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24 September 2017

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FIREWORKS IN THE DESERT

24 September, 2017

Lions near Palmwag

Clever farmers in Zambezi region took their cue from the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and blew vuvuzelas to keep elephants away from their crops. Fast forward to last year in Kunene, when fireworks were exploding in the night sky – an attempt to keep lions away from livestock kraals.

Add another iconic species: rhino. On World Rhino Day, 22 September, partners in wildlife conservation met at River Crossing Lodge, near Windhoek, to launch the North West Human-Lion Conflict Management Plan.

Human-wildlife conflict is one of the greatest challenges facing Namibian conservation. Communities may be willing to tolerate lions, elephants, and other predators and crop raiders, provided they reap the benefits from wildlife. If tourists are prepared to pay to see iconic species, then revenue should flow to those suffering losses from wildlife.

This was a key theme of the launch of the plan, which has been facilitated by NACSO with the MET and sponsorship from B2 Gold. NACSO members IRDNC, WWF and TOSCO were all involved in designing the North West Human-Lion Conflict Management Plan, which was officially launched by Deputy Minister of Environment and Tourism, Tommy Nambahu.

“We have recently seen an increase in human-wildlife conflict in the northern parts of the country, mainly involving lions and elephants,” stated Nambahu, echoing headlines about retaliatory lion killing outside of Etosha National Park earlier this year.

The conflict management plan is designed to address a long-term issue: where short-term emotions run high when cattle are killed by lions, or a lion is killed by a farmer. As a politician, Nambahu said, he and his ministry have to serve the people who live in rural areas, as well as responding to conservationists near and far, citing people in New York who rightly want to protect lions, but are not confronted by them daily.

Managing human-lion conflict in the arid environment of the north west is complex, stated the Deputy Minister, following on from presentations given by Kenneth /Uiseb, Deputy Director of Scientific Services at the environment ministry, and Dr ‘Flip’ Stander of Desert Lion Conservation.

Historically, said /Uiseb, lions ranged across the whole of Namibia before being killed in large numbers by farmers. Now, with much smaller numbers, the lion population is stable. But if human-wildlife conflict is not properly addressed, then more lions will be killed and numbers will plummet. There are currently between 112 and 139 lions west of Etosha, excluding cubs – an increase from around 20 in the 1980s.

Dr Stander began establishing the status of lions in the north west in 1997. By systematically darting lions and noting their ages by examining their teeth, and by collaring lions to establish their range, the desert lion project has built up scientific data, based upon which human-lion conflict planning can be built and carried out.

Stander gave details of the type of lions usually involved in conflict with farmers. Young males, at about four years of age and lacking experience, start to hunt on their own. If they survive conflict with farmers, they flourish until they are older and weaker, and again come into contact with livestock and farmers when they are around ten years of age.

Females are more cautious and have better survival rates, leading to an imbalance between the sexes. Where there should be roughly one female to each male, there are currently just over five.

Stander has assisted communities with human-lion mitigation by experimenting with novel ways to keep predators away from livestock. If anyone has witnessed a spectacular firework display in the Kunene night sky, and wondered what the celebration was about, they may have been witnessing Stander’s desert experiments to keep lions at bay.

Deputy Minister Nambahu spoke about the development of mitigation measures that include early warning systems, scare tactics, lion-proof kraals and improved herding, so that livestock is watched over and better protected.

NACSO Director Maxi Louis began the event by asking, “What would Namibia be without its wildlife?” She ended by thanking B2 Gold for its financial contribution to the North West Human-Lion Conflict Management Plan, and for its commitment to the environment. B2 Gold Managing Director Mark Dawe drew attention to the fact that Namibia’s Ministry of the Environment and Tourism is an example to the continent.

“Land is finite,” said Deputy Minister Nambahu. “People grazing above the land’s carrying capacity will lead to problems.” He echoed Louis’ call for a constructive partnership, based upon scientific monitoring, which will balance the needs of conservation and rural communities. Conservationists want to see lions survive, and tourists want to see lions in authentic surroundings. Dealing effectively with human-lion conflict hotspots and bringing revenue to rural communities through lion tourism offers hope that the iconic desert lions will remain a part of the northwestern landscape.

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