Namibia’s desert lion are genetically identical to those elsewhere, but their physiques and behavior have adapted to their austere surroundings. Perhaps their most remarkable attribute is that they don’t need to drink water; fluids from their kills are sufficient. They can also survive for a fortnight without food. Desert lion have huge ranges, walking as much as 40 miles each night. And because of the harshness of their environment, they tend to be exceptionally strong and above average in size.
Forty years ago, lion were widespread in Namibia’s deserts. Aside from hunting oryx and giraffe, prides used to prey on the huge seal colonies of the Skeleton Coast, an inexhaustible source of food. But then in the 1980s, expanding human and livestock populations, plus unregulated hunting, resulted in the desert lion being virtually wiped out. When Dr. Flip Stander, a scientist now based at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, began studying them in 1998, maybe as few as 20 remained. And the surviving cats had lost the inherited knowledge of the seal colonies, no longer roaming the coastal dunes and beaches in search of relatively easy prey.
Two decades later, the situation is much improved and around 150 desert lion are now thought to hunt across a vast territory that extends for 300 miles from the region surrounding the Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain, to the Kunene River valley on the country’s northern border with Angola. Stander, who spends much of his life living in his Land Cruiser so that he can follow the lion, has managed to fit them with satellite tracking collars — sponsored, I was told, by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen — which provide a constant stream of crucial information. It is now possible to know where the cats are in real time, and Stander updates their locations daily on the website desertlion.info. This means that herders can move their cattle and donkeys, or provide them with a greater degree of protection, if they appear to be at risk. Local pastoralists now check their smartphones to learn of impending danger; such is the reality of modern conservation. Also, indigenous people are now far more inclined to tolerate lion because safari camps provide relatively well-paid jobs, and conservancies have been established that enable them to derive financial benefit from tourism.
Nearly four years ago, three females from the “Floodplain Pride” gave birth to an unprecedented five male cubs. Dubbed the “Five Musketeers,” these lion are now frequently to be found around Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp. Occasionally, however, they have been spotted strolling through the dunes along the Skeleton Coast. Their survival provides a much-needed note of optimism. There are now around 20,000 lion in the whole of Africa, while the continent’s human population is estimated to grow by 1.3 billion before 2050. And scientists estimate that there is a 37 percent chance that the lion population of East Africa will decline by 50 percent or more in the next two decades. In the light of such grim statistics, the resurgence of Namibia’s magnificent desert lion is even more remarkable and encouraging.