“When culture is in nature it can be well preserved.”

     -Maasai saying 

A roar electrifies the outback like a sonic earthquake in the night sky. The reverberation shakes the tent. The sound feels as if it came from only a few feet away. In reality the lion’s voice came from a kilometer distance. But in the jet black night of Africa, sights and sounds deceive.

The oldest desert on Earth provokes, tantalizes and entrances with each life form that endures. Each creature a sentinel paying penance in an otherworldly landscape unmatched on the continent.  We were in Namibia among some of the rarest lions on Earth, lions that have had to contend with poachers, angry farmers and climate change. They are distinctly leaner than savannah lions, have smaller prides and larger home ranges and do not commit infanticide. Our guide Boas is a Himba and key ranger of the Rhino Trust that is in charge of saving the last free black rhinos in Africa.  The famed desert lions somehow endure in near unbearable conditions. A little over a generation ago there were maybe 20 or so lions in the region. Today their number is close to 120 and every year they hold on precariously on the edge of an almost waterless world. It is a miracle.

Boas, who was born a herder, has worked with Garth Owen Smith the conservationist who won the Goldman Prize, the alternative Nobel Prize, for over 20 years and knows his people, like no outsider possibly could. While there have been testimonies of human lion conflict all over the continent, he insists that “What people are getting from these animals is much greater than the problem that they are causing.” Tourism dollars bring much more revenue than whatever costs are accrued because of livestock loss. 

In camp, one night, Boas asked some locals when the last time lions were in the vicinity. “They killed how many livestock? Three dogs. That’s it,” he said. “The locals phoned the rangers to come and keep these animals away. It was not because lions have been causing problems. It was not that much of a problem to them.” Boas explains that we passed by a “Holy Village” which years ago was not a permanent village…became the tribe was nomadic. “During the rainy season when livestock were forced out of an area there were holy water holes where people had to dress traditionally. People wearing Western clothing were not allowed. Once water was discovered one person, the right person was authorized to use the water hole and to dig ten meters. In that area no animals were hunted. Not one oryx, no springbok. Taboos were honored. If one did not believe in the holy fire, you would not believe in the holy spring, the holy village or even the holy plain.”  

When missionaries came people started to forget to honor the holy fires and by extension the springs, and they eventually dried up. “That can cost” exclaims Boas. Because the wildlife suffered as well. Lions who got their food from giraffes or zebras began to predate livestock. Eventually the entire ecosystem suffered and the waterhole dried up. An age-old way of being and honoring the land gave way to a very new religion that saw the land as a commodity. Instead of honoring the earth like their ancestors did. Some Himba began believing in a faraway, abstract ‘God‘ instead of honoring the ancestors and the land right under their feet. The land suffered and many springs simply dried up. As Boas underscores, the drought only came with the coming of the missionaries and a religion that did not honor the sacred springs. 

Boas relates how before our arrival three big male lions had killed five rhinos. Lions can be a problem and farmers can say, “Now I will take the law into my own hands. I will shoot the lions. But generally farmers report the cases of problem lions to rangers, which is good for conservation. People generally try to conserve their wildlife. Outsiders, poachers can cause serious damage.” It is why farmers have to work with the police for conservation strategies to work. Communal conservancies are the key and Namibia with its small population of about two million is one of the models in sub-Saharan Africa. But trophy hunting still lingers as a problem with local lions. One method that has worked in diminishing human wildlife conflicts is shade cloth, which makes the structures of kraals where farmers keep their goats appear large to lions. They act as deterrents. In some instances lions have to be killed. In others they are translocated to such areas as the Huab River.  

Groups like the NGO Desert Lions Human Relations Aid, run by Izak Smit, also do their best to mitigate human lion altercations. “We could not stand by and watch the human lion conflict escalate and was drawn in…by farmers asking us for our help. Our moral conscience in this regard has become our master and compass,” said Smit.

Trophy hunters have found a way to take out their bounty even here. In some cases trophy hunters are called in to take out “problem” lions for 60,000 pounds, the money supposedly going for the conservancy in which the lion was shot. The viability of “sustainable” trophy hunts has been called into question on many occasions, especially in a time when climate change, drought and serious food stress are already challenging what is one of the rarest populations of lions in the world. 

Boas says the conservancies cooperating with rangers and law enforcement to protect desert lions and rhinos are doing well.  The revenue farmers get from tourists wanting to see wildlife goes directly to them since they “own” the wildlife. In most cases the communal farmers are more tolerant than white commercial farmers. Farmers who take the law into their own hands are brought to justice when it is possible. But the government attempts to manage wildlife in populated communities have not always been successful even though Namibia’s Constitution and Article 95, the first of its kind in Africa, mandates protecting ecosystems and biological diversity for the benefit of all. The Nature Conservation Act of 1996 transferred the responsibility of management of wildlife from the government to “conservancies” managed by locals.  About 60 conservancies manage about 50,000 square miles of communal land. 

One such conservancy was the area on the Huaneb River where we spent a night awakened by a lion in the dead of night. Several roars that shook the entire valley. The next morning we followed tracks from right outside our tent and by the stream bed where we found a dead decomposing giraffe. Our four rangers, experts in tracking, still had us going in circles for about an hour until we finally found what we were searching …four lions. Boas insists that his trackers use traditional means of tracking wildlife, with boots on the ground instead of GPS systems and drones because following tracks paints a more complete picture of what is happening. The morning “newspaper” of tracks on the sand leaves a more vivid and coherent picture of what is happening in the landscape than mechanical eyes. It is this method which he has used for a generation.

The lions had clearly outsmarted us, as lions often do, until we found their tracks going straight for the mountains overlooking the valley where we had camped. We took out our binoculars and found four small figures, three females and one male marching straight up the hillside towards the top of the mesa. A male which has become much rarer than females because of the price trophy hunters have put on males and their manes. The sight of these formidable four slowly marching up the side of a mountain until they were profiled against the sky made for a remarkable moment, as if the lions were ascending, willing themselves to a higher plain, above the storm of the human species below. It was a rare moment for us to see lions from several hundred yards away, lions who were not lured, seduced or tamed by the barrage and convoys of tourists who often overwhelm lions. A very rare almost mythic population, still abide in deep desert valleys that abide by a different time. 

Farmers will continue to pursue varied pasture for their goats and livestock, into tourism areas. With encroaching droughts, these livestock will come into conflict with lions.

And loss of oryx and zebras may push lions to hunt livestock. Only time will tell if the desert lions of Namibia will outlast the heat and the vagaries of a world far beyond their ken, and if Namibia’s human wildlife management operations can satisfy both humans and the king of beasts, literally on his last legs all across the continent.

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.

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Published on Dec 02, 2021