The first-ever Northwest Namibia Lion Population Survey is underway! Overseen by MEFT, and bringing together researchers, government practitioners, and community Lion Rangers, the primary goal is developing a baseline population estimate, through repeatable methods, to serve as the foundation for evidence-based lion management. Northwest Namibia is among the few areas worldwide where human land-use and positive lion conservation outcomes align, a baseline population survey is critical to securing and managing the lion population going forward. The survey contributes to community-centered lion conservation, as well as insights for regional and pan-African lion conservation.
Northwest Namibia supports a unique population of free-ranging desert-adapted lions living alongside rural communities. However, the success of Namibia’s communal conservancies has led to intensified human-lion conflict and subsequent lion mortalities in recent years.
In the mid-1990s, as few as 20 lions survived across northwest Namibia. With the development of the communal conservancy system, by the mid-2010s this number had increased to a population estimated between 112-137. During this recovery, overlapping lion ranges and communal farmland generated a high frequency of human-lion conflict. From 2000-2010, retaliatory killings accounted for 89% of lion (non-cub) mortalities. Since that time lion killings have decreased, due primarily to the mobilization of the Lion Rangers. Experts now estimate the population at 60-90 individuals. However, without a comprehensive survey, data deficiency is hampering effective community conservation.
Northwest Namibia has been upgraded to the status of a “Lion Stronghold” also known as a “priority lion landscape,” However, according to the IUCN’s Guidelines for the Conservation of Lions in Africa, this population qualifies as “unknown,” due to data deficiency. In 2017 MEFT published the Human-Lion Conflict Plan for North West Namibia. This document identifies the importance of comprehensive lion management on Kunene communal lands. Since then, multi-stakeholder teams have up-scaled monitoring and conflict response to catalyze evidence-based management.
We are piloting the first lion population survey across the area, and using resulting data to upscale monitoring and contribute to an updated Human-Lion Conflict Plan. This feeds into the primary goal of evidence-based management of the lion population, with an eye towards sustainability and local benefits.
Adapting state-of-the-art methods, the Northwest Lion Survey focuses on individual lion identification to create a database of individual lion IDs. Four teams will perform semi-structured surveys of more than 25,000 km2 over a nine-week period. Each of the teams will consist of two vehicles (1 research; 1 tracking teams), consisting of six-eight staff members (30-35 in total), deployed for nine weeks. Each team will be overseen by an MEFT-permitted researcher (Mr. Muzuma, Dr. Heydinger, Ms. Hoth). Dividing the vast and rugged area into focal areas draws on the deep knowledge and experience of the Lion Rangers, local government staff, and researchers to build on the existing core of 35-plus GPS/satellite collared lions, to probe into the hardest-to-reach remote areas of the northwest, and to identify previously unknown lions throughout the landscape. By intensively covering their areas of expertise, the teams will combine to provide the first ever lion population survey spanning northwest Namibia.
Drawing on decades of researcher and local practitioner expertise, as well as a recently completed GPS-collar lion occupancy modelling exercise, and last year’s area-wide Rapid Lion Body Condition Assessment, this operation brings together the right teams and techniques to execute this survey. The anticipated outcomes include not only a baseline population estimate, but also a foundation of repeatable methods – subject to the necessary review process of adaptive management – that may be replicated, developed, and built upon in years to come. Analysis of survey results will contribute to Namibia’s National Lion Population Management Plan, and contribute towards local communities receiving sustainable benefits from living alongside and proactively conserving these ecologically unique lions.
Across the area, approximately19,300 rural residents suffer the costs of human-wildlife conflict. Communal conservancy residents living alongside lions and other large carnivores have lost livestock totaling an average value of US$ 2,839 to lions and US$ 10,151 to all large carnivores per household. 84% state they do not benefit from having lions in their conservancy. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority (75%) state it is important to continue having lions in their conservancy (Heydinger et al. 2019).
Our research has already developed new approaches to producing lion-derived benefits. These include supporting the forthcoming Wildlife Credits program in partnership with WWF and CCFN. Further data for sustainable management and benefits are needed. A population survey will contribute to limiting human-lion conflict by providing a comprehensive picture of lion spatial ecology and demographics across the northwest. This provides MEFT and conservancies a clearer picture of lion presence in specific areas, which is critical to implementing proactive human-lion conflict mitigation measures. With methods structured around Lion Rangers’ participation, conservancies are taking the lead in executing the survey, which contributes to community proprietorship of lions.
Additional stakeholders include the local tourism industry and its estimated 4,000 employees, as well as the Lion Rangers themselves, all of whom are local community members. When the survey is completed, Lion Rangers and project partners will report survey results to conservancy residents, as a central part of information dissemination and building tolerance and awareness around living with lions.
Project activities are oriented towards transforming the enabling conditions of lion conservation in the region. We aim to increase knowledge of the lion population for sustainable, evidence-based management and local benefit. In Namibia, 100% of direct benefits from wildlife inhabiting communal land accrue to the conservancies themselves. Through the Lion Rangers, process-as-result is an important component of this project. The Lion Rangers will play a central role in conducting the population survey. This will foster open communication among project partners and stakeholders, while contributing to the repeatability and longevity of positive project outcomes. Moving forward, results will be made accessible to conservancies and local stakeholders, and to the international conservation community. Ongoing practitioner training will emphasize incorporating robust social and ecological data into decision-making.