Professor Keith Somerville reports on a trip to Damaraland in Namibia, where drought and rising temperatures threatens thousands of people and domestic animals but has created “opportunities for lions to thrive”.

Driving through a series of communal conservancies in Namibia’s Damaraland is like driving through a desolate moonscape, with huge areas of broken, baking basalt and other volcanic rocks. Wildlife, which conservancies like Torra, Twyfelfontein, Ananeb and Palmwag are rightly famed for encouraging by bringing in income for the local communities through tourism and carefully regulated hunting, was sparse in the extreme. The vegetation that had survived the preceding months of drought was parched and cattle belonging to the residents were wearily searching for grazing and shade.

Damaraland, like the rest of Namibia and much of southern Africa, is in the grips of a long and severe drought. The rainy season due in October 2018 was a month late and only about 55% of normal rainfall fell, and Namibia had not recovered from the 2014-2016 El Niño-related drought, the latest in a series caused by poor rainy seasons starting in 2013.

In May 2019, President Hage Geingob declared a national drought emergency in Namibia, the second in three years. Government figures indicated that the failure of rains had left 500,000 people – a fifth of the population – dangerously short of food and in need of government assistance. Small-scale livestock farmers in arid areas like Damaraland had been particularly badly hit with the agriculture ministry reporting in April that 63,700 domestic animals had died in 2018 because of the drought. Tens of thousands more have died this year. One Herero farmer from Damaraland, Reagan Kavazeua, told me that he’d lost seven out of 41 of his cattle to drought and had been forced to pay a landowner in central Namibia to allow his cattle to graze there, as there was more fodder and water.

Lions, livestock and the drought

The conservancies of Damaraland, along with the Skeleton Coast region, northern Kunene and regions in the arid western districts bordering Etosha National park, contain an important population of desert-adapted lions, whose numbers have increased substantially over the last 25 years. In 2017, they were estimated to have reached 150, and may now number around 160, according to leading Namibian conservationist Chris Brown.

This is an amazing recovery in numbers over the last 30 years. As I found when researching my book on the history of human-lion relations – Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and CoexistenceDr Flip Stander, the leading expert on the desert-adapted lions, believed that by 1991 there were no lions left in the Skeleton Coast and Kunene area (including Damaraland). However, in 1993, he discovered lions again in the region. They used the river valleys to hunt gemsbok, giraffe and other wild prey, but also hunted cattle and small stock kept by local farmers.

The development of the Namibian conservancy system in the 1990s was a lifesaver for the desert-adapted lions. The development of the conservancy system helped mitigate conflict and increased tolerance of the lions by local pastoral communities. This was achieved through the sense of ownership over wildlife that came with the conservancies and the income they received from tourism and hunting.

Deals like this brought in regular and dependable income from high-cost-low volume tourism and from regulated, quota-controlled trophy hunting, which included a small annual quota of lions (with conservancies receiving US$10,000 for each lion permit in addition to income from employment and other earnings from the provision of accommodation, food and transport). If this income were lost, according to a report on trophy hunting and conservation by the IUCN and a study by Robin Naidoo, conservancies would be unable to cover costs and incentives to tolerate dangerous and destructive wildlife would disappear.

A 2016 study by the Namibian Ministry of the Environment showed that 11 conservancies in the Kunene-Damaraland region had annual losses of stock to predators of N$100,000-480,000. The report also noted that drought created greater conflict between pastoralists and lions, with 27 lions reported killed for stock raiding between 2013 and 2015. The likelihood is that many more had been killed covertly and buried by farmers in what one livestock owner described as “shoot, shift and shovel” incidents, that avoided the chance of any problems from the authorities.

That brings us back to the current drought. Thousands of cattle are dying, as are wild prey of lions such as gemsbok, hartebeest and giraffe. Those that survive are finding food and water in the river valleys that run through Damaraland to the sea. These have always been refuges in the dry season. They are now even more important havens for wildlife and for cattle owners.

In the Huab river valley in Torra conservancy, I met a young Himba herder with 50 cattle in a part of the valley where there was water from natural springs and lush vegetation surrounding it. His family had moved their cattle into the river valley when they ran out of food in their home area to the east. Lions had already taken two of their animals, but he said more would have died had they stayed where they usually grazed their animals.

The drought has magnified the danger to livestock and of retaliatory killings of lions. But paradoxically research shows that it also creates opportunities for lions to thrive. The veteran conservationist, Garth Owen-Smith, has noted that droughts can be a bounty for lions and their numbers increase. This is because there are carcasses available from animals (wild or domestic) dying in the drought and the influx of cattle and small stock into the river valleys. The gathering of weakened cattle at boreholes in the conservancies also provides easy prey for the lions.

Despite increased retaliatory killings as a result, during the droughts of the last seven years, lion numbers have increased during the worst periods because of the availability of food. The conclusion is that the current drought offers both hunting/scavenging opportunities for the lions but also raises the stakes in terms of conflict with people. It would not be surprising, based on research and my own monitoring of the reports of conflict over the last drought periods, if there is an increase in predation of stock and shooting or poisoning of lions in response.

The only hopeful sign that could limit stock loss and lion deaths is the evidence improved security measures I saw in the conservancies. Pastoralists get early warning of the approach of the lions and better enclosures to protect domestic animals at night. It is through efforts like these that conflict can be mitigated, benefitting local communities and their livestock, and the lions.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, a fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a member of the IUCN CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group. His book, Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence, was published in July 2019.