Namibia

For #WorldLionDay, Desert Warriors: Lions of the Namib – A Film of Hope and Tragedy

Desert-adapted lions in Namibia --2In March 2015, I walked into the small chic bar in the Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, located deep in the desert of the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, a place so remote you have to fly in to reach it.

Sitting on a stool was a man looking rather pleased with himself. He sipped on a glass of red wine and he wore a satisfied, albeit weary, smile on his face. He was celebrating the end of a two-year journey.

I too, was happy. That morning I’d seen the famed Five Musketeers. Five, two-year old male, deserted-adapted lions that were a symbol of Mother Nature’s quest for survival. You see, there are only a 150 desert-adapted lions left and shortly before the birth of the Musketeers, the last adult male in hundreds of miles was killed, threatening the survival of these magnificent cats. But the Musketeers, if they managed to beat the odds and live until adulthood and mate they could potential save the lions from extinction. But that’s far easier said than done.

Desert-adapted lions in Namibia -1105

The Namib desert is the oldest desert in the world and one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. Between lack of food, blinding fog banks and frequent sandstorms, temperature fluctuations that range from freezing cold to blazing hot, often in the same day, conflict with humans, and the day-to-day dangers that plague any wild animal, it would be a miracle if one, let alone all survived. But somehow, they had.

To see the lions in person was a thrill of a lifetime.

The man was Will Steenkamp, one half of the husband and wife duo of Into Nature Productions, and he’d just spent two years filming the story of the Musketeers for a documentary and in 48 hours he’d leave the Namib desert to begin post production on the film that would later be named, Desert Warriors: Lions of the Namib airing tonight on the Smithsonian Channel at 8pm and 10pm ET. It will be rebroadcast on August 14, at 9pm ET.

[Please see below to read about a tragic recent update on the fate of the Five Musketeers]

Here’s a promo for the film.

Will and I were introduced and we spoke at length about the lions, Philip Stander, the amazing scientist who has spent 25 years working in the Namib studying the lions and conservation efforts, and stories about the making of the film. I was utterly enthralled.

I saw the film last week and the footage is spectacular. It’s definitely worth the hour of your time.

I asked Will to answer a few questions about the lions and the production. See below…

Desert-adapted lions in Namibia --4

How long did it take you to make the documentary?

It took us almost 5 years, from concept till completion. We spent more than two years following this special pride of lions in the desert.

What inspired you to take on the story of the five Musketeers?

Scientist Dr Philip Stander discovered a very unique phenomenon in the Namib desert – a cohort of five male cubs! This has never been recorded before in the Namib. With adult male lions vanishing at an alarming rate due to trophy hunting, poaching and also conflict with rural farmers, the survival of the 5 male cubs was crucial. We realized that if we were able to follow the lives of this extraordinary cohort of male cubs, with a backdrop as striking as the Namib Desert, it would reveal a true and unique wildlife story that’s never been documented before!

Desert-adapted lions in Namibia -1147

What was the most challenging aspect of capturing your remarkable footage?

The desert landscape! Not only is it an immense area, desert lions are known to have enormous home ranges. One of the male lions we filmed covered an area the size of New Jersey! We had to become desert nomads ourselves, living in our 4×4 Landcruiser, away from civilization for months on end. Often we watched our lions walk away across a breathtaking, endless gravel plain and we couldn’t follow due to the sensitivity of the terrain. This landscape is so sensitive to human impact – should we drive across one of these plains, our vehicle tracks would scar the landscape for decades to come. We lived by strict rules not to harm the fauna and fauna, as much as the aesthetics of this remarkable place… It meant we would sometimes spent many days, sometimes up to a week, without any lions.

The footage with the old female was heartbreaking. It must have been devastating to watch. How do you keep the balance between wanting to stay true to the circle of life and wanting to help? It wasn’t easy. As you can imagine,when you spend more than two years with one pride of lions you get really attached to the individuals – but it’s a one-sided relationship. They are wild lions, in one of the last truly wild places on Earth, and we have to respect that. We are just observers, documenting the rarely seen behaviour of a highly elusive cat. As sad as it was to sit with a dying lioness and not being able to help her, there was also something beautiful about being part of a natural process, that in this day and age, seldom happens. Trophy hunting, poaching and human-wildlife conflict kill most of our lions at too young an age, but this lioness died of natural causes, of old age… She had lived a remarkable life, she was an exceptionally strong and courageous lion, and we were there to document her last moments.. We were able to tell her story, which was a great privilege.

Desert-adapted lions in Namibia -1193

What understanding, message, life lesson, or moral do you hope viewers of the film will come away with after seeing the film?

