‘Namib’ derives from the Nama language, meaning “an area where there is nothing.” This vast region extends for 1,200 miles along the Atlantic coast—from Angola southward across Namibia—to the Olifants River in South Africa. Within Africa’s second-youngest country, lies the world’s oldest desert, with more than 55 million years of history buried in its shifting sands. In this austere landscape where there is “nothing,” Namibia’s human and nonhuman inhabitants evolved to value everything.

The ascending sun ignites the surface, creating shimmering rivulets of deep red, burnt orange, ochre and gold, which swirl about in the wind. Species like the oryx, springbok, ostrich, spotted hyena, aardwolf, bat-eared fox and the rare dune lark traverse the dunes, which reach heights of 1,000 feet. Towering above their domain, is the king of the desert: the African lion (Panthera leo leo).

As an apex predator, the lion influences trophic systems from the top down. They maintain balance within the ecosystem by stabilizing populations of herbivores—like zebra and wildebeest—to prevent overgrazing of endemic plant life. Not only do lions promote the integrity of food webs, but they also serve as measures of environmental success…and indicators of environmental decline.

Despite centuries of instilling natural order in Africa, the lion reign may soon fall at the hands of humanity. One-hundred years ago, 200,000 lions ruled the continent. Today, fewer than 20,000 remain–150 of which, make up the desert lion population. Lions have lost 90% of their historical range, are locally extinct in 26 African countries and only occur in 27 of their original range countries. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List recorded a 43% decline between 1993 and 2014. Current trends suggest that lions will decline by a further 50% over the next two decades in West, Central, East and Southern Africa.

In honor of World Lion Day, I propose we spend the tenth of August considering the following: Will we push lions to the edge of extinction, or can we come together to conserve this iconic species?

Desert-Adapted Lions

Lions were recorded living in the Namib Desert as early as 1934. Data from Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism revealed that between 1970 and 1991, a total of 477 lions were sighted. Today, there are roughly 150 lions left, and they are restricted to areas within Etosha National Park, Kaudom Game Reserve, parts of the Tsumkwe Districts, the Kunene Region and the Caprivi Region.

Lions of the Namib, which live predominantly at the northern edge of the desert, exist at Earth’s extremes. Average annual precipitation is about 0.5 inches at the coast and two inches inland; though some years there may be no rainfall at all. To survive these arid conditions, lions are capable of obtaining their moisture requirements from the blood of prey. Although they mainly hunt ungulates,  desert lions have adapted to be opportunistic feeders. When available, ostrich eggs, seals captured along the Skeleton Coast and even succulent vegetation are all on the menu.

Desert lions are not a separate species, or even a subspecies of savanna and woodland lions; however, they do possess a few unique traits that distinguish them from their inland kin. They are leaner, with longer legs to facilitate long-distance travel on hot sand and have slightly thicker coats to withstand frigid nights. To cool their bodies, these lions will sweat through the pads of their paws. Namib lions also have smaller prides and larger home ranges.

Lion hunting zebra.

Threats

Despite their ecological, economic and cultural value, African lions are vulnerable to an array of anthropogenic threats. Lion numbers have plummeted by over 40% in the last three generations due to loss of living space, prey depletion, trophy hunting, trafficking, human-wildlife conflict and climate change.

Habitat Loss

Throughout Africa, protected and non-protected wildlife habitats are being lost, degraded or fragmented at an unprecedented rate. Lions have been reduced to living on only 8% of the land they once occupied. Africa’s human population is predicted to reach 5.7 billion by the end of this century, and sustaining this growth requires land conversion to settle, raise livestock and grow crops. Natural areas will be further exploited in the name of profit. To meet development goals, local farmers, private operators and policy-makers are displacing native species with expanding agricultural and mining operations. Consequently, viable habitat is becoming smaller and more isolated, leaving lions susceptible to local extinctions from prey depletion, loss of genetic diversity, disease and a decrease in reproductive success.

Illegal Wildlife Trade

In 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) issued a number of permits to legally trade lion bones. Between 2008 and 2016, 6,000 lion skeletons were exported from Namibia. Illegal domestic trade in lion body parts (skin, teeth, claws and bones) for traditional medicine and curio markets is currently perceived to be a bigger threat to wild lions than international trade. However, lion bones are becoming increasingly popular as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicines—now commonly substituted for tiger (Panthera tigris) bones. Though a large portion of the trade relies on captive-bred lions, fears remain that an escalating international demand will fuel the trafficking of bones sourced from lion wilds.

