25 November, 2017 – Finding the Past in Sesfontein

Over the past week we performed surveys of farmers in Sesfontein, assessing their experiences of human-carnivore and human-lion conflict. Perhaps more so than Anabeb and Puros, many farmers in Sesfontein displayed a strong antagonism when discussing lion problems. Frequently, frustrations were raised that no one in either the government or responsible NGOs has done anything to lessen the problems farmers face from lions. At farms like Orovero, Ganamub, and Ondorohungu, farmers and their families felt incredibly constrained in their ability to have a meaningful and secure livelihood, because of predator problems. Though leopard, cheetah, and spotted hyena were all more frequently named as threatening livestock, lions unquestionably elicited the most intense negative responses. Of the 28 farmers we spoke to in Sesfontein, all said that members of their conservancy were facing serious lion problems. Additionally, 78% (n=22) said that lions are uniquely dangerous to people. Both of these responses are generally echoed across Anabeb and Puros.

Relative to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the dangers lions pose to people in Kunene appear to be quite low. In contrast to the man-eaters of Kenya and Tanzania, Kunene has one confirmed case of lion-caused human mortality. Yet, this case looms large in the minds of residents. Frequently in our interviews respondents would note that lions have killed people in Kunene. Almost without exception they point to an incident sometime in 1982 (still working to confirm the date).

At the end of the last major drought, which lasted from 1979-1981, wildlife and livestock numbers were in freefall. Reports from the 1979-1981 drought estimate cattle losses as high as 85%. By comparison, preliminary results from our surveys put cattle losses from this ongoing drought around 64%. (One of the tasks of this research is to get more verifiable livestock loss numbers for both droughts.) Needless to say, the 1979-1981 drought decimated the region. By 1982 the rains had slowly begun to return and wildlife was beginning to once again disperse to untapped grazing areas. For carnivores, who had become used to residing near what small patches of available grazing had remained through the drought, the returning rains meant that hunting became increasingly difficult. Accounts from that time note that by 1982 ragged and starving lions were beginning to show up in previously lion-free places.

One night, a weakened and starving lioness came into the town of Sesfontein. Locals from the time remember that she likely came from the hills to the north, maybe from as far away as Okaukuejo in Etosha. At an elderly Damara herdsman’s onganda (homestead) the lioness was first noticed near a kraal of goats. The herdsmen, himself a descendant of the Strandlopers who had come from the Skeleton Coast and up the Hoanib some years before, ran into the house with the lioness following. Screaming for his wife to grab their young child, he was able to take hold of the weakened lioness by the ears and restrain her. In terror, the wife grabbed not their young girl, but a pillow from the bed. Quickly, the herdsmen was able to throw the lioness aside and run to nearby Fort Sesfontein where a South African Defence Force was garrisoned. When the soldiers arrived at the onganda, they quickly put two bullets into the lioness; ending her difficult life there in the home. Unfortunately, the young daughter had been left behind and by the time the garrison arrived it was too late. Her head and right arm been entirely consumed. A few days later, the young girl’s remains were buried in the Sesfontein cemetery. Though no one we spoke to could pinpoint the exact location – the grave may now be unmarked – the picture below may be of the young girls final resting place.

This story, though perhaps not the details, is well known across the Anabeb, Puros, and Sesfontein conservancies. The legacy of this taken child remains. For residents it is evidence enough that all lions present a unique danger to people. This appears to greatly ratchet-up the tension surrounding farm invasions and livestock losses by lions. One of the main goals of this research is to further uncover the details of this story and the events up-leading. Because the ongoing drought bears such similarity to the past one, it is important that we understand the lessons from 1982. What will happen to human-lion conflict when the rains return in force? In so doing we may avoid some of the mistakes and losses of the past, not the least of which was the death of a small child one night in Sesfontein.

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