, collared, and translocated to Sarusas spring, 35 km further downriver.
After recovery the lion moved northwards towards Hartmann’s Valley, patterns that were similar to those of other dispersing male lions. In June another lioness was collared, which occasionally ventured close to Sesfontein and killed livestock there.
In July, human-lion conflict incidents increased in the Brandberg area, where an adult male (involved in the killing of 172 sheep in January 2018, and regularly visiting the White Lady Rock painting, posing a threat to public safety) entered the White Lady Lodge on several occasions and killed livestock. Translocation took place at the end of July, moving him to the mouth of the Ugab River. This opportunity was used as practical training of the rapid response team and several lion rangers. However, in August this lion returned to the White Lady Lodge.
MET acted in the best interests of the local communities, the tourism attractions around Brandberg, and the long-term conservation of the desert-adapted lion population by removing the lions and relocating them to an undisclosed location, after early-warning and satellite collars were fitted to three key individuals of the prides. Another male lion that utilized the Barab and upper Obab Rivers was observed for two days, and thereafter fitted with a GPS early-warning collar in July.
In June and July also darting efforts were executed in order to collar lions, during so-called “trap nights”, where the whole night is spent waiting at a bait. A total of six lions were darted and fitted with collars during this time period.
In the last weeks of July a large section between the Ugab and Uniab rivers was surveyed for lion movements, but the exceptional rainfall of April still made many river systems inaccessible due to flooding. Movement patterns of lions were also unusual due to a shortage of prey. Several groups of lions were however observed and age and sex structures of the prides were updated.
In this same time period, 121 livestock animals were lost due to lions. 51 lions of 18 prides were involved. Only 3 of these lions were collared, and none of the kraals at these conflict sites were lion proof. This shows the importance of the further implementation of the programme, including the early warning system towers, collars, the rapid response team and rangers, and lion proof kraals, and that of expanding these efforts to other conservancies. The pressure of continuous drought and low prey numbers are an additional challenge to the implementation.
This project monitors the desert-adapted lion, the most threatened and endangered of the large carnivore species in Namibia. Since 1999, the population dynamics of lions have been evaluated by monitoring a core group of 13 radio-collared lions. These analyses include several population parameters, such as birth rates, mortality, fecundity, exponential rate of increase, and age-specific survivorship.
A Trust-funded collar had been fitted on the lioness XPL 104 “Margaux” – also known as the Okongwe Female. During 2015, she was doing very well and was seen mating with XPL 93 “Tullamore” – the last surviving Musketeer.* In the middle of January 2016, “Margaux” gave birth to a litter of cubs (too small to be identified at the time) in the mountains east of Okongwe waterhole.
The other collar donated was fitted on “Ben”, one of the Five Musketeers who was killed in human-lion conflict in 2016, and was unfortunately burnt by the culprits. A case has been opened with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism as well as the police.
The last batch of new collars arrived from Germany and Dr Stander aims to fit them onto a male lion and a leopard.
* A coalition of five young males had been named the “Five Musketeers;” all eventually became casualties of human-lion conflict in the area. At 21h00 on 14 April 2017, the satellite collar of “Tullamore” stopped transmitting data. After a careful study of the satellite data, it was concluded that he was most probably poisoned and the satellite collar destroyed near Tomakas.
The last lioness to be fitted with a collar in 2016, XPL 104 “Margaux” – also known as the Okongwe female – has been doing very well and has since mated with XPL 93 “Tullamore”, the remaining Musketeer. In the middle of January “Margaux” gave birth to a litter of cubs (which were too small to be identified) in the mountains east of Okongwe waterhole.
A case was filed with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism as well as the police regarding one of the collared Five Musketeers, “Ben”, who was killed and burnt by culprits during a human-wildlife conflict in 2016.
The last batch of new collars arrived from Germany and Dr Stander will fit them on one leopard and one male lion. These collars were procured using the Wilderness Wildlife Trust and TOSCO funding.
On the 10th of April, one of the collars donated by the Wilderness Trust was fitted on XPL-104 “Margaux,” a six-year-old lioness living in the Okongwe mountains. She has been seen mating with some of the Musketeers and often causing Human-Lion conflict in the nearby village of Tomakas.
Two lion satellite collars were placed on a male and a female respectively in 2015 sponsored partly by Wilderness Trust, thus allowing a better study and protection of the Namibian desert adapted lion population.
The Desert Lion Project is sad to report that the “Terrace Male” (Xpl-68) was killed near Tomakas village on 24 August. An autopsy performed concluded that he was shot, dying quickly after the bullet entered his heart. A detailed analysis of the findings and a summary of all data collected on Xpl-68 will be compiled and presented to the local authorities and to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
The Terrace Male was a remarkable lion. With the aid of new technology, such as satellite radio collars, we had a window of opportunity to learn a vast amount about lion that live in extreme environments like the desert. While we may not yet fully understand the significance of his activities and behaviour, he certainly changed our views on lion movements and social dynamics. Importantly, the information also helped us to appreciate the variability and complexities of lion behavioural ecology.
Xpl-68 wore a satellite collar for 762 days, with 12 265 location data points recorded. During this period he moved over an area of over 40 000 sq. km, including a trip into Angola. He walked 12 838 km at a phenomenal average of 17.1 km per day. He regularly walked over 50 km per day, with a maximum of 71.2 km on one day. These statistics exceed all known records of lion movements anywhere in Africa by a significant margin.
The collar provided through the Wilderness Trust and fitted to the lioness from the Okongwe Pride, XPL 70 is working well. Her position is published online daily and is checked by the lion rangers situated in the area. If she is close to human settlements, the rangers are able to anticipate the conflict by warning the herders. No lion have been shot or poisoned since the programme was implemented two years ago.
Dr Flip Stander has also collared two additional lion with funds channelled through the Trust. These lion live close to human settlements so the collars will help with monitoring and anticipating potential conflict.
A lion-proof boma has been built at Slangpos in the Huab Valley. Phase 2 will now be implemented with the installation of a net around the boma. Phase 3 will be introduction of a flashing light system.
These efforts will lead to be better lion tolerance in this crucial human/lion conflict area. Without this pilot programme, several lions of pride could have been legally taken out. Instead we are building on a long-term project involving local communities, conservation organisations and tour operators.
April 2013: Donation for a female satellite collar
The provision of suitable satellite collars plays a vital role to better understand lion behaviour. The collars could also play a role as an early warning system for the farmers and herdsmen in areas that were prone to human-predator conflict as a result of lions killing livestock as a source of food.This contribution will therefore be another major boost for the project in that it has enabled the purchase of a new satellite collar as well as pre-paid air time for two years.
Dr Stander has identified an appropriate lioness (XPL-70, picture below) posing a potential threat to the livelihood of the farmers and by attaching this collar, this will hopefully avert the inevitable livestock losses and subsequent elimination of the desert adapted lions as the necessary precautionary steps can be put into place in time to prevent these.The satellite collar provided by Wilderness Trust through TOSCO to the Desert Lion Conservation was fitted to Xpl-70 – a lioness of the Okongwe Pride – on 17 Feb 2013. The daily movements of Xpl-70 can be viewed on the Desert Lion website under the Hoanib Pride (along with the movements of “Rosh” Xpl-73): http://www.desertlion.info/gpscollars/gps_73.html This will significantly anticipate local conflict with communities and make a real positive difference on the field.