Conservation Diaries - Lions in Namibia

September 3, 2018

Leopards outside my tent, scorpions on the inside, a recurring deadly cobra (AKA Coby Bryant) by the shower, and black-widow spiders in the kitchen. All these wonders awaited my expedition in Namibia's Nyae Nyae Conservancy! Working for two small NGO's called Walking For Lions and Nanofasa, and with no real experience of the African bush, I lived alone in this research camp below for three months - my first time in Namibia and I was definitely thrown in the deep end! This photo-story guides you through my time and research there, and I hope it makes you want to visit this Namibian gem!

Luckily for me, during my stay I was to be working with the incredible Ju/’Hoansi San bushmen, a group of people who despite their struggles with disease, famine, and loss of their home-land, maintain a deep sense of community and are amongst the happiest and friendliest people you could meet. Genetic analysis of their mitochondria shows them to be about 150,000 years old, making them potentially the ancestors of all modern humans and the most ancient human race on earth!

Nyae Nyae was Namibia’s first conservancy, pioneering a model of natural resource management that was run by the community, for the community; the area facilitated economic growth despite the rural and harsh environment, and now there are 82 registered conservancies in Namibia. Nyae Nyae’s success was in part due to the San’s unrivalled sense of community. I sat in awe watching one of their traditional dances, which involves community members singing and dancing with intense rhythmic clapping and booty shaking around a fire. The village’s healer ingests local 'herbs' to alter his consciousness, and combined with their hypnotic song, he look’s into the future and guides the group’s next actions with help from their ancestors. An unforgettable moment under the milky way. Whilst this dance was for tourists and lasted only an hour, the real deal lasts a whole day! That's a whole lot of booty shaking.

Living alone for 3 months was difficult at the best of times, but during my first major African thunderstorm it was a little tense. Without a thunder-buddy heavy rains and winds tore down my 'kitchen' and lightening bolts crashed down like bombs shaking my tent. I set my GoPro up against the pizza oven and then sat in my truck watching Sherlock Holmes, trying not to think about needing the toilet as the storm picked up! Although it looks bright, this photo was taken in pitch black conditions and is lit only by lightening! 

My camp was based next to a little known bushmen village called /Xa /Xoba (the / are 1 of 5 clicks in their language). Here resided three ‘Mastertrackers’ - a title given to only a handful of people in the world. Their knowledge of the environment stems from their traditional nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and seems like magic to a westerner.

Alongside these Mastertrackers, and in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, my objectives were to: a) assess the status of lions in the conservancy; b) track large male lions so we could attach GPS collars to them and precisely monitor their movements around nearby farmland; and c) complete the first comprehensive spoor survey of Nyae Nyae since 1998. With reports of negative human-wildlife interactions reducing predator numbers and threatening the health of the whole ecosystem, we needed scientifically verified evidence to guide mitigation efforts to reduce this conflict for both the wildlife and local people. Nyae Nyae is home to all Africa’s top predators, and is a real stronghold for the elusive and endangered wild dog (Lycaon pictus). After two months of not seeing any, I was super lucky to see 4 packs in my last month! Check out those Mickey Mouse ears!!

Wild dog are amongst Africa's rarest carnivores, so I couldn't believe it when this pack of 19 stepped onto the road in front of us! We naturally stuck with them for as long as possible as they ran beside our vehicle and I hung out the door taking pics. The only time I felt unnerved was when they'd stop for a poo and make intense eye-contact with me - maybe they wanted some privacy? According to the bushmen, the adults were taking their pups out to show them how to hunt. This practical method of learning by watching and copying is actually evident in the way bushmen teach their own children - some of the brightest kids you could meet.

Nyae Nyae and the neighboring Khaudum National Park form an integral part of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area; a hugely important and ambitious project which attempts to connect wildlife populations between Namibia, Angola, Botswana and Zambia. Khaudum is a truly unique and wild area – you’ve never seen animal behaviour like it. It’s also a stronghold for Namibia’s lions. This lioness had a nasty injury to her back leg and looked like she was barely able to walk, let alone hunt and survive.

Fortunately, lions stay in family groups and she wasn't alone. Her sister was in prime condition. In collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, we attached a radio collar to her sister to monitor their movements. When collaring a lion the best practice is to use a bait such as antelope or warthog and add sedatives, making the tranquillisation easier and safer for the lion. The injured lioness is seen here eating a male kudu we used for bait - in her condition this was perhaps a life-saving meal.

To the east of Khaudum National Park lies farmland that was relatively recently given to Namibian politicians. The Livestock in these farms draws in nearby predators like a black hole, leading to inevitable conflict. Across the world wildlife are shot, poisoned, and snared due to conflict with farmers; unfortunately as the human population grows, so does our demand for meat, and these negative interactions will happen more frequently. This spotted hyaena caught it’s left foot in a wire snare and was seen limping unbearably towards a waterhole south of the farms neighbouring Khaudum. With no veterinary help in the rural setting of Nyae Nyae, the hyaena was shot by the area’s hunter, who put it out of it’s misery. A steep price to pay for our demand for meat. Finding this hyaena really hit me hard, but it also emphasised to me the importance of our surveys and presence in Nyae Nyae.

