MOST OF THESE REPORTS INVOLVED LIONS IN SMALL safari parks in South Africa attacking people. One concerned a young woman killed by a lion that had been habituated to the so-called “lion whisperer”, Kevin Richardson, at the Dinokeng Game Reserve, near Pretoria. Another was the mauling of British lion park owner Michael Hodge at his predator centre in Limpopo province, after which the lion responsible was shot.
These stories are all about captive lions but attract great media attention through a combination of horror at the attack and subsequent calls for the lions involved not to be shot. Few shed any real light on the situation of these Big Cats and the very real and continuous conflict between wild lions and communities in African lion range states.
Three years ago, the killing of an old male animal by a trophy hunter – the Cecil the Lion Affair – did put an international focus on the issues around wild lions, but chiefly concentrated on eliciting emotive responses attacking the trophy hunting business, without any serious examination of whether or not it has any role in wildlife conservation.
THE REALITY OF HUMAN-LION CONFLICT
More serious are incidents of lion-human conflict with long-term consequences for both the survival of wild lions and the safety and livelihoods of people in areas of rural Africa where wild lions still live outside protected national parks or reserves. In mid-April 2018, 11 lions were poisoned by villagers at Hamkungu, in Uganda, near the Queen Elizabeth National Park. This was reported in the Uganda press and some conservation-related media, but did not hit the global headlines outside the UK’s Guardian (with a preliminary story but no follow-up), despite the large number of Big Cats killed.
Regular incidents like this shed light on the threats to lions and people and the true nature of human-lion conflict, but this rarely gets international media attention to the issues. National Geographic, for example, highlighted the lions’ unusual tree-climbing activities as a tourism attraction and said “humans encroach on their available habitat”.
Not much attention is given to the other side of the lion vs human conflict – the killing, often on a large scale, of cattle and goats by wild lions. On 14th November 2017, 171 goats and donkeys were killed in one incident by a pride of lions at Etendeka Klipriver in Namibia’s arid Kunene region in the north-west. A week before, 86 livestock were killed by the same pride at Awantapos in the Torra Conservancy nearby. The lions in the community conservancies and protected areas of Kunene and Damaraland in Namibia live alongside pastoralists in a very delicate and easily-upset balance. Lion predation on livestock can trigger what appear to be revenge killings that threaten the survival of the lion population there.
IMPOVERISHMENT AND CONFLICT MITIGATION
Despite the extent of the killings of livestock and the impoverishment of the pastoralist families involved, little attention is given to these events beyond the Namibian media and the websites of desert lion conservationists and researchers in Namibia. But it is a serious issue and one that will directly affect the survival of Namibia’s population of desert-adapted lions.
The conflict problems are not limited to Namibia and Uganda, but occur across lion range states in Africa where they have habitat outside or bordering protect areas. In these districts, lions live side-by-side with long established pastoral communities dependent on raising cattle, goats and sheep, and using donkeys as beasts of burden.
Livestock owners, many of them small-scale farmers without the funds to invest in employing cattle herders or building strong enclosures to protect the cattle at night, coexist with lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs in an uneasy relationship that can easily slip from hostile suspicion into warfare. Cattle graze freely over vast area during the day, when they are vulnerable to attack, more often by cheetah on goats or other small stock. But at night vulnerability multiplies, with, lions, hyenas and leopards the main threat.
In the past, extended pastoralist families often had herders available in the form of young men and boys who would tend the cattle during the day and bring them into enclosures at night. This provided protection and the deterrent effect of people near the cattle. It did not prevent predation but kept it within bounds and therefore limit the level of killings of suspected stock raiders.
But as young people, especially in countries such as Namibia and Botswana where education has improved hugely in its reach over recent decades, seek work in towns using their new qualifications, the pool of cattle herders shrinks and families no longer have young men available to tend animals. The small-scale farmers cannot afford to employ cattle herders from outside the family.
This means that livestock may be untended during the day and not brought into secure enclosures at night. The result has been conflict with predators, as lions and other carnivores seize the opportunity of an easy meal by preying on unprotected, free-roaming or poorly enclosed animals.
POISONING LIONS BUT ALSO – INADVERTENTLY – OTHER WILDLIFE
The inevitable result is that local herders suffering huge losses kill actual or suspected livestock raiders. They may be shot, but often are poisoned. This targets predators returning to carcasses of animals they had previously killed. But such poison-baiting also annihilates any predator that scavenges from the carcass, such as innocent lions, hyenas, jackals and vultures. Agricultural chemicals (pesticides and weed-killers) are freely available to farmers and can be lethal to wildlife when dead livestock are laced with them. The killing of lions and other wildlife in this fashion is a serious conservation issue but may also have an economic effect more serious than the original loss of livestock.
Lamenting the poisoning of the 11 lions that had strayed from Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, Bashir Hangi, the communications head for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), said: “It is a sad day for us as an institution and we regret that we lost 11 lions at Queen Elizabeth National Park…As a country we are benefiting mostly from nature tourism, so when someone comes and kills 11 lions, that person is an enemy of the country.” He said the UWA and police would try to catch the “criminals” who had carried out the act. Tourism earnings are vital to many countries and lions are a major attraction for dollar- bearing safari-goers from abroad.
