Latest on the Desert-Adapted Lions of Namibia

It has been almost a year now since the release of the internationally acclaimed Vanishing Kings documentary which highlights the plight of a unique species, the desert-adapted lion of Namibia. Carel Loubser updates us on the Five Musketeers, the Hoanib region and international TV screenings of the documentary.

Some good news – new cubs

One of the mothers of the Five Musketeers gave birth to four cubs in early December. The four Floodplain Cubs were seen with their mother on the Hoanib Floodplain; they are six weeks old. Hopefully these four little cubs will follow in the footsteps of their big brothers and make it to adulthood as this will provide a significant boost to the region’s lion population.

Desert Lion Cubs

Some good news – the Five Musketeers are mating

The Vanishing Kings documentary leaves many viewers with the same question: “Will the Five Musketeers manage to find lionesses to mate with”. On the 5th February 2016 that question was finally answered when the Five Musketeers spent the week in the Okongwe area where they encountered the last two remaining lionesses of the Okongwe Pride (previously known as the 70s Lionesses). Both were in oestrous and they were mating with the five males. Now, the next big question: “Will these lionesses stay away from human contact until they manage to give birth and raise their cubs successfully?”

Why are these desert-adapted lion so unique?

To survive, these cats can live without water for extended periods. The little moisture they do take in is obtained from the blood of their prey. To find their prey, they need to travel very long distances in search of food and hunger will drive them to take risks when hunting larger prey. They will also sometimes use the little energy they do have to settle for smaller prey like mice – prey that other lions will see as a waste of time.

Walking over the hot desert sand, their legs tend to be a little bit longer than ‘regular’ lions, while to withstand the cold of the night, their coats are slightly thicker. To cool their bodies down they pant, and sweat through the pads of their paws.

Limited numbers…

As early as 1934 there were records of lion living in the Namib Desert, confirmed to be plentiful between the Kunene River and the lower Kuiseb River. Data made available by Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism shows that between 1970 and 1991 a total of 477 lion were sighted during 238 observations. The numbers in recent years dropped to 150 lions, restricted to north-west Namibia.

Why the drop in numbers?

Due to habitat loss and conflict with the local communities, Namibia’s lion numbers have further reduced to only a handful in recent years. Killing local communities’ livestock made these lion enemy number one. To protect their livestock – and out of fear of the lions killing their children –the communities will readily hunt and poison the lions.

The Hoanib Research Centre

Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is currently establishing a Research Centre. This is an ideal opportunity for guests to learn more about desert-adapted lion as well as many other desert-adapted animals. Guests also have the opportunity to watch the Vanishing Kings documentary. And lucky guests may even bump into the Desert Lion Conservation Project’s Dr Flip Stander.

Who is Dr Flip Stander?

Dr Philip “Flip” Stander is considered the “lion expert” of Namibia, especially when it comes to desert-adapted lion. For the last 15 years he has dedicated his life to them, spending up to four months at a time entirely alone in the desert. He is recognised by his rugged beard and deeply tanned skin.

He worked for Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism for 23 years studying large carnivores and obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1994. His doctoral thesis on the evolution of sociality in felids was awarded the TH Huxley Prize by the London Zoological Society. It would be difficult to find a more dedicated person in the world who has committed their life to protecting a specific species the way Dr Flip has.

Namibia Desert Lion Conservation Project

In 1998 Dr Flip started the Namibia Desert Lion Conservation Project with the objective of collecting data on the population dynamics, behaviour and the movements of desert-adapted lion. The project monitors the frequency of human-lion conflict and implements management plans together with the communities to prevent further killings. The project offers support to the tourism industry by developing and promoting specialised eco-safaris.

All lions, two years and older, are fitted with radio collars to assist in providing vital information on their behaviour, reproduction, mortality, movements and social structures. With GPS and satellite technology the lions are tracked by light aircraft and vehicles, with particular emphasis placed on individuals that may move out of their normal range into new habitats or into areas close to local communities.

The Hoanib River is flowing

In early February 2016 the catchment area of the Hoanib River unexpectedly experienced some excellent rainfall and this lead to the ephemeral Hoanib River flowing strongly. This is an unforgettable experience seen only a few times in a decade. As highlighted in Vanishing Kings this is not great news for the lion. With good rainfall, water and food for herbivores is not limited to the banks of the dry Hoanib. These herbivores, an important food source for the lion, spread out more than usual across the desert, forcing the lion to travel longer distances to find prey.

A second flash flood in February rapidly filled the Hoanib floodplain and for the first time in many years the Hoanib River managed to push through the dunes to reach the ocean.

Haonib River before and after picture

Vanishing Kings – Namibia’s Desert Lions

Filming of the Vanishing Kings documentary was conducted over a period of two years, and provides tremendous insight into the secret lives of the desert-adapted lion of Namibia. These cats roam the rugged mountains, majestic sand dunes, gravel plains, scrublands and beaches of the Skeleton Coast.

The documentary, directed by Will and Lianne Steenkamp, is filmed in a cinematic style and visuals of the film introduce viewers to an undiscovered world. Advanced aerial filming using Cineflex and drones showcases the contrasting landscapes as we follow the five lion brothers – the Five Musketeers.

“In this place of constant danger, everlasting hunger and thirst, and inevitable suffering, five young lions must conquer the desert and establish their own kingdom.”

North American screenings will take place later in the year and we will be sure to keep you updated on the exact time and date closer to the time.

Watch the trailer here.
Documentary run time: 52min
Directed by Will & Lianne Steenkamp, Into Nature Productions

Over time we hope to continue reporting back with even more positive news on Namibia’s desert-adapted lion.

Photos: Desert Lion Project

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