Saturday, 23 July 2011

Entire pride of desert lions wiped out by hunting and poison

Entire pride wiped out by hunting and poisoning

July 2011. In April 2001 four lions came walking into the Hoarusib River valley on Namibia's Skeleton Coast. The three adult males and one adult female came walking all the way in from the upper Barab River, two hundred and fifty kilometres to the south. It was the first time in thirteen years that lions had taken up residence in the Hoarusib River valley.

Mixed feelings
The human population received them with mixed emotions. Local tour operators were happy to have them back while the pastoral residents of Purros were up in arms. The lions got into trouble from the outset. Their first meal in the Hoarusib was the prized stud bull belonging to Headman Daniel Karotjaiva's, followed by several cows and donkeys.

Compensation scheme
Wilderness Safaris and other operators started a compensation scheme in order to ensure the survival of the lions. This was the start of an uneasy relationship between man and lion in the Hoarusib River.

The lions soon moved down river into the Skeleton Coast Park. Shortly after their arrival the female gave birth to two female cubs at the fresh water spring at the mouth of the Hoarusib River. These were the first cubs to be born in sight of the sea in the Park for more than a decade.

Oryx diet
During the dry season the lion remained within the boundaries of the Park. Large herds of oryx concentrated on the banks of the river where they were ambushed by the lions. The lions were safe within the boundaries of the Park.

The trouble started during the rainy season when the oryx dispersed to feed on the plains where the rain had fallen. It was difficult for the lions to hunt. They would then leave the Park and kill live stock around Purros village.

2002 - More cubs
In 2002 another two female cubs were born at the mouth of the river. These two females became the regular residents of the Hoarusib River for the next decade. They were often seen on safari.

These lionesses were closely monitored by Dr. Flip Stander of the Desert Lion Conservation Fund. They became known as Tawney and Morada; they were often visited by Leonardo, the dominant male.

Living in close proximity to humans
The lions became bolder as they grew older. They started frequenting the settled areas. Dr. Stander and Wilderness Safaris addressed the problem by creating a lion task force from local community members. A 4x4 vehicle was bought. The members were trained by Dr. Stander in the use of and given radio telemetry equipment. Now the local community could monitor the lions. If the lions came close to Purros the cattle could be herded out of the river. The telemetry equipment was also used by local guides to take tourists to the lions.

One of the main threats to the lions was that the community has got so used to living without lions for more than a decade, that they have stopped herding their cattle. Now with the lions back, they were reluctant to resume herding.

Problem lions
In the course of time the lions reared cubs. In 2009 things came to a head when Leonardo, Tawney and Morada and three sub adult cubs stayed at the villages of Purros and Okongombe Themba, killing donkeys and scaring people.

In November 2009 Dr. Stander recruited the help of Wilderness Safaris again. Wilderness staff, vehicles, fuel and equipment was used to remove the lions from Purros. All six lions were translocated to Sarusas spring in the Skeleton Coast Park. When they returned eight days later, they were physically prevented from re-entering the village by Wilderness staff and the lion task force. However one of the females slipped through the lines to kill another donkey. She was immobilized again and taken to the Hoarusib mouth.

Hunting safari
After three weeks the lions left the vicinity of Purros and moved down river. The community thanked Dr. Stander and the Wilderness Safaris staff, saying that they acknowledge that people are concerned about their plight. Dr. Stander pleaded with them not to kill Leonardo, the breeding male. He asked that they rather shoot one of the younger males for compensation for their stock losses. This was done a few months later in a legal hunt.

Everyone felt that a breakthrough was made. It was a good example of cooperation by all parties, buying time for the lions. Dr. Stander estimated that the operation had cost Wilderness Safaris close to 100,000 Nam dollars.

Leonardo killed by hunter

All of this was made undone shortly afterwards when Leonardo the breeding male was killed by an independent hunter in controversial circumstances that created a media outcry. The other male was also later shot by herders when it wandered into a different conservancy.

Rest of the pride poisoned
That left only the two sisters, Tawney and Morada and a young female, Maya in the Hoarusib River. Their lives came to an end on Saturday 10 July 2011. They were killed by strychnine poisoning fifteen kilometres north of Purros. Strychnine is often used by stock owners to poison predators. One can only wonder who killed the lions.

Benefits and losses
For a decade a lot of people worked together to try and find a compromise between humans and lions in the Hoarusib River. For a decade the lions caused losses, but also brought benefits to the people in the valley.

Was their death inevitable? Could a solution be reached? Are we any closer to sustainable lion tourism in the Kunene Region? Are their still too many rogue elements around? Be as it may-the lions of the Hoarusib River are dead.

Leonardo's death

The shooting of Leonardo is surrounded by controversy. He was apparently shot by a hunter, Keith Wright, and his client, who only had a permit to shoot a female lion on a different conservancy.

Furthermore, Leonardo was carrying a large collar which marked him out as a ‘research' lion. We believe that the collar has never been recovered and that the hunter has been charged by the authorities over this incident.

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