The Desert Adapted Lions Of Namibia

22 Sep 2022

The remote Skeleton Coast in northwestern Namibia, where mountains and sand dunes meet, and the rough seas of the Atlantic Ocean swirl around the rusty frames of many shipwrecks, offers other unusual experiences – like lions catching seals on the beach for instance and feasting on them.

Namibia is the only country in the world where lions have adapted to desert conditions and walk to the beach to prey on seals. Sometimes dragging their catch up to three kilometres inland to feed their cubs.


A lioness killed a seal on the beach along the Skeleton Coast. Photo by: Desert Lion Conservation Trust


It is a unique and special experience to encounter the king of the beasts in the dunes and on the vast plains or watching him – from a safe distance – and his pride lie on an outcrop of the mountains in the Hoanib River a bit further inland.

Namibia’s desert-adapted lions have over the years since independence, caught the attention of international media, including the renowned National Geographic magazine. They, however, became really famous through the documentary film “Vanishing Kings – Lions of the Namib Desert” a few years ago. The film told the story of five desert lions, dubbed the “five musketeers” and a book with the same title written by Dr. Philip Stander, was published.


The photo of a lioness chasing an oryx antelope near the beach was used in a book about the desert lions. Photo: Desert Lion Conservation Trust


Stander is a scientist who since several decades studies these amazing lions and contributes tremendously in the efforts to support their future survival.


Africa’s lion population is declining

The earth-shattering roar of a majestic African mane lion is an unforgettable experience and part of the magic of this amazing continent. But the “Lion King” and his fellow panthera leos face an uncertain future.

There are only approximately 38,000 free roaming lions left in Africa, mainly confined to conservation areas.

According to the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the lion populations have declined by about 60 percent in West, Central and East Africa in the last twenty years.

This resulted in the Red List status of lions across the continent by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). The main causes for their decline were and still are indiscriminate retaliatory killing of lions in defence of human life and livestock, habitat loss and depletion of their prey animals.


A desert lioness with her 4 cubs in NW Namibia. Photo by: Desert Lion Conservation Trust


There are, however, some success stories. Lion populations increased by some 12 percent in the last twenty years in four southern African countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe), according to CMS.


Status of lions in Namibia

According to figures of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MEFT) Namibia's lion population shows slight growth since independence with an estimated population of approximately 800 lions.

Some 350 to 400 are found in the Etosha National Park, between 100 and 110 desert-adapted lions are in northwestern Namibia, while a similar number of lions live on private land. Approximately 50 lions are found in the Zambezi Region and about 40 in Kavango East.

Since it is nearly impossible to count each and every lion in this vast country, these are estimates but are based on reliable sightings and head counts.


Communal conservancies let wildlife rebound

A few years after Namibia’s independence, the Ministry of Environment, Tourism and Forestry (MEFT) introduced communal conservancies to ensure rural residents benefit from living alongside wildlife through the concept of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM). This includes limited hunting quotas, income from tourism and sustainable use of plants and trees.

Community game guards keep watch over wildlife to minimise poaching.

While the CBNRM and other support projects allowed populations of wild animals to increase, they also brought challenges like villagers competing for the same water springs with their livestock, which are used by game.


Dr HO Reuter, Lion Rangers and a MEFT official with an immobilized desert lioness in the Anabeb Conservancy. Photo by: Lion Rangers


Human population growth in rural areas and larger herds of cattle and goats encroach on the habitat of wild animals. Unattended livestock becomes easy prey for carnivores like lions, especially during droughts.

Northwestern Namibia has in the past few years experienced severe drought, which caused loss of wild animals and livestock. Photos of extremely thin lions - just skin and bone – caused a public outcry in 2021. Four of these lions were then translocated to central Namibia to a private sanctuary with the permission of the MEFT. The aim is to return them after some time.


