The Incredible Wild Lions of Namibia

Desert Adapted Lions in Namibia

In the rugged and arid landscapes of Namibia, where the relentless desert meets the untamed wilderness, a remarkable story of coexistence unfolds, a tale of the wild lions of Namibia. It’s a tale of apex predators, traditional herders, and innovative conservation efforts converging in a win-win vision for all. King of the desert and the rugged coastlines of Namibia are some very specially adapted lions. Read the incredible story of Namibia’s wild lions here.

Lions have always reigned supreme in Africa, their majestic presence and commanding roars symbolizing the wild heart of the continent for centuries. Namibia is home to a distinct and captivating subspecies, the desert-adapted lion which has carved out a niche in the challenging landscapes of Namibia’s deserts and semi-arid regions. Read our story and discover what sets these wild lions of Namibia apart from the rest of their regal kin.

Group of people on a safari game drive in the dunes of Namibia with an animal skull infront of them
Skeleton Coast in Namibia is so dangerous … ‘End of the world’ beach where skeletons lie in sand and ‘desert lions’ prowl.

Desert-adapted lions have not merely survived but thrived in the endless dunes of the Namib Desert where water is a precious rarity. These lions roam over expanses that can reach up to an astonishing 400 square km, such large territories being a necessity in the desert where resources like water and prey are scattered across the vast landscape. Most desert-adapted lions live in the Kunene region but they can also be seen in Etosha National Park, Caprivi, Kaokoland, Bushmanland, and Khaudom Park. 

Etosha National Park boasts the largest population of lions in Namibia and what sets these lions apart is their freedom from Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus (FIV), Canine Distemper or Bovine Tuberculosis making them vital assets to lion conservation. Desert-adapted lions roam such large territories that they are tenacious and opportunistic hunters. While they primarily prey on the likes of oryxes and springboks, their diet can include everything from cormorants to seals along the coast, making them the only lions known to target marine prey. This unique adaptation to coastal living harkens back to the 1980s when desert lions abandoned the coast due to human pressure. Their return in 2002 was a sign of their remarkable resilience, even though they had left their marine hunting habits behind.

Human and Lion Conflict In Namibia

Magnificent lions share their territory with local communities, and managing human-wildlife conflict or human and lion conflict in Namibia is ever concerning. Conservancies employ Lion Rangers, specially trained game guards, to help prevent conflict between people and lions – with roughly three Lion Rangers per 60 square miles. The primary threat to desert-adapted lions is human retaliation after clashes with these big cats and the Lion Programme aims to show communities how to run the programme from their initiatives, to overcome their poverty and to find ways of making an income from these lions therefore wanting to conserve them. 

Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism, in collaboration with the Desert Lion Conservation Trust (DLCT), has implemented innovative measures like geofencing to track and manage lion movements. This virtual fence line sends automatic alerts when lions wearing satellite collars approach areas frequented by tourists or anglers, reducing the risk of dangerous encounters. It is very difficult to address the conflict between people and lions as it requires resetting the delicate balance between the prime conservation of natural resources and human survival needs. In the Kunene region, there is little water or rain and farmers move around to find grazing land for their livestock, meeting lions on the prowl as they go. The people are learning that the growing tourist trade is beneficial to their economic survival and that scientists are constantly researching lion needs, behaviour and numbers. Lion habitat is therefore part of the equation and this needs to be balanced with the people’s farming needs. 

Etosha Fly In - Namibia Safari - Etosha National Park - Voyage2Africa
Namibia is the only country in the world where lions have adapted to desert conditions and walk to the beach to prey on seals.

Another ambitious project with a noble mission is the erection of predator-proof bomas, secure enclosures that shield livestock from the clutches of lions. Illuminating the night with solar-powered “lion lights,” the project disrupts the lions’ nocturnal forays, ensuring they dare not venture near the kraals. The project also engages and empowers the community by training select individuals as “lion guards.” Armed with telemetry equipment, these guardians keep a watchful eye on the lion populations, alerting nearby communities when a lion pride approaches, and fostering a symbiotic relationship between humans and wildlife.

The ripple effect of these projects promises a lasting impact as they strive to crush human-wildlife conflicts in neighbouring areas, staunching the annual decline of wild lion populations. In doing so, they contribute to the stabilization of the local lion population, offering a lifeline against the looming threat of extinction. Moreover, they generate valuable job opportunities in wildlife management, fostering a more positive perception of these magnificent creatures that, paradoxically, pose a challenge to human survival.

The tale of Namibia’s desert lions is not just about survival; it’s a conservation success story. Conservation organizations like AfriCat play a vital role in mitigating human-wildlife conflict. It is a reality in Africa that fences have been used for decades to divide people and wildlife, keeping wildlife in reserves that are managed by conservationists. But captive species experience changes in these artificial territories – their ecology changes and they can no longer migrate and emigrate which can lead to inbreeding issues and even extinction. AfriCat is based in an enclosed reserve, the 22 000 ha private Okonjima Nature Reserve, to boost studies on large cats and hyenas in such circumstances and to find the best solutions for both people and big predators.  

group of guests on a safari game drive in Namibia
From desert-adapted elephants and lions to the rare puku and oribi antelopes, there is a wide range of wildlife in Namibia to see on safari.

Tourists are encouraged to witness the wonder of the Namibian wilderness while supporting conservation efforts. They can support AfriCat and visit the Rehabilitation Centre where some carnivores have to live because they cannot be released back into the wild for various reasons – some are orphans from parents who died due to human-wildlife conflict, others have been confiscated in the illegal wildlife trade or from traps and others are habituated livestock hunters. 

