Namibia’s desert lions in dire straits

What lies ahead?
Otis Daniels_Finck
Following reports and photos received recently of the Obab lion pride that roams the central western area of the Palmwag concession and the Skeleton Coast around the Unyab river delta, including photos of an emaciated, possibly dying male lion, Desert Lions Human Relations Aid (DeLHRA) reflects on the status of these animals.

Another report reflects on yet another (the fifth since October 2021 in this area alone) poisoned lion (9a collared adult female) that lost her life by lacing a zebra carcass with poison.

According to DeLHRA, the drought in the Kunene region where these lions roam is now in its tenth year and only very mild relief had been experienced in certain small areas where little and sporadic rain had fallen last year. Most of this outside of the desert lions’ home ranges, so they have enjoyed no benefit.

During DeLHRA’s last visit Springbokwasser, lambs had been observed and even a few oryx calves, however, the latter could literally be counted on one hand and the absence of prey like zebra and oryx was and still is shocking.

According to the researcher Dr Philip Stander, desert adapted lions’ diet consists of only one percent springbok, given the latter’s speed and agility and affinity to open plains.

Given the trend on the mortality of the desert lions over the past few years and the stagnation in reproduction (stress and poor conditions and increased cub mortality), it is a sad fact that the numbers have steadily dwindled even further.

Factors like starvation, retaliatory killings and poisoning by farmers, gender bias and disrupted dynamics (absence of males), removal/translocation of starving lions (Huab pride 2021) and lions accused of livestock predation (Ugab lions 2018), sterility (in some cases possibly due to in-breeding), culling of “problem lions” etc. have had a debilitating, destructive effect on the desert lion population.

Clear distinctions

Desert adapted lions are adapted to the harsh desert conditions prevailing to the west of the 150 mm Isohyet. The lions to the east of this are considered “normal savannah lions” as they have not been subjected to special adaptations to survive like their cousins to the west have. Both are genetically the same as Panthera Leo and the distinctions are mostly behavioural.

Given observations over the last ten years, DeLHRA now estimates the total desert adapted lion population to be only between 45 and 55, down from the previous 65 to 75 estimation of last year. This underscores their precarious and vulnerable position and the waning likelihood of their survival or recovery.

In light of expanding desertification clearly evident from west to east and the “shifting” of rainfall expectations and isohyets eastwards, the Trust is less than optimistic about the future of these and other desert dwellers.

However, DeLHRA maintains that through timeous intervention, the damage can be arrested and even overturned to an extent.

Turning things around

More Gazetted protected areas for wildlife and proper management of human wildlife conflict are two key factors needed to turn things around. Intervention with the help of a sanctuary like N/a'an ku sê / Tembila in the short to medium term will be a valuable tool for recovery in this instance.

Interestingly, although unsurprisingly logically, human lion conflict frequency clearly diminished as livestock numbers drastically decreased due to starvation as a result of the drought. This resulted in less encroachment pressure.

A contributory factor to this was a decrease in the lion population by around 50% over this period.

No reports or information is forthcoming from the Desert Lion Conservation Trust’s Dr Philip Stander and the last publication was done on 11 July 2021. The NGO has maintained silence since that date and it is unknown why.

Judging by the news on Instagram by the Lion Rangers active in the Ombonde area they, under the guidance of Dr John Heydinger and Mr Muzuma, are doing great work and DeLHRA looks forward to the positive results of their work as a corridor between the Etosha National Park and the Kunene region’s desert dwelling lions is of utmost importance for the survival and genetic diversity of the desert lions.

DeLHRA also has praise for the Namibian Lion Trust operating between the desert lions and the Etosha lions for their great work, adding that the Ministry of Environment has also stepped up their game.