Whilst the San may have adopted western clothing, they’ve maintained their unmatched knowledge of the bush and wildlife tracking. Pictured from left to right, !ui David, !oma, & Dam are all classed as ‘Mastertrackers’, a level reached by on a select few in the world. They're so skilled that they can sometimes identify animals to an individual level, and Dam would even tell me where his wife was based on her tracks haha. I was fortunate enough to work alongside them as we identified tracks for our baseline predator spoor survey - they're awesome, I dare you to look at the guy on the left and not smile! When repeated over time, our spoor surveys will provide valuable data on population density trends so we can create plans to help both the areas wildlife and people. 

Leaving camp at 6am everyday, with Mastertrackers on the bonnet and a good playlist on the radio, I drove for around 6 hours per day to complete our surveys! With their remarkable skills we identified fresh tracks throughout the whole of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, driving a set of roads that varied from bumpy sandy substrate to ‘WTF is that a road?!’. After inputting the numbers of tracks of each species into a specific formula (for you scientists check Funston et al. 2014), we were able to estimate predator densities and build up a scientifically robust picture of the areas wildlife and the health of the ecosystem. If we find predator numbers are decreasing due to factors like snaring, then we have an evidence base from which to create mitigation measures.

Every evening I'd build a fire and make fresh bread for the trackers lunch during our surveys, adding in my chocolate brownie protein powder to bulk them up! We'd find a shaded spot to stop for lunch and put some music on (they became massive Justin Bieber fans... #Beliebers). But sometimes you forget where you are, and as we were sitting spreading on our P&J a leopard ran out of the bushes behind us! Maybe it was the Bieber that scared him away? #IsItTooLateNowToSaySorry

Alongside our baseline predator survey we also aimed to establish the status of lions in Nyae Nyae. Lion populations in territories further north are being heavily impacted by retaliatory and pre-emptive killings from livestock farmers, so it’s important to know how many lions are in our area and which areas they’re utilising. Once we found a big boy we planned on attaching a GPS collar to follow his precise movements. However, finding a lion is tricky in an area the size of Nyae Nyae – 8,992km2! Luckily I had Mastertrackers with me who can, from a few tracks, identify lions to an individual level, determine their sex with ease, and produce a reliable estimate of their age. Although this track was made in wet mud which increases its overall size, the broadness of the back pad together with its overall dimensions indicates this was a big male lion; exactly what we were after!

After 2 weeks of relentless searching I’d seen no sign of lion tracks in November 2017. Our objective was to fit a collar on a male, monitoring his movements to see if there’s any conflict between lions and farmers to the East of the park. After reluctantly giving up our search for a lion, I went with a member of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to fix a waterhole in Khaudum National Park; the same one we spent 3 full days clearing with the bushmen the week before!

This time the overflow was filled with elephant poo, so one of the two of us had to wade through the waterhole to fix the pipe while the other kept elephants away - being in flip-flops, I had the honour of sorting the pipe (yay!). Afterwards, while watching from a nearby hide, I felt slightly better about being covered in poo as the elephants came to drink the new freshwater. Then, out of nowhere, a male lion appeared out of the bush! I couldn't believe it, after not seeing a track for over two weeks we'd found one in person! He sat by the waterhole staring at us, unfazed by the elephants behind him - absolute don. Here's what I saw in my binos!

Karma for fixing the waterhole? Potentially. I think he could probably just smell a tasty British meal! He walked over as in slow-motion, his dark mane flowing in the breeze as he approached our waterhole; cliche but in my head it was just like Simba walking up Pride Rock at the end of Lion King. As night gathered, I attached my first lion collar with around 100 elephants in the background - a dream come true. This pic was taken moments before he let out a dazed growl and we realised it was time to finish up sharpish...

By combining the San bushmen’s ancient knowledge and unique respect for wildlife with modern conservation science techniques, Nyae Nyae has an incredible potential for being a haven for both wildlife and people; a rare example where people and wildlife can co-exist in our modern world. In this photo, Mastertrackers Dam and !ui David approached a bull elephant with an ease which left me questioning everything I thought I knew about animal behaviour. It was such a privilege to work with and learn from the San, and it’s one which I hope to continue. They have real struggles with disease, famine, loss of their home-land, and the degradation of their culture, but they maintain their wonderful sense of humour, deep sense of community, and are amongst the happiest people you could meet. They could teach us all a lot of how to live so well with so little - the important things in life: family, friends, and a deep connection with their environment (not forgetting tobacco, tea, and copious amounts of sugar).

Hope you enjoyed the photo-story! Please get in touch if you want to share your own #ConservationDiary!

 

 

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