The prolonged drought in northwest Namibia continues to challenge the Lion Rangers and Rapid Response Teams. Pastoralists continue to trek in search of available grazing. This mobility is a necessary, and time-tested, survival strategy in the semiarid and arid northern Namib, but it brings together livestock and lions. From May to July high numbers of livestock were lost to predators in key lion-range conservancies, the plurality of these losses (44%, n=55) occurred in and around the Anabeb Conservancy. The outcome of these losses has been the illegal killing of lions which, thanks to the hard work of the Rapid Response Teams and Lion Rangers, has resulted in three individuals being charged. This time of high activity is pushing all team members – Ministry, NGOs, and communities – to work harder to help pastoralists make informed decisions about livestock movements, and to monitor the desert-adapted lions. From May to July the Rapid Response Teams covered an amazing 19,039 kilometers.
This included conflict response work, monitoring, and meeting with community members to find long-term, community-centered approaches to limiting human-lion conflict. This great work should also remind us of the diversity of perspectives on human-lion conflict within the communities themselves. All of the Lion Rangers and Rapid Response Team Leaders are native to northwest Namibia and maintain their own herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. This is truly a community-centered effort, that gives us optimism that continued work will continue to yield positive results.
Thanks to Rapid Response Coordinator Cliff Tjikundi for all photos and write-up summary.
Lion Ranger work in rugged northwest Namibia presents an ever-changing array of challenges. Not least of which can be the environment itself. While we were tracking lions in the Hoanib in late November rains fell approximately two hundred kilometers inland. On the morning of 27 November, the Hoanib River unexpectedly came down in flood, almost entirely covering three vehicles, including two being used by the Lion Ranger team. Luckily, no one was injured.
In every cloud there is a silver lining. It was absolutely inspiring to see how the Sesfontein and conservation community came out in force to help retrieve those marooned by the flood and assist in extracting the vehicles. In particular, staff members of the Natural Selection and Fort Sesfontein lodges nearby, Fritz Schenk of Camelthorn Safaris (who supports the Lion Ranger program), and staff from IRDNC provided much needed support. Special thanks go to the Sesfontein community. Over three days a team of thirteen men and women worked entirely without compensation to assist the Lion Rangers and others. This is a special reminder that, though our work can be quite taxing, with the support of local communities and our conservation partners we stand a great chance to conserve northwest Namibia’s wildlife, including the iconic desert lions. Thanks to everyone for their selfless and tireless efforts. Whether it is retrieving stuck vehicles or conserving lions: we cannot do it without you.
The Lion Rangers were working in the Hoanib River this week to check in on an adult female and a maturing younger female (XPL-69 and 79). Working with our tourism partners at Natural Selection and Kunene Conservnacy Safaris, the Lion Rangers were able to safely approach and check-in on these two lionesses. Even though the ongoing drought has depressed wildlife numbers, the two appear to be quite strong and healthy – even killing a young Gemsbok (Oryx gazelle) one evening. Clearly these two have become habituated to tourism vehicles. However, it is important to remember that approaching lions, even in a vehicle, is always a potentially dangerous situation and should be done with trained personnel. There is quite a bit of traffic and the Hoanib and everyone has to do their part to ensure the area’s wildlife remain comfortable.
Throughout September and October, IRDNC’s Rapid Response Team Leaders, Cliff Tjikundi, Linus Mbomboro, and German Muzuma, covered more than 10,600 kilometers in northwest Namibia, working with local communities to mitigate and prevent human-lion conflict. Over this period they responded to five human-lion conflict incidents, helped place six early-warning and satellite collars on desert lions, assisted with full moon waterhole counts for elephants, and facilitated five community meetings focused on information sharing concerning desert lion conservation efforts – among a variety of other tasks. Particular highlights include the erection of a new early-warning system logger tower at Mbokondja in the Anabeb Conservancy, assisting farmers in retrieving cattle who had strayed into Etosha National Park, and helping repair Etosha’s western boundary fence.
Mr. Tjikundi in particular notes the low number of human-lion conflict incidents during the period. This is a hopeful sign but by no means indicates a decrease in the work load of the response teams. Thanks to Cliff, Linus, and German for their steadfast dedication and hard work.
A different desert lion skull, being preserved in salt.
In late September, Sesfontein Conservancy Rhino Rangers, while on patrol in partnership with the Save the Rhino Trust to combat black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis) poaching, discovered the carcass of a male lion near the town of Sesfontein. As is standard practice, Save the Rhino Trust staff informed the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Desert Lion Conservation, and the Lion Rangers who examined the carcass and retrieved the skull for identification – as the body had begun to decompose. While tooth-wear from the skull indicates that the lion was of an advanced age, it is always worrisome to unexpectedly find a lion carcass in the bush. This concern is heightened by suspicion that the lion was poisoned. An investigation by the Lion Rangers and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism was performed. Poisoning of this lion is suspected, though other mortality causes remain possible. There is zero firm evidence to suggest which person may have been responsible.
Human-lion conflict remains a pressing issue in northwest Namibia. The Lion Rangers are working with concerned communities and a diverse array of government and NGO partners to assist communities who struggle living with lions. We thank the Sesfontein community for being willing partners in our work and the Save the Rhino Trust and Rhino Rangers for helping where they are able. Conservation of the lions on communal land will remain a challenge in the years to come – we are always working to move forward having learned from setbacks.
