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Ovahimba herder Tjimbari Kamendu anxiously awaits news of a pride of lions sighted close to his kraal –or livestock pen— in the village of Omukutu, inside the Anabeb Conservancy in northeast Namibia. It's a wild landscape grazed for centuries by livestock guided by local herders. Here, there are no fences to separate people and wildlife. A nearby seasonal waterway sustains cattle, goats, and donkeys alongside elephants, oryx, and zebras.
Villagers have made some accommodations for the hyenas and lions that share this landscape: the wooden kraals are wrapped with dark cloth. This keeps the goats hidden at night when these predators hunt. Kamendu has never actually seen a lion. He fears them but is also pragmatic about their presence in the landscape. "I have been taught about them and their tracks because they have always been here," he says.
Namibians lived with predators long before colonialists arrived. It's wrong to romanticize a past filled with danger and hardship - lions are hard to live with and always will be – but historically the big cats could move freely, with plentiful wild prey to keep them away from livestock. When hunters depleted these landscapes, the regional lion range contracted to approximately 2,700 square miles in the 1990s. Since then, an almost 400% increase in the lion population has primarily occurred on unfenced communal conservancy land like this.
From 2003 to 2015, lions, hyenas, and other predators were responsible for 5,862 livestock attacks in core lion-range conservancies in Namibia. In this desert landscape, livestock are often the most significant asset—providing livelihoods, milk, meat, and manure and serving as currency or indicators of wealth. The recent prolonged drought forced both livestock farmers and wildlife into areas they would not normally occupy to find food and water and led to a dramatic decline in wildlife and livestock populations in northwest Namibia.
The lionesses and one subadult male seen close to Kamendu's kraal mainly hunt giraffe and are well known in the Anabeb and Omatendeka conservancies. These are two of 86 conservancies in Namibia where local people manage and benefit from the wildlife they live with through jobs, proceeds from tourism, and other sustainable resource use.
After the lions recently killed a donkey near where Kamendu takes his goats to drink, the villagers were understandably worried about further losses when they met with their local Lion Rangers in the shade of a gnarled mopane tree. Lion Rangers are specially trained game guards employed by the conservancy to help prevent conflict between people and lions, and part of the Lion Ranger project. There are roughly three Lion Rangers per 60 square miles.
Lion Rangers wear out several pairs of boots a year as they trek the remote, hard-to-reach areas that the lions, prey, and livestock roam. Their data inform livestock owners, researchers, and conservationists about lion movements. They also work with rapid response teams that help implement safe and tested non-invasive methods to move lions out of an area, like setting contained fires, playing loud music, using strobe and spotlights, and driving perimeter patrols with vehicles. The work of lion ranger patrols and rapid response teams is complemented by high-tech collars that inform landscape-level approaches to lion conservation and conflict mitigation.
Not far from Kamendu's village, in the Etendeka Concession, Namibia Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism Large Carnivore Coordinator Uakendisa Muzuma; Dr. John Heydinger, a conservation biologist; and Dr. Diethardt Rodenwalt, a veterinarian, are working with Lion Rangers to collar another group of lions.
"They are up there, on that hillside," says Heydinger, indicating a distant green bush as a landmark. He sketches a safe approach in the sand and activates the collars. Rodenwaldt’s medical box is carefully packed for easy access, and he has a stethoscope and stopwatch hung around his neck. "When it happens, it happens fast. The lion’s wellbeing is our priority," he notes as they head over the rugged ankle-twisting hillside to where the lions are. Sometimes, finding and tracking lions takes days on foot amongst the craggy buttes, windswept canyons, or swathes of golden-maned savannah. This is the work of the Lion Rangers. Not all attempts to dart lions are successful, as they are wary of humans and quick to disappear, but the team is patient.
"The satellite collars let us remotely monitor individual lions in hard-to-reach areas. These lions either play a central role in the population's social dynamics or are likely conflict-causing individuals,” says Heydinger.
While collar data contributes to research, the collars serve a more immediate purpose in villages with lions' early warning systems. They communicate with a tower placed in villages to warm farmers when lions are nearby. When a collar comes close to a tower, farmers and the lion rangers get SMS alerts detailing lion locations, and a series of lights and sirens alert farmers to the lion's presence.
The desert-dwelling lions are a behaviorally-adapted population that can withstand climate extremes and long travel. As a result, they present a unique set of problems for residents and any meaningful progress in addressing human-lion conflict will be locally driven and inclusive. That’s why the Lion Rangers work closely with the residents who bear the brunt of the risk associated with living with predators.
"The farmers are feeling very good about this system in terms of preventing livestock losses by knowing that there is a collared lion around that area," says Lion Ranger Jendery Tsaneb. "What we are hoping for as rangers is to prevent conflict and to increase the lion population so there can be lions in the future."
Over 36 hours, with support from the Ministry of Environment Forestry and Tourism, WWF and the Global Environment Facility, the team darted and collared five more lions in the Ombonde Research Area, including one from the group close to Omukutu. Based on their condition, Heydinger says the lions appear to be thriving in the rugged environment.
During each collaring, the team recorded whisker pattern photos for a forthcoming Northwest Lion Population Survey, as each lion has its own unique whisker pattern. This was the first-ever survey of these desert-adapted lions and will serve as an essential baseline for population monitoring. It was designed and implemented by the Lion Rangers Research Team under the oversight of Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism.
Across conservancies in Namibia, WWF and its partners are investing in new pilot programs to collaborate with local communities, better understand and conserve these large carnivores, reduce conflict between wildlife and humans, and ensure people’s livelihoods are protected.