This past week, twelve Lion Rangers, three field coordinators, two researchers, and three staff members gathered to formally inaugurate and begin operations of the Lion Ranger Program. Our week of training consisted of ‘classroom’ work to brush-up on lion ecology, an overview of lion conservation across Africa, and an examination of the background and ways forward concerning human-lion conflict in the region. The Rangers themselves were invaluable contributors to all information sharing and provided a wealth of field experience drawing upon their years serving as Conservancy Game Guards. While we recognize that lion conservation and limiting human-lion conflict in Kunene is a journey, not a destination, all agreed that the program, still so young, is making great strides.
Everyone came together at World’s End (with a few stragglers) on Sunday, 4 March. For many the journey was a multi-day affair. No sooner were we enjoying our first night than a male lion began calling, approximately 5-7 km to the northwest. The next morning the whole team was up early for tracking. Treating the issue as though World’s End were a farm where we were trying to prevent conflict, all the Lion Rangers pursued evidence of the lion. It was impressive to see these tracking experts in action. After two hours, we came together, satisfied the male had moved further northwest towards a spring. We debriefed and discussed how we would treat such a situation and what the appropriate ways to engage the community would be. That afternoon we rounded this out with an overview of the Lion Ranger Program. This included an inclusive group discussion to build consensus concerning program operations. Though we had some disagreements, all concurred that consensus was arrived upon and that the Program will be stronger by having as flat a hierarchy as possible.
Day Two and Three were dedicated to training concerning lion ecology and biological information. We were so privileged to have Dr. Philip Stander run a day-and-half workshop focusing on working with desert-adapted lions in the field and providing us with a viewing of his recent film Vanishing Kings. Dr. Stander is spearheading the program’s monitoring of desert-adapted lions and working to develop practical early-warning systems that our Rangers can implement. We are grateful for his role in the program.
Following this ‘classroom’ work, we all headed to Mbokondja in the Anabeb Conservancy. Over the past month a male lion, who the locals have dubbed ‘Harambe’ has been making his presence known very close to the homesteads. Our first task was to inform community members about the Lion Rangers’ mandate and answer questions they have about the program. This community-engagement is critical for strengthening Ranger-community relations, so that Rangers are responsive to community concerns and represent them to the conservation community.
After speaking with community members during the heat of the day, we split up into separate groups to cover two recent incidents in the Conservancy. In addition to the presence of ‘Harambe’, eight cattle were recently killed near Otjiajondjira, approximately 30km north. While a group of Rangers headed north to work with the farmers to retrieve livestock from the bush, another group set-out to track ‘Harambe’. Late in the evening a zebra carcass was discovered, though tracking revealed that two subadult males were the likely culprits. That evening one of the subadults was photographed feeding from the carcass (photo below).
The next morning the whole group revisited the carcass to find ‘Harambe’ close by (photo below). Patient observation revealed a mature male who is likely past breeding age and may be unable to take wild prey on his own. The identification and approach tactics which Dr. Stander instructed the Rangers in were invaluable to safely approaching this lion and ensuring that he was not displaced. Later in the day further observation was successfully conducted – yielding more important information.
Following this field work the Rangers had a wide-ranging discussion about the role of the Program in regional lion conservation. A central part of this discussion was how to grow the program’s information-gathering capacities. This will be essential to forging a stronger role for the Rangers as the backbone for community-based lion conservation and working alongside the Namibia Ministry of Environment and Tourism to limit human-lion conflict in Kunene. Consensus was reached that this is an imposing, yet worthwhile challenge for the program to take-up.
The Lion Ranger Program is off to a strong start. As was mentioned frequently during training: we have inserted ourselves into a complex challenge. The Rangers are tasked with simultaneously addressing very real problems on-the-ground and working to forge something sustainable – not an easy task! Nevertheless, the camaraderie, commitment, engagement, and acceptance of the challenge stands all the Rangers in good stead drive lion and carnivore conservation and community development in northwest Namibia for years to come. We are proud and excited to be underway.
Thanks to Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) for supporting this training. Thanks to Dr. Philip Stander for lending his expertise. Thanks to Alfeus /Ouseb for training support and vehicle assistance. Thanks to Wandi Tsanes for cooking and keeping us all moving.