Image: Members of a large pride at Ongava, south of Etosha, © Keith Somerville

Professor Keith Somerville looks at how Namibia, a country subject to periodic droughts with often little permanent water for wildlife or livestock, has gone much further than most African states to conserve its population of lions.

Farmland makes up 43 per cent of Namibia’s land area and contains more than half of its wildlife species. Since independence in 1990 the government, supported by local conservancy organisations and wildlife and environmental NGOs, has sought to develop an integrated conservation network that provides full or partial protection on national park land and private safari concessions or farmland for habitats and species.

Much has been achieved. Chris Brown, head of the Namibian Chamber of Environment, details how granting rights to landowners and communal farmers, the latter through the conservancy programme, over the consumptive and non-consumptive use of wildlife has led to a total change in attitude. ‘Wildlife suddenly had value. It could be used to support a multi-faceted business model, including trophy hunting, meat production, live sale of surplus animals and tourism… farmers discovered that they could do better from their wildlife than from domestic stock.’

Recovery in wildlife numbers
This model has brought about a recovery in wildlife numbers, which fell to well under one million during the South African occupation in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘Today,’ according to Dr Brown ‘there is more wildlife in Namibia than at any time in the past 150 years, with latest estimates putting the national wildlife herd at just over 3 million animals. And the reason is simple – wildlife is an economically more attractive, competitive form of land use than conventional farming in our arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid landscapes.’

Image: Eland and zebra at Etosha waterhole – © Keith Somerville

But it is not without its problems and periodic setbacks. Desert-adapted elephants, lions and cheetahs are in decline across sub-Saharan Africa. And the two big cat species are especially vulnerable. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that only around 7,000–7,500 cheetahs and between 20,000 and 30,000 lions remain in the wild in Africa.

Expanding numbers and range but increasing conflict
Recent estimates point to less than 1,000 Namibian lions, compared to between 560 and 900 at the turn of the millennium, with 150–190 desert-adapted lions along the Skeleton Coast, Damarland, Kaokoveld, Hobatere and the Western Etosha region.

While numbers have been increasing due to the work of conservation groups, there are still serious problems of human wildlife conflict. Nomadic lions – particularly sub-adult or young adult males – have to roam widely in search of prey. Lack of hunting experience, and the availability and vulnerability of domestic stock in and around conservancies leads to predation on cattle, sheep and goats. This sparks retaliatory killings by farmers, poisoning or shooting of problem lions by the wildlife authorities or trophy hunters with legal permits. This has reduced numbers, creating an imbalance between males and females with very few breeding age males in some areas.

Attack on cattle by lions are seriously damaging to farmers, who may get little compensation and are impoverished by the losses. Conservancies, though not all are equally active, try to provide income through tourism, hunting or other sustainable means, to support communal farmers. They work with groups like Tammy Hoth-Hanssen’s AfriCat-North project and Dr Flip Stander’s Desert Lion Project. Together they try to persuade livestock farmers to build lion-proof kraals and enclose animals in at night. But I was told by conservationists that some communities are either too poor and have too little manpower to stay with their herds or kraal them at night.

AfriCat-North has been helping fund and train lion guards recruited from the pastoral communities. The aim is to encourage better livestock protection and track lions (using radio/satellite collars) so they can alert communities if they are moving into livestock areas.  These efforts are having some effect but human-wildlife conflict far outstrip hunting as the main cause of lion deaths. But, according to veteran conservationist, Garth Owen-Smith, ‘Trying to save the lions that are killing livestock, or harassing the farmers who kill them, including impounding their firearms, will not serve the interests of conservation in the region.’

A failure to deal with the problem will alienate farmers and could endanger the future of the integrated conservation and conservancy approach. It is not perfect but Owen-Smith says, the achievements in terms of getting pastoralists to tolerate predators because of the income they can bring in, means that even in the Anabeb Conservancy, where 71 cattle and 130 small stock have been killed by lions (and more by other predators), 34 out of 40 Anabeb farmers said ‘it was important to have lions in their conservancies for tourists and their children to see, but that in livestock areas, the people’s livelihoods must come first.’

It is a delicate balance but one that has so far enabled substantial increases in wildlife numbers, helped the conservation of the lions, protected fragile habitats and kept most, though not all, local people onside. The work to improve pastoral techniques and livestock protection at night, and to monitor the movements and predation patterns of lions is ever more important.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is a Member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent where teaches at the Centre for Journalism, and is editor of the Africa Sustainable Conservation News website.