Desert-adapted lions face difficult future

Despite their value to photo tourism and sightseeing tours, the future of this unique lion population is uncertain and requires even more efforts from all stakeholders. Communal farmers killed all lions of the group of “five musketeers” in northwestern Namibia. Three of them died after eating from a poisoned donkey carcass in 2016, a fourth one was shot. The fifth lion, Tullamore, was translocated to a more remote area for its own safety. Tullamore was killed in 2017 along two other lions. The five musketeers have vanished. A second documentary film, “Vanishing Kings II – Desert Lion Legacy” has in the meantime been produced.

More lions in the area suffered a similar fate, even this year (2022), when MEFT officials declared the collared male lion XPL 131 was killed.

The MEFT regards human-lion conflict as the “biggest threat to the continued survival of lion populations” in Namibia. “Wherever lions occur in Namibia, from the arid northwestern Namibia to the woodlands of the northeast, lions cause significant economic, cultural and financial losses to the livestock farmers and are not tolerated in most instances,” according to MEFT.


Two desert lions rest under a huge rock. Photo by: Ingrid Mandt


"In retaliation, farmers destroy lions using various ways including shooting, snaring and poisoning. Sustainable measures to address human-lion conflict are required. Significant investments were made in various conflict management and mitigation measures such as the lion ranger programme, early warning systems, change of livestock husbandry practices including kraaling animals at night in strong kraals, and herding during the day in some areas. These measures showed some level of success,” stated the MEFT in the terms of reference in 2021 for a consultancy to develop a lion strategy.

The “National Lion Conservation and Management Strategy” of the ministry is now nearing completion. “We reviewed all inputs made and the final draft is ready to be signed off by Minister Pohamba Shifeta, before it can be published in due course”, said the MEFT’s chief public relations officer Romeo Muyunda on enquiry.


Support from private sector and abroad

Since over twenty years the Desert Lion Conservation Trust under scientist Dr Philip Stander - a small non-profit organisation is dedicated to the conservation of desert-adapted lions in the northern Namib. They collect important base-line ecological data on the lion population, study their behaviour, biology and adaptation to survive in the harsh environment.

This information is used to collaborate with other conservation bodies to find a solution to human-lion conflict, to elevate the tourism value of lions, and to contribute to the conservation of the species.


On World Lion Day (10 August) Dr Philip Stander received a brand-new research vehicle as a donation from Ultimate Safaris.
Photo: Desert Lion Conservation Trust


An important aspect is collaring lions to monitor their movements. The Trust receives support through donations, also from overseas.


Lion Rangers part of the solution

The MEFT and several conservation and research partners like the Namibian Lion Trust set up the Lion Ranger programme. This programme takes a community-based approach to address the conflict with humans.

Since 2018, over 40 community game guards have been trained as lion rangers. They receive classroom and field-based training from lion experts and form part of the rapid response units for human-lion conflict in northwestern Namibia.

The lion rangers come from those communities who live in the rural areas among elephants, rhinos and the desert-adapted lions.

Some 30 lions have been fitted with a satellite collar so far. Several poles with solar panels and equipment to receive signals from collared lions have been erected near livestock kraals of homesteads. That information is automatically relayed to the rapid response units, who alert farmers in the vicinity and assist them to prevent conflicts, by chasing the lions away. Some culprits are immobilised and transported to other areas to keep them out of mischief.

Incredibly, some of those lions wander back as it is a well-known fact that the desert-adapted lions cover long distances.


Efforts not in vain to preserve the lions

One might ask if all the time, efforts and money spent to look after approximately a hundred desert lions is worth it. The answer from most stakeholders would be a resounding “yes” – an enraged villager who lost goats to a lion, might perhaps answer differently, but surely could be convinced otherwise in the long run.


The group of desert adapted lions dubbed the ‘Five Musketeers’.
Photo: Facebook


This unique lion population deserves to be supported so that future generations can still experience a magic encounter with them here in Namibia - the only country worldwide where lions still inhabit a spectacular landscape and even beaches.

Brigitte Weidlich

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