Namibian government is failing its dwindling population

The future for the desert lions of north-western Namibia is “very, very bleak,” said Izak Smit, chairman of an organization dedicated to lion survival.

Numbers alone tell their story. Between 2016 and 2022, the population dropped by around two thirds. Smit says there are only 35-45 lions left now.

The Canary first reported on the lions’ plight in the spring of 2021, when images of emaciated individuals in the area surfaced. The government then promised to take action. This action included the development of a long-term plan for their conservation.

But the chair of the Desert Lions Human Relations Aid (DeLHRA) said recently The Canary Little has changed for the lions since then – certainly not enough to turn their fortunes around.

A perfect storm

As The Canary As previously mentioned, several factors have contributed to the desert lions’ dire situation. Namibia has experienced consecutive and prolonged droughts in recent years. This was particularly punitive in the Kunene region where the lions are located. The droughts have resulted in widespread loss of livestock and crops that people depend on.

In addition, the government has sanctioned overexploitation of wildlife before and sometimes during droughts. A core aspect of Namibia’s nature conservation model is the so-called sustainable use of wild animals. This can range from wildlife tourism to trophy hunting and wildlife trade. In about 20% of the country, municipalities manage such use in designated areas called conservancies. This is known as Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM). The use of wildlife by conservancies is governed by government policies and involves various organizations such as: B. Trophy hunters and NGOs.

Sustainable use

Sian Sullivan, Professor of Environment and Culture at Bath Spa University, recently pointed out that the term ‘sustainable use’ is somewhat misleading. That’s because the “use” of wildlife is not generally done by the communities themselves. writing in country magazineSullivan – who has decades of research experience in Namibia – said that in practice this means:

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the extraction of wildlife and other “natural resources” by commercial operators and consumers, many of whom are outside of these communities

Sullivan also claimed that some of the “rhetoric” from advocates of sustainable use “downplays” communities’ relationships with wildlife. This rhetoric includes the idea that humans would simply “hand over” species like lions and elephants if they did not derive income from their exploitation. Living with these species can be problematic, but Sullivan said that perspective is depreciating:

long-established ways of living with native fauna and ways of caring for and valuing wildlife beyond the minimum earnings of hunters and tourists.

declining population

Christiaan Bakkes has worked in wildlife conservation in Namibia for over 20 years. In 2019, he explained how over-exploitation of wildlife during prolonged droughts could impact species populations in the arid Northwest:

Overexploitation of desert-adapted wildlife puts additional pressure on a population that needs the drought-resistant strains to survive a prolonged dry spell. This can cause the population to crash irretrievably.

Again, the numbers tell the story. According to sighting statistics from the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organizations (NASCO), many wildlife populations in the northwest declined dramatically between 2012 and 2019. 2012 was the year before the onset of droughts. 2019 was the year after the government intervened in a moratorium on its shoot-and-sell policy. This was a sustainable use policy whereby conservancies could hire hunters to kill wild animals to sell to the meat trade.

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Bakkes emphasized that gemsbok, springbok and zebra are important hunting and sales targets. Their numbers fell from 3,244 to 774, from 11,711 to 4,384 and from 2,583 to 830 between 2012 and 2019. The Gemsbok in particular has continued to decline since then, with just 181 sightings in 2021.

forced into conflict

Of course, such declines are bad news for predators like lions. The lack of prey species has left some of them starving. Others have tried to stay alive by hunting livestock. This puts them in conflict with farmers. Even during the drought, Smit says, out of desperation, farmers have encroached on areas reserved for wildlife, making human-wildlife conflict (HWC) more likely.

Other aspects of Namibia’s wildlife policy are also affecting this volatile situation, with dire consequences for some desert lions. The fate of Romeo, a male lion “in his prime,” says Smit, is a case in point.

The Department for Environment and Tourism (MEFT) allowed a trophy hunter to pay for the thrill of killing Romeo in April. A proud male, Romeo lived in a small group of lions and fathered cubs. Because there are relatively few males in the desert lion population, he was essentially key to their chances of survival, Smit suggests.

A troublesome desert lion?

