The following ran in The Namibian on 24 May, 2018.
HUMAN-LION conflict is becoming a hot-button issue in north-western Namibia. Reports of Kunene lions killing livestock and being translocated or destroyed have generated considerable national and international coverage. Social media, in particular, has followed a predictable pattern: Farmers are intolerant. Lions are disappearing. We are destroying our natural heritage. While many of the reports are credible, they miss the forest for the trees.
According to the Namibia Association of Community-based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) support organisations and Desert Lion Conservation, the population of desert-adapted lions in north-west Namibia has rebounded from a low of 30-35 individuals in 1997, to at least 120 in 2017. This remarkable recovery – an almost 400% increase – contrasts with the 50% decline in lion numbers across all of Africa over the same time period. Even more striking is the fact that the Kunene lions range well outside the boundaries of any national park, and rural Namibians are not protected from these dangerous animals by the use of perimeter fences that characterise successful lion conservation areas in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Thus the enormous challenge of mitigating the impacts of human-lion conflict has arisen because rural communities in Kunene have been such effective conservationists. Their work deserves to be celebrated, not impugned – it is a shining star in African conservation.
In late 2017, we surveyed numerous farmers in core lion-range conservancies in Kunene and discovered that they had lost, on average, 63% of their cattle, 52% of their sheep, and 49% of their goats during the recent drought. These losses total more than N$400 000 per family. In the worst-hit areas, the average farmer lost more than N$80 000 worth of livestock to lions alone. Even though lions are not responsible for the majority of the losses, this conflict exacerbates an already precarious situation. School and clinic fees can go unpaid, compromising the future of a growing generation. Kunene farmers are neither bloodthirsty nor backwards. Farming in Kunene is difficult at the best of times. And living alongside lions is always a challenge.
Last September, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism authored the human-lion conflict management plan for north-west Namibia, which set management priorities for positively addressing human-lion conflict. Since that time a leadership team, the north-west lion working group, has been coordinating efforts to prevent human-lion conflict within communal areas and to mitigate the conflict when it occurred. This includes a census of lions in the north-west, the activation of the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC’s) human-wildlife conflict response teams alongside lion rangers in core lion-range conservancies, piloting an early warning system, and seeking international support to capacitate on-the-ground work. It has not been all smooth sailing: information-gathering takes time, conflicts do still occur, and financial support for the lion ranger programme has been slow to materialise. However, Namibians should know that the government and fellow citizens are partnering with national and international teams to find solutions.
Last month, a team of ministry staff visited eight conservancies in Erongo and Kunene to gather feedback on potential human-wildlife conflict measures. Last week, the lion rangers teamed with IRDNC, and Desert Lion Conservation to successfully collar and translocate a problem lion from communal land to Skeleton Coast National Park. Progress is being made – but things do not change overnight. We applaud the efforts of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and their partner organisations. There is still much work to do, and human-lion conflict will never disappear entirely. But we should all remain dedicated to improving the lives of rural communities and maintaining the momentum to integrate development with meaningful wildlife conservation.
Craig Packer and John Heydinger