Beginning in early July, a male lion was making his presence known in the upper Ganamub river area of the Sesfontein Conservancy. While his presence was undoubtedly exciting news for the tourists visiting the new Natural Selection lodge at the Ganamub-Hoanib junction, it was obviously concerning for the many families keeping livestock in the area. Over a week five cattle were killed by the male within 11 kilometers of a settlement. Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation’s (IRDNC) Rapid-Response Team led the Sesfontein Lion Rangers in responding to the incidents. Working for days in the rugged Hoanib and Ganamub rivers the Lion Rangers and Rapid Response teams were able to positively identify the male lion and work with the local communities and Desert Lion Conservation to develop a plan of conflict mitigation. Following the presence of the Rangers and Response teams the lion actually left the area on his own, likely headed downriver towards the Skeleton Coast National Park. This allowed the Lion Rangers and Response team to work directly with Desert Lion Conservation to collar four lions in the Hoanib and nearby Okgonwe areas of the Sesfontein and Puros conservancies. Throughout this process the active engagement of the conservancy leadership and community members was critical.
From May to July the Lion Rangers and IRDNC Rapid Response teams racked up an incredible amount of ground covered, incidents managed, and community meetings held to ensure that the Human Lion Conflict Management Plan for North West Namibia keeps moving forward.
Over these three months the Rapid Response teams and Lion Rangers responded to 27 human-lion conflict incidents in which more than 100 livestock fell prey to Desert lions. While this is an alarming number of incidents, the Lion Ranger program is confident that incident response is an important part of ensuring that communities are supported in remaining resilient to human-lion conflict. All of the incidents of human-lion conflict took places at previously identified human-lion conflict ‘hotspots’ indicating a preliminary proof of concept for our identification of hotspots.
In addition to the 27 incidents responded to, the Rapid Response teams and Rangers performed 19 vehicle-based patrols. Across all activities they had 51 lion engagements covering all the critical core lion-range conservancies in northwest Namibia.
While these months have been the busiest to-date for the Lion Ranger program, ongoing challenges remain and new ones are being identified. It is of critical importance that more lions are fitted with GPS and RFID collars to provide early warnings of their movements. Desert Lion Conservation is playing the central role in this ongoing work. Settlement patterns remain a challenge. Many farmers inhabit areas favored by lions, bringing the two into conflict. This occurs not because of farmer ignorance or recalcitrance, but because livestock and wildlife both favor areas with readily available water and grazing. Due to the ongoing drought in northwest Namibia grazers are likely to be found in certain areas. Predators naturally follow.
During this period our team has expanded. IRDNC Rapid Response Team Leader Cliff Tjikundi has been joined by Linus Mbomboro as a second Rapid Response Team Leader. Mr. Mbomboro is a member of Anabeb Conservancy, has long experience working in wildlife conservation in Kunene, and is trained as a Lion Ranger. Between Mr. Tjikundi and Mr. Mbomboro the Lion Ranger program is making great strides in covering human-lion conflict across northwest Namibia. The statistics and review of activities in this post are distilled from their field reports.
Over the past week the Lion Rangers were joined by Garth Owen-Smith and Craig Packer for site visits to the Ombonde, Khowareb, and Hoanib rivers in the Etendeka Concession, and Anabeb and Sesfontein conservancies. The site visits had a host of purposes, chief of which was to have a better sense of lion movements throughout the area.
Garth Owen-Smith, who has been instrumental in the development of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) in northwest Namibia guided our small group through the various catchments. A veritable fount of information on the region, Owen-Smith provided insight from his deep experience to help us better understand the long-term trends effecting northwest lion conservation. In particular, Owen-Smith’s longstanding close relationships with the local communities allowed us to better understand the long legacy of local antipathy towards lions, but also the strong identification of rural residents with wildlife and the need for conservation. Owen-Smith remains a key supporter of the work of the Lion Ranger program.
Human-wildlife conflict has been a persistent and pressing problem in northwest Namibia. Over the past years many different stakeholders have been working together and with communities to mitigate and prevent further issues. Since the publication of the Human-Lion Conflict Management Plan last year, many of the crucial stakeholders have been strengthening their ties and aligning their efforts. This past week has been a stirring example of the type of progress that can be made when we work together. Over six days a group of researchers, IRDNC and MET staff visited the Torra, Puros, Sesfontein, Omatendeka, Ehi-rovipuka, and ≠Khoadi-//Hôas conservancies to provide feedback to communities and receive on-the-ground input into the best ways forward for addressing human-wildlife conflict. There is no substitute for getting community feedback to prioritize the way forward.
Substantive input from the communities focused on the need for early-warning systems concerning lion movements and an emphasis on mobilizing Lion Rangers. There was much thoughtful discussion around the fire each night, spearheaded by project leader Jonas Heita, concerning the role of government in supporting rural communities, and how different stakeholders can build resilient, sustainable systems for addressing human-wildlife conflict in its myriad forms.
Thanks to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism for prioritizing this work and organizing the trip. Thanks to all the conservancies for their thoughts and hospitality.