Learning about Lions
Across the dimly lit tent stands Dr. Philip “Flip” Stander, the world’s foremost expert on Namibia’s famed desert-adapted lions, looking every bit the grizzled, stereotypical scientist who’s spent most of his life alone in the field––sun-baked skin, hair askew, a scraggly beard, and a lanky frame all elbows and knees. He stands barefoot and his forearms are covered in research notes he penned with a sharpie.
Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp
We’re at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, the world’s oldest desert. For 300 miles (25 miles wide) its undulating dunes, and stark landscapes skirt the Atlantic Ocean.
Dr. Stander is here to talk about the loves of his life, the highly endangered desert-adapted lions whose population has dwindled to a mere 150, and Desert Lion Conservation and organization he founded more than 20 years ago.
Dr. Stander explains that the Skeleton Coast is “One of the most inhospitable environments on the planet.” The scarcity of food and water, blinding fog banks, sandstorms, and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean results in temperature changes that can range from bitter cold to blazing hot, often on the same day.
Yet, over countless generations, the desert-adapted lions––though genetically no different than lions elsewhere––have evolved, enabling them to survive where their East African cousins cannot. Instead of water, their preys’ blood keeps them hydrated. Their coats are slightly thicker to mitigate the colder temperatures, and they travel far greater distances to find food.
A Symbiotic Relationship
Dr. Stander and Wilderness Safaris, the company that owns Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, and hosted my Namibian adventure, have a partnership of sorts. Using location data he receives from collars placed on the lions, Dr. Stander provides necessary intel on their whereabouts so guests can see them when they’re near the camp. Otherwise, with the harsh terrain and the sheer size of their territory, the lions are as hard to find as the famously elusive snow leopard.
Dr. Stander also advises Hoanib on protocols for approaching and viewing the lions, as well as overseeing the efforts of a part-time Wilderness employee who is conducting research on the local brown hyena population. In return, Wilderness, through its non-profit partner Wilderness Wildlife Trust (WWT), provides logistical and funding support for Dr. Stander’s research.
A Delicate Balance
To be clear, the collars play a much bigger role in the Dr. Stander research than a beacon for wildlife-loving guests. With them, he is able to track their movements and every morsel of information he receives provides crucial insight into breadth of their territories and roaming patterns which often intersect with human populations.
Pastoralists who live in the Namib survive on the slimmest of margins and are dependent on their livestock. Even a few losses can be catastrophic. For them, the lions are a menace, not an asset to the Namibian tourism industry, of which few of the millions of dollars earned trickle down to their pockets. Therefore, in retaliation, the lions are shot or poisoned.
The more Dr. Stander understands the lions’ behavior, the better equipped he is to recommend strategies that will help farmers learn to co-exist with the big cats, but there are no easy answers. “How do you tell a family in need of its livestock to not defend it when hungry lions appear?” He says.
When the collars signal the lions are moving toward a human population, he alerts farmers ahead of time when he can. Not all of the 150 lions on the Skeleton Coast, however, are collared.
In past, Dr. Stander has been known to play rock music out of speakers mounted on his vehicle in hopes of scaring the cats in another direction. One time, when the lions were being particularly stubborn, he found that a track from a George Carlin stand-up routine was the perfect auditory prod to chase the invaders away from a village.
The Five Musketeers
In 2013, two years before my stay at Hoanib, one of the last adult