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Conserving lions in the heart of Namibia

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The lions of Kwando, Image credit: Kwando Carnivore Project

By Gail Thomson

With input from Lise Hanssen, director of Kwando Carnivore Project.

17 September 2020 – The Zambezi Region (formerly the Caprivi) is a small strip of land that fits like a Namibian key in a lock made of four other countries – Angola, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This strip of land is near the centre of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, known as KAZA.

The KAZA landscape comprises fully protected National Parks, community conservation areas and mixed-use areas around towns and villages in all five countries. The Namibian component of KAZA has all of the same features of the broader landscape, only on a smaller scale. Most of the large carnivores and herbivores inhabiting this strip of Namibia don’t stay here their whole lives, or even for a year at a time. These animals move from country to country unencumbered by border controls that restrict human movements.

The Zambezi Region of Namibia (highlighted) sits at the heart of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA, blue outline) that spans five countries in southern Africa. While small, the slender Zambezi Region (called the Zambezi here) is critical for conserving wildlife in KAZA for a number of reasons.

The Zambezi provides an important connection for animals moving north to south (e.g. Zambia to Botswana) or east to west (e.g. Zimbabwe to Angola) and vice versa. If wildlife populations decline in this area, it will create a sink or vacuum that will affect wildlife in all of the neighbouring countries. Lessons learned from conservation actions within the Zambezi, which is a microcosm of KAZA itself in many ways, can be useful for neighbouring countries.

Land use zones in the Zambezi Region are a heady mix of three National Parks, one State Forest, seven community forests, 15 communal conservancies (the community forests and conservancies often overlap), numerous villages and one major town – Katima Mulilo. With over 90 000 inhabitants in 2011, the Zambezi is one of the more densely populated parts of Namibia. Nearly 70% of the human population here is rural. While conservancies generate income from wildlife-based activities to spend mainly on community development projects, the average household relies heavily on farming activities like planting crops and raising livestock for their livelihood.

The Kwando Carnivore Project works with several different communal conservancies in the Zambezi Region. Into this milieu walks the lion; particularly the dispersing young male lion who is trying to find a pride in one of the five KAZA countries and pass his genes onto the next generation. Within a few days, a young male lion can move from Botswana to Zambia, walking right through Namibia.

Young males tend to avoid the best lion habitat found in protected areas, because dominant pride males and their prides reside in these areas and will chase young interlopers out. This means they spend much of their time in farming areas and marginal habitats during their wandering adolescence. Then there are the established prides that spend most of their time in the National Parks, yet still make occasional forays into livestock farming areas nearby.

These movements inevitably bring conflict, as lions and cattle come into contact frequently and losses are suffered on both sides. According to conservancy Event Books records, 196 cattle were lost during 2012-14 leading local farmers to kill 20 lions in retaliation. One particular pride of 15 lions in 2012 had only three left by the end of 2014. Given the importance of this Region within KAZA and the global importance of the KAZA lion population (one of the largest remaining strongholds for the species in Africa, the escalating human-lion conflict could not be left unchecked.

The Kwando Carnivore Project therefore established a human-lion conflict mitigation project in 2013, focusing initially conservancies near Nkasa Rupara National Park (NP) that experienced the highest level of conflict. Given their initial success, they expanded their efforts to conservancies north of Mudumu NP in 2016.

In 2017, they expanded yet again to include Namibian conservancies near the Chobe River floodplains lying to the north of Chobe NP in Botswana. Given that lions usually attacked cattle at night while they were in makeshift traditional enclosures (kraals), the first order of business was to upgrade kraals in conflict hotspots to make them predator proof. The conservancy Event Books were particularly useful in identifying where these hotspots were located and the project staff work closely with the conservancies to plan where to put kraals and then monitor the results. A total of 170 kraals have been upgraded to predator-proof status since the project began, resulting in cattle losses from kraals declining by 90% and lion killings being reduced from 20 in 2013/14 to one or two per year for the period 2015-19.

This article was published on Africansustainableconservation.com

The author is Gail Thomson. Gail is a carnivore conservationist who has worked in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana on human-carnivore conflict, community conservation and wildlife monitoring. She is interested in promoting clear public communication of science and conservation efforts in southern Africa.

The Namibian Chamber of Environment (NCE) is an umbrella Association that provides a forum and mouthpiece for the broader environment sector, that can lobby with government and other parties, that can raise funds for its members and that can represent the sector.


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