The lions of the Namib Desert survive against incredible odds, but can they survive trophy hunting, human-wildlife conflict and climate change?
Desert lions aren’t a distinct species or even a subspecies, but they are different. Drop a plains lion into the Namib Desert — where it may rain only 5 millimeters a year — and watch it perish.
According to Izak Smit, who runs the local NGO, Desert Lions Human Relations Aid (DeLHRA), the desert lions of Namibia are able to go long periods of time without water, getting most of their moisture from the blood of their kills. They are leaner and woolier (due to frigid nights). And they behave distinctly than other lions: prides are smaller, they have bigger home ranges and travel further and there is no infanticide — a common practice among plains lions.
“Cub mortality is mostly close to zero as the mothers are formidable providers and guardians,” Smit said. “The mere fact that they can sustain themselves in such a harsh environment [makes them distinct] from other lions.”
Despite their desert adaptability, it’s a miracle the lions are still here. In 1999, there was only 25 desert lions left in northwestern Namibia (there is another larger population of plains lions in Etosha National Park). Today, the official estimate is around 115-120 animals — though Smit says is it’s more like only 85-95 lions. This after the population hit a high of 150 in the early 2000s.The lions’ recovery remains hugely imperiled by human-wildlife conflict and trophy hunting.
In June of this year, a male lion known as Gretzky and a female broke into a kraal — a traditional livestock enclosure — and killed more than a dozen goats and sheep. A few days later, Gretzky killed two donkeys that had gotten out of their kraal. Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) then stepped in: Gretzky, a breeding male with a pride, was shot dead by officials.
This is the all-too common tale of human-lion conflict in the region. And the kind of story that DeLHRA is desperately trying to stop.
“We could not stand by idly and watch the human lion conflict issue escalate and was drawn in…by farmers asking us for our help,” said Smit of the formation of his small NGO which has been running since 2011. “Our moral conscience in this regard has become our master and compass.”
A traditional kraal covered in shade cloth, which usually protects livestock from lions. Gretzky was able to penetrate this one due to a large gash made by the wind. Photograph: DeLHRA
Currently Smit has a memorandum of understandings with two conservancies where conflict is “rife.”
Namibia is generally viewed as having one of the most successful conservation strategies of sub-Saharan African. In general, wildlife — including rare black rhinos — is thriving here due to innovative “communal conservancies.” These are areas where the wildlife is essentially owned by local people, who then benefit from protecting it via direct revenue from tourism and hunting.
Another reason for Namibia’s success? It has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Fewer people means less competition with wildlife.
Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict. Smit says many farmers do not kraal their animals, i.e. house them, at night due to great distances from grazing to home.
“These ’stragglers’ then create an opportunity for the predators,” he notes. In areas where farmers don’t feel supported, Smit says, “they do the ‘SSS’ or ‘PSS’ thing i.e. shoot, shovel and shut up or poison, shovel and shut up.”
A lion vanishes and no one is the wiser. But such a small population can only withstands such incidents for so long.
“If these areas were habituated by white commercial farmers, we would not have had one lion still alive in my opinion as they have zero tolerance for predators and the means to remove them,” says Smit. “The communal farmers in many cases are more tolerant, however overgrazing and droughts compel [the farmers] to encroach on the lion’s home ranges.”
DeLHRA’s solution to this conflict is simple, but also ingenious and effective. They upgrade existing kraals with shade-cloth. The lions then view the structure as solid and are less likely to attempt an attack. It also stops the livestock inside from panicking and attempting to escape when a predator is near.
“It is a psychological thing and works amazingly [well] and is cost effective,” says Smit.
In addition to the shade cloth, DeLHRA provides farmers with solar-powered lights, sirens, and air horns and other measures to scare off hungry lions when they get too near. To date, they have outfitted out over 80 kraals with shade cloth and other devices.
Where the group has operated, Smit say, conflict has decreased “dramatically” and they have begun to win over farmers.
“We have made amazing progress in the Torra Conservancy which used to be the hardest hit in terms of human-lion-conflict and now has the lowest frequency of incidents,” he notes.