In comments about trophy killing, MEFT referred to Romeo as a “problem” lion. It said he was a threat to humans and responsible for numerous livestock deaths since 2019. This characterization contradicts what the Lion Rangers had said about him. This is an NGO that monitors the lions and aims to intervene to limit HWC. Just weeks before his killing, the group explained in a blog that Romeo, who wore a collar for surveillance, was “doing some kind of patrol” and risking conflict with farmers. They assured readers that they are “working tirelessly” to make sure he “doesn’t develop bad habits” because he’s “not usually a conflict-causing Leo.”

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Smit also says that in November 2021, conservation officials in the area asked MEFT to allow a trophy hunt for a lion. This was not because any particular lion was causing problems, but because hunting it would bring some income to the conservancy.

In other words, a few things seemed to come together to seal Romeo’s fate. He’s been responsible for some predation on livestock, Smit says. But that wasn’t typical or consistent, according to those who watched and knew him. Nonetheless, with community officials in need of money, a non-negligible shortage of hunters in the wings, and a government dedicated to it so-called sustainable use he was targeted by wild animals.

The Canary contacted MEFT for comment. By the time of publication it has not responded.

A failing policy

Smit says other lions – mostly younger males – have also died from deliberate, illegal poisoning as a result of HWC. Earlier this year, DeLHRA said their number was around 45-55 people. Estimates were 85 a few years ago, and in 2016 it was somewhere between 150 and 115. Now, Smit says there are only about 35-45 lions left. According to that Namibian, the country has seen almost 100 retaliatory lion killings since last year. Smith argues:

This all only suggests that the Department’s Human Wildlife Conflict Policy, as allegedly being implemented by the NGOs they are affiliated with, is a total failure. The result speaks for itself.

As The Canary As previously explained, DeLHRA has attempted to convene a committee of conservancies in the region to discuss various changes. Smit believes these would limit HWC and benefit both humans and wildlife. The suggestions include:

  • Clear demarcation of wildlife and agricultural areas and formal designation of the former as protected areas.
  • Rejuvenation of these protected areas, for example through the reintroduction of prey species.
  • Investing in converting protected areas into tourist destinations to generate income for communities.
  • A review of current Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between conservancies and NGOs. This process would ultimately lead to new MOUs with NGOs that can provide meaningful support to communities in combating HWC. The letters of intent would be reviewed annually.
  • The introduction of poverty alleviating initiatives such as hydroponic forage and staple crop production. This is the rapid production of food in closed rooms. In terms of forage, i.e. livestock feed, it can reduce the risk of predation associated with outdoor grazing.
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Band-Aids on Gunshot Wounds

The DeLHRA chair says efforts to reach agreement on such changes have so far proved unsuccessful, despite grassroots support. He suspects this is due to NGO influence on conservation officials, saying that the livelihoods of some of them “rely on the problem not going away”.

Smit explains that positive changes have taken place in some areas. The opening of a critical wildlife corridor between a national park called Etosha and the lion range continues. The corridor will allow the lions to travel in both directions and hopefully breed. But Smit says that alone is not enough. Furthermore, he argues that HWC policy as it stands is largely reactive, not proactive, like “putting band-aids on bullet holes.”

MEFT’s statements give a different impression. In response to recent concerns about malnourished lions in the area, its spokesman Romeo Muyunda said Namibian:

These lions have survived the recent drought and intermittent rains. Prey species have since slowly returned to their home ranges. As might be expected, lion movements have been incredibly dynamic across the region as individuals and groups search for available, highly mobile prey

“That’s it for her”

Smit offers a less rosy view, warning that their sparse remaining populations may not be viable. The genetic diversity of desert lions is “severely limited,” he says. Additionally, their environment is not exactly conducive to recovery due to overexploitation of their prey, drought, climate change, and human encroachment. He adds that the loss of lions affects all other species that depend on ecosystems where apex predators play an important role.

The DeLHRA chair provides a vivid example of the plight of lions. He talks about two female lions that have been abandoned in an area in the southern part of the Kunene region, sandwiched between two rivers.

He says that:

Through inbreeding, because the males are shot, they are both sterile. So they are at a dead end, they will not spread. That’s it for her.

Unfortunately for the women in question, Smit’s words turned out to be very prescient. On September 12, the Desert Lion Conservation Trust revealed that one of them – Nala – had been found dead. The whereabouts of the other lioness are unknown.

The Trust is trying to determine the cause of Nala’s death. But Smit thinks it’s very likely that the six-year-old could have starved to death.

Featured and embedded images via DeLHRA

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