Human-Carnivore Conflict

The desert-adapted lion population has increased over the past 20 years from approximately 20 lions in 1997, to an estimated 112-139 in 2018. Many celebrate this as a conservation success, but not everyone delights in this victory. Lions in northwest Namibia primarily inhabit communal land, which is shared by farmers and their livestock (the chief source of income for the region’s residents).

Tensions between humans and large carnivores are further exacerbated by the changing climate. Throughout much of Africa, seasonality of rainfall is shifting considerably—increasing the frequency and severity of extreme drought and flooding. Consequences for lion populations include wide-spread herbivore die-offs, increased numbers of pests and disease epidemics. The disappearance of their natural prey forces lions to venture into human territory to feed on cattle and other animals. In retaliation, or as a preemptive measure, the lion will be shot. Since 2000, 89% of adult lion mortalities in northwest Namibia were the result of human-lion conflict killings. 

Pride of lions resting at etosha national park Namibia Africa

Conservation through Coexistence

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, wildlife in Namibia was suffering in the aftermath of colonial oppression and indiscriminate trophy hunting. The Namib was deemed inhospitable, and the Skeleton Coast was known to the locals as “The Land God Made in Anger.”

Some hope was restored in 1996, when the Namibian government granted the local and Indigenous people rights to create communal conservancies. Then, in August 2011, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola signed a treaty and pooled their resources to address poaching and climate change. The collaboration resulted in the world’s largest transboundary conservation area: The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). This sweeping wildlife sanctuary comprises natural treasures like the Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls, as well as half of Africa’s elephants.

The area that makes up KAZA has been a priority for World Wildlife Fund since 2003. With offices in three out of five KAZA countries, WWF is recognized as an important conservation partner—increasing the participation of local communities in natural resource management, and ensuring they are key benefactors of the money generated from tourism-related activities.

A vital component to securing resources and livelihoods is lion conservation. WWF educates and empowers local communities through anti-poisoning campaigns, providing better livestock enclosures and taking school children on trips to see the wildlife they’re protecting. Additionally, WWF uses satellite collars to study the movements of large predators—such as lions, spotted hyena, wild dogs and crocodiles—within KAZA. This information has helped the government and communal conservancies identify priority areas to protect as wildlife corridors. Understanding the movement and habitat requirements helps to mitigate human-carnivore conflict and gives communities the knowledge to better coexist with these species.

“There is more at stake than just saving lions from extinction; this initiative holds the promise of recovering the rich trove of other species associated with lions and the resplendent landscapes in which they occur as well as the opportunity of involving the local communities constructively and ensuring they also benefit from conserving lions,” Dr. Margaret Kinnaird proclaims. 

A beautiful sunset in Namibia.

© Nicole Soho Hickey

Ecotourism

Namibia’s 87 community conservancies cover nearly 65,000 square miles of land (nearly 20% of the country) and employ thousands of local staff. In 2018 alone, tourism businesses paid $3.9 million in wages to conservancy employees. Recovered wildlife populations—from elephants to desert lions—have contributed to a thriving tourism industry, generating more than 14% of Namibia’s GDP.

“Nowhere else in the world can free-ranging lions be seen amongst sand dunes or on a beach. As a result, the iconic desert lion has become a prominent feature in Namibia and is highly valued, both aesthetically and financially, by conservationists and the growing tourism industry alike. These lions should be viewed as a national asset to Namibia and we need to conserve and manage them wisely for the benefit of the Namibian people, as well as the broader international community,” declares the small non-profit: Desert Lion Conservation Trust.

Tourism creates employment and fosters a variety of other sources of revenue, such as craft markets. To foster a growing ecotourism economy, WWF helps find investors and offers business training to conservancy members to fund joint venture lodges and campsites. You can positively impact these conservancy communities by traveling with WWF’s official partner, Natural Habitat Adventures. Marvel at the impressive range of lion prides—from the lush marshes of Botswana to the deserts and dunes of Namibia—on our Epic Botswana and Namibia Safari. Fully immerse yourself in Namib on The Great Namibia Wildlife Safari or capture a lion’s roar on our Wild Namibia Photo Safari. Nat Hab Expedition Leaders are the best-trained safari guides in Africa, averaging 15 years’ experience, with additional resources provided by WWF leading scientists. And with a maximum group size of seven guests, we ensure a truly personalized and low-impact travel experience in the most remote reserves.