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Dead donkeys, pastoralists and poisoned lions.

Conservation in Namibia.

Last year, National Geographic produced a film titled, “Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib“. The film follows the lives of five young lions in the harsh environment of the Namib desert, nicknamed the five “Musketeers”.

Surviving in such an extreme environment as the desert where food and water are scarce is difficult enough. But the biggest threat to the lions survival is conflict with humans.

Lions: The five Musketeers

Philip Stander appears in the film. For many years he has devoted his life to lion conservation in the Namib Desert. In 1998 he founded the Desert Lion Conservation Project, the aim of which is,

to collect sound ecological data, address human-lion conflicts, and to develop a conservation strategy. Applied research and sound scientific data on lion movements and dispersal, and the ecological mechanisms that regulate the population are fundamental to this process. Lions are fitted with radio collars and are tracked and observed to record behaviour, movements, grouping patterns, reproduction and mortality.

Stander explains that, “Human-lion conflict is arguably the biggest threat to lions in Namibia.” The Desert Lion Conservation Project website provides an almost daily update on the lions’ movements, their latest kills, and their health, with superb photographs of the lions and Nambian landscapes.

Tragically, of the five Musketeers, only one is still alive. In July 2016, Stander wrote on his website that,

The “Five Musketeers” have returned to the Gomatum River and moved further east. This exposes them to new dangers and an increased risk of human-lion conflict.

A day later, Stander reported that a villager had shot and killed “Harry” after an incident at a temporary cattle post.

A few days later, the lions killed two cattle calves near the village of Tomakas.

By the beginning of August 2016, the situation had worsened. Stander wrote that “The human-lion conflict situation at Tomakas and the Gomatum River has become unmanageable.” A few days earlier, a man on a donkey met the four remaining Musketeers. He fled into the mountains and walked back to Tomakas. The donkey wasn’t so lucky.

On 2 August 2016, the lions killed two goats. “The people of Tomakas have been patient and tolerant of the lions disrupting their lives, but they cannot continue living under these conditions. Removing the lions from the area is necessary,” Stander wrote.

One of the lions, “Tullamore”, moved to Okongwe Waterhole, leaving the other three near Tomakas. At night, “Ben”, “Adolf”, and “Polla” approached the village and the livestock coral, but were deterred by flashing lights and fireworks.

Then the three lions came upon a cattle post belonging to semi-nomadic pastoralists. The lions killed another donkey. In response, the pastoralists poisoned the dead donkey. When lions kill their prey, they eat a small part and return over the next few days to finish off their meal.

Having killed the lions, the pastoralists burnt the lions’ carcasses and their radio collars. Just days before the Ministry of Environment and Tourism had approved the translocation of the four “Musketeers” to a national park as a way of resolving the human-lion conflict at Tomakas.

Humans: The Khoe and Herero-speaking peoples

Khoe and Herero-speaking peoples have long histories of living in north-west Namibia. Anthropologist Sian Sullivan is working on a research project called Future Pasts, looking at cultural and conservation landscapes, and environmental change in Namibia. In an article on The Conversation website about the three poisoned lions, Sullivan starts from the perspective of a cattle herdsman:

Imagine that years of drought have forced you to graze your cattle on sparse grass in an open desert landscape, far from permanent settlements. The nearest small shop is 25 miles away, a journey normally made by donkey. Now imagine your one donkey is being mauled to death by a pride of lions, only yards from the flimsy tent that is your shelter.

This was the scene that Sullivan found during a research trip in north-west Namibia in November 2015. Needless to say, the herdsman was angry. And his response was to poison the donkey’s flesh.

Sullivan writes that “conflict is inevitable”. Farmers suffer economic losses. Compensation, when it is available, may not be enough.

In the 1980s, the US and UK aid agencies and WWF started funding community-based natural resource management in Namibia. Community game guards were set up with funding from WWF.

Since 1996, Sullivan writes,

indigenous Namibians have been able to legally derive incomes from wildlife in recognised territories managed as “conservancies”. The vision is that this income will increase the value of indigenous fauna and flora as economically-productive resources, countering the costs to other livelihood activities of sharing land with wildlife whilst offering routes towards rural development.

These conservancies have led to increasing lion populations, helped by the wetter climate since the mid-1990s. The current drought means that herders are overlapping with lions, intensifying the chances of conflict.

Sullivan points out the historical context of land appropriation that forced indigenous Namibians into less productive landscapes. Namibia’s largely white-owned commercial farming areas benefited from significant clearing of predators in the past.

Many of the conservancies are funded by trophy-hunting and tourism. While some local people get jobs as a result, the benefits are not evenly distributed. Conservancy management and private sector investments can create new inequalities and distrust in communities.

Sullivan ends her article on a note of optimism:

All these factors contribute to the intractable nature of the human-lion conflict. This problem is not about to disappear. At the same time, local people with different histories have different ideas about how to live with lions. Learning more about positive stories of how people lived with predators in the past may yet help people and lions to live alongside each other into the future.

By Chris Lang - Conservation Watch