PROSECUTING LION-KILLERS: MAYBE NOT THE BEST OPTION FOR WILDLIFE CONSERVATION
The commitment to prosecuting lion-killers is all well and good, but eradicating lions in this fashion is not something carried out like ivory poaching, for gain. It is a response to often devastating economic loss for communities and to prevent further killings. Prosecution of herders responsible for killing to protect livestock or avenge a loss criminalizes local people without providing any long-term solution.
If lions are to survive other than as increasingly isolated populations inside protected areas, they must be allowed to roam, as thousands do, outside protected areas and to coexist, as they have done for millennia, with local pastoralist communities. This, rather than prosecution of poor farmers or ever greater fencing in (or out) of wildlife, must be the answer if both local communities and wildlife are not to suffer.
The eminent mammal and carnivore specialist, Dr David Macdonald of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at the University of Oxford, whose unit oversees the Hwange lion research project which collared Cecil the Lion, told me the key to the future of a viable lion population in Africa was the maintenance of the “lion estate”. This is the area over which lions can move and has to include areas outside national parks and reserves.
Currently there are somewhere between 20,000 and a possible maximum of 35,000 wild lions in Africa. The most likely figure is around 24,000, believes Amy Dickman, who directs the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania. Many of these lions live wholly or partly outside reserves and are vulnerable to human hostility but also represent a threat to livestock.
EARLY WARNING SYSTEMS COUPLED WITH SUPPORT FOR COMMUNITY PROJECTS
If lion numbers are to be maintained or increased to avert the threat of extinction – most seriously in West Africa where fewer than 500 may survive in isolated population groups – then a variety of measures need to be adopted to enable more peaceful coexistence. First and foremost are ways of getting local communities to accept the presence of lions by providing incentives for them not to kill lions.
This can be in the form of working with local communities to provide early warning systems to deter lion attacks, assisting with the provision of lion-proof fencing but also channelling funds (usually from NGO, business or private donors) into community projects such as health centres, veterinary care for livestock and educational scholarships.
In Namibia, Tammy Hoth-Hanssen of the NGO Africat-North, is heavily involved in similar programmes, especially warning systems and providing materials for building night-time enclosures that can resist lions and other predators. When I was in northern Namibia recently, she told me that these had helped reduce hostility to lions but a lot of work was still to be done in convincing people to enclose their livestock at night and to see lions as something other than vermin.
The Ruaha project, Africat and similar schemes in Laikipia (Kenya) and Hwange (Zimbabwe) also fund the employment of lion guardians recruited from local communities to monitor lions, drive them away from livestock or warn livestock owners of lions in the area. The Botswana Predator Conservation Trust does similar work, but as one of their researchers, Cameron Radford, told me when I visited the region in May, they are also trying out techniques using audio deterrence, consisting of lion-triggered speakers broadcasting the roaring of dominant lions from the area to scare off young males, and also painting eyes on the rear end of cows to make lions think they have been seen.
These latter projects are in an early stage and may or may not have the desired effect. One conservationist to whom I spoke in northern Botswana was sceptical that they have anything but a marginal effect in reducing lion predation on stock.
In some areas, predation is so serious that local farmers give up keeping stock. This is the case in areas around Sankuyo, near the Okavango Delta protected areas in Botswana. Chief Timex Moalosi of Sankuyo told me his village has a major problem with lions from the Delta coming into their land. They kill stock on a regular basis and many villagers have given up keeping cattle and goats as a result. The chief said there had been a long-term issue with lions but until the ban on sport and commercial hunting in 2014, the lion predation had been limited.
Although lions had not been shot for sport since 2007, he said the presence of professional hunters and lions on the community’s land had kept the lions at a safer distance from the village. But he felt that the hunting ban had damaged the village’s economic prospects.
THE HUNTING BAN: A LOSS OF INCOME FOR LOCAL COMMUNITIES
One serious negative effect of the hunting ban was the loss of the income from hunters who pay to use community land. Chief Moalosi told me that in a good year, like 2010, the village could earn $600,000 from the quota of 120 game animals shot by hunters. This was direct income and helped persuade reluctant villagers to tolerate lions and the occasional loss of livestock. With hunting banned, income had been lost and lions were no longer deterred by the presence of hunters.
Trophy and commercial hunting is a thorny issue ‒ and much debated after the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe. Many local farmers and their village leaders believe that trophy hunting brought in income and helped persuade people that lions were valuable. Both David Macdonald of WildCRU and Amy Dickman of the Ruaha project, along with researchers and conservationists to whom I spoke in Botswana and Namibia, are not enthusiastic supporters of hunting and in many cases do not like it at all. But they see also that in unprotected areas with wildlife populations, if you don’t have the income from hunting and the maintenance of wildlife habitat that results, land will “go under the plough or cow” and be lost to wildlife for all time, I was told by one conservationist who preferred not to be named.
In Namibia, community conservancies are trying to mitigate human-lion problems through radio collaring of lions, regulated trophy-hunting to bring in income for local people and, where possible, high-cost safari tourism to generate more earnings and give wildlife a tangible value.
Human-lion conflict is a major problem for predator-conservation projects and for livestock farmers. There is not one solution but several cocktails of solutions that must vary from area to area. The one key component in every area, though, is getting local people to tolerate lions, either through livestock protection programmes, direct payments for involvement and empowerment in the implementation of wildlife projects.
Professor Keith Somerville teaches at the Centre for Journalism and is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. He is also a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and a research associate at the Marjan Centre for the Study of War and the Non-Human Sphere at King’s College, London. His book on human lion coexistence and conflict will be published in 2019.