It is a reality that cattle herds have dwindled significantly and predation by spotted hyenas and lions is mostly to blame. The struggle is real, but the resilience of livestock-owning households shines through as many are keen to share their communal lands with lions, even as they grapple with the hardships. On the other hand, some 40% of local farmers have lost patience and vow to eliminate lions that threaten their livestock.

Amid this complex tapestry of human-wildlife conflict, a beacon of hope emerges in the form of a Human-Wildlife Conflict Policy established by the Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism (MEFT) in 2009. This policy charts a course toward conflict mitigation, emphasizing prevention and self-reliance. The government’s role is one of coordination, as it cannot be held accountable for wildlife-induced damage. The first strategy is prevention, involving practical measures to keep wildlife at bay, protecting crops and livestock and the second strategy is the Human-Wildlife Self Reliance Scheme that offers compensation to those who bear the brunt of losses – from the Game Products Trust Fund, along with contributions from well-off conservancies. 

Namibia Wild Lions Under Threat

The story of the lion’s struggle for survival extends beyond Namibia’s borders. Once, a grand army of 200,000 wild lions roamed the vast African continent but today this has dwindled to 20,000 free-roaming lions, their historic domain shrinking by a staggering 95%, under relentless attack from habitat encroachment. The lion is the vital apex predator in the food chain but continues to face a grave existential threat from people. Unsustainable trophy hunting and poaching for the Illegal Wildlife Trade compound the challenges, but the worst threat is still Human-Wildlife Conflict. Prolonged drought and rising temperatures heighten tensions between farmers and lions. The expansion of farmlands and settlements, overgrazing by livestock competing with indigenous grazers, and bushmeat harvesting all force lions and other large predators into taking easier prey, bringing them closer to human territories.

Two lions walking through the bush in Botswana
Did you know? They are the only lions known to target marine prey.

Interestingly, a population of lions and other large carnivores resides beyond the boundaries of Protected Areas, coexisting with farmers and their livestock on communal Conservancy farmland. This emphasizes the urgency for peaceful coexistence – when large carnivores encroach upon domestic stock, communities often respond with retaliation based on fear, frustration, and no alternatives. People have also developed a negative perception of lions and other “conflict species”.

In light of these challenges, the Namibian Lion Trust emerges as a guiding light. Its mission transcends mere protection, extending to education, guidance, and advice for the farming community on both communal and free-hold farmland. It’s a concerted effort to not only safeguard these magnificent creatures but also to understand their behaviour, fostering a future where humans and lions can coexist harmoniously.

Tourism for Lion Conservation in Namibia

As global travellers flock to Namibia, they unknowingly play a pivotal role in safeguarding the future of the iconic desert-adapted lion. Tourism revenue sustains the Okonjima Nature Reserve and the AfriCat Foundation and has transformed former cattle farms into protected wildlife habitats. It provides employment opportunities for local Namibians and visitors to Okonjima to actively contribute to ongoing research, enriching their wildlife encounters and understanding of Namibia’s conservation challenges. The future of Africa’s natural resources lies in this symbiosis between sustainable, eco-sensitive tourism and environmental conservation. 

Swimming pool at Little Kulala Camp
Known for its stark landscapes, arid deserts, and plentiful wildlife, Namibia is the ideal spot for the luxury safari getaway of your dreams.
  • Eco-Tourism: A Win-Win

Namibia’s burgeoning eco-tourism industry is a testament to the country’s commitment to conservation. Travelers can enjoy guided safaris to witness lions and other wildlife in their natural habitats and revenue generated from eco-tourism provides a substantial financial incentive for local communities to protect their natural resources, including lions. Communities then view these magnificent creatures as assets rather than threats.

  • Community-Based Conservancies

Namibia’s innovative approach involves empowering local communities to manage their natural resources sustainably. Many conservancies allow lions and other large predators to coexist with human activities, facilitated by tourism, as lodges and safari camps create jobs and economic opportunities for these communities.

  • Research and Education

Tourism also funds critical research and education initiatives and conservationists use the insights gained from observing lions in the wild to develop better strategies for their protection. Tourists develop a deeper understanding of the importance of preserving these apex predators and their ecosystems, spreading the message of conservation far and wide.

  • Responsible Wildlife Viewing

Responsible tourism practices ensure that encounters with lions are ethical and safe for both humans and animals. Guides and operators adhere to strict codes of conduct to minimize stress on wildlife and avoid habituation, which can lead to conflict.

This story is about the king of the desert and the rugged coastlines of Namibia, the very specially adjusted wild lions endemic to this region. Namibia’s unique blend of tourism and conservation has turned the tide for its lion populations where eco-tourism dollars grant visitors the privilege of witnessing lions in their natural habitat and also help to secure a future for these magnificent creatures.

NEWSFLASH!

Meanwhile, in a recent article in the well-read boundary-breaking Daily Maverick, Senior Carnivore Conservation Scientist at the Endangered Wildlife Trust Sam Nicholson has acknowledged that the remaining 23 000 lions left in Africa require a massive investment of at least $3 billion to help reinforce and protect their habitats while backing concentrated conservation techniques that respond uniquely to each population in each country.

Nicholson’s comprehensive paper in Nature Journal highlights the obvious contrasts in lion population survival in four African countries when compared to West and Central African lions. Lions in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe are faring fine, their populations increasing by 12% between the years 1993 and 2014 but in other African lion territories, lions have decreased between 60 and 66%. The main threats are poaching for bushmeat using snares (causing lion extinction in Zambia’s Nsumbu National Park) and poaching for lion parts (causing near extinction of lions in Limpopo National Park Mozambique). 

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