On a personal level: Never underestimate the power of the pride. At the end of the day, family is all we have. Lions are essentially the only social cats on Earth, and when one spends time observing them, you learn how valuable their social bonds are- working together (as lions would co-operate during a hunt) and caring for each other (like a male would defend his pride).. Our film also shows that every lion has an individual character, a personality, with its own intimate story to tell. We also hope that viewers will see the urgent need to stop Trophy hunting of lions, as we are losing them at a rapid pace. We all need to do what we can to contribute to conserving their diminishing habitats.

Any interesting/funny/crazy anecdotes you can share about the making of this film?

The moment you think you understand lion behaviour, you are making the biggest mistake possible..! We learn from the lions every day, and every day is different.. Filming lions is incredibly rewarding. It can take weeks for something to happen, we wait many hours, many days with very little happening, lions conserve a lot of energy, spend a lot of time resting. But then suddenly something incredible happens and it makes up for all the waiting..!

What are you working on now?

We just cannot stay away from the incredible Namib and the desert lions. We’ve been assisting the BBC with their new flagship series “Planet Earth II” and have been spending a lot of time working with local authorities and the Desert Lion Trust on a Pilot Project to assist local communities in mitigating human-lion conflict. We’ve started a Foundation for this, which keeps us very busy besides our filming.

Where else can people see your work?

In the USA, Smithsonian Channel has been a fantastic partner on two of our films – “Desert Warriors: Lions of the Namib” as well as “Turf War: Lions & Hippos”.

Update: TRAGIC NEWS

While following up on the fate of the lions, I learned the painful news this morning that in June, one of the lions was killed by a bullet to the chest in a human-lion conflict. In the last couple of days, three more of the lions who had ventured too close to cattle, were poisoned by villagers and their bodies and satellite collars burnt. Only one lion survives. The news is even more painful (if that’s possible) because Dr. Stander, the researcher who was studying them, saw that the human-lion conflicts were heating up and was just about to translocate the lions to an area of the desert where they would be safer.  Thankfully he’s moving the lone survivor now.

Last Musketeer

THE LAST MUSKETEER Photo: Will Steenkamp

A Note from Will Steenkamp and his wife that I received this morning as they are in Namibia and rushing to where the survivor is to aid in the translocation.

Susan, we have very little time to spare, but what I would like to add, is that Lianne and I are as shocked as the rest of the world. We are saddened by this tragic event. We’ve worked so hard, although that’s nothing compared to people like Dr Philip Stander, to get systems in place to address human-wildlife conflict. What needs to be mentioned, is that the majority of the local community members in fact have shown tremendous patience and worked alongside us and Philip to set up a new programme called H.E.L.P (Human Elephant Lion Project) where we are actively busy with finding donations and funds to launch a rapid response team to address these unavoidable human-lion conflict situations. We were so close to make this work (in fact a major re-location of the 4 Musketeers was just days away from happening), and this very unfortunate incident might overshadow what all the people on the ground (on government level as well) have been achieving so far.

Especially on World Lion day, we hope that this is a wake up call for all people, that us humans need to stand together to help not only the lions, but those living with lions. We encroach this planet, and just because the majority of us lives in cities (which used to be beautiful natural areas too, don’t forget) we cannot put full blame on people still living in rural areas. We all have a right to live, whether it’s in New York or in a small village deep in the Namib desert. So it comes down to us finding ways to avoid this kind of conflict. The harsh reality is, it will never go away. So we need to develop, through trial and error, and more tests, to keep developing systems to address this.

With the H.E.L.P project (a co-operative venture between the Desert Lion Conservation Foundation (www.desertlion.org), the Desert Lion Trust (www.desertlion.info), the Desert Elephant Project (www.desertelephantconservation.org), the IRDNC (www.irdnc.org.na) and the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism we aim to make a real and actual difference with real pro-active management and actions. The H.E.L.P project will be officially launched early November (hoping we raise enough funds). In the short run, Lianne and I have already donated a year’s salary, satellite phone and basic camping gear for the first lion guardian in that area, and together with the Desert Lion Trust and organisations such as TOSCO (www.tosco.org) he is actively assisting local farmers avoiding more conflict.
What happened over the last couple of days was a very unfortunate incident, and sadly far away from the one village that had been so affected by the Musketeers over the last couple of months. It’s an isolated incident and we do believe, as sad and tragic as this is, we will use the death of these Musketeers as a catalyst to get going with a crucial project to keep lions and people safe…!

We will be in touch..

For more from my trip to Namibia click HERE.

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