But conflict still happens. For example, Gretzky and his mate attacked a kraal where wind had torn the shade cloth providing an opening. Smit, however, believes the government could have chosen an alternative method rather than just shooting Gretzky.
“Although it was legal to kill [Gretzky] — it remains poor conservation practice,” he said. “The lion was clearly hungry and somewhat emaciated…Translocation back to the Huab River near prey and his supporting females might have brought relief.”
Smit criticizes the Namibian government as too quick to shoot so-called problem lions rather than consider other solutions, such as translocation and more intensive monitoring. The MET did not respond to requests to comment.
Where have all the males gone?
But there is another aspect of the desert lion’s plight that DeLHRA has no control over: trophy hunting.
“[Desert lion] are sought after as ‘rare tags’ with much higher trophy value than their cousins elsewhere,” said Smit.
The problem is trophy hunters want to kill males — due to their manes — and generally they want young, fit looking males to put on the wall. But this has led to a grave imbalance in males to females in the area, exacerbated by conflict with farmers.
Smit says only two of the nine prides currently have resident males.
A lone giraffe searches for food in the Namib desert, near the Skeleton Coast. The Namib is the oldest desert in the world. Photograph: pmyers/GuardianWitness
Officially, trophy hunters are supposed to target male lions that are too old to breed, but the government has admitted that this doesn’t always happen.
“A recent incident at Mbakondja is a good example where a very old male was identified as the culprit initially but a prime male with females was shot instead after which every one swore he was actually the culprit,” says Smit. “The old male was rejected as an unattractive trophy and still continues hunting livestock.”
In some cases, trophy hunters are even brought in to pull the trigger on so-called problem lions.
The impetus comes down to money. Trophy hunters will shell out over £60,000 to kill a male desert lion, according to Smit, with the money going towards the conservancy.
“The big question is how the hunting of these males can be justified as ‘sustainable’ given the researchers and our own reports and observations,” he says, adding “all this in the absence of a peer-reviewed census on these animals.”
The crisis facing male lions made news in 2016 when three males were poisoned, who had been the subject of a popular documentary called, Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib. Eventually, all five of the males featured in the documentary were killed.
Sister, brother lion
In many ways, lions and humans grew up together. Lions showed up for the first time on the plains of Africa around 800,000 to one million years ago, just as Homo erectus was establishing its domain. Lions spread from Africa to Europe, Asia, and North America over the coming epochs. Humans did the same. But the tide began to turn for lions during the Pleistocene: they vanished from North America and East Asia. Then they vanished from Western Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. Soon the last lions would die out in Eastern Europe. All the while, the ancestors of Homo erectus would reign over regions where they once shared power with one of the greatest of great cats.
The lions that survived now live in a human-dominated, human-fashioned world. Like Namibia’s people, the nation’s desert lions now struggle against anthropocentric climate change. Namibia has faced several consecutive years of a punishing drought, creating a “precarious position” for lions, according to Smit.
With the drought, lions and people are more apt to run into each other. Drought-impacted farmers will sometimes in desperation graze their livestock in tourism areas, bringing them in proximity to the lions. Meanwhile, a loss of food may push lions to hunt livestock.
“We expect more losses as [the lions] experience food stress,” says Smit. “Also, females in poor condition does not come in oestrous and those who do might not be able to sustain the cub’s nutritional needs.”
These lions, rhinos and buffaloes heads were depicted in charcoal more than 30,000 years ago. Part of an animal frieze, they are among the oldest known paintings in the world, in the Chauvet cave in southeast France. Photograph: AFP
To stop the bleeding, Smit says the government must fully implement its human-wildlife conflict policy, which he says is “sound,” but has yet to be put to work. He says farmers who poison or shoot lions illegally must be brought into court. And he says that MET needs to forge better working relationships with local NGOs.
“They need to source and cherish all the assistance they can get instead of trying to remain an exclusive club,” he says of the government agency. “The whole culture is wrong and riddled with ego-driven agendas.
Is there still space for lions in a human-dominated world? The lions of Namibia are a living testament to the toughness, adaptability, and sheer will of these great cats, but could they also be a testament of our willingness to share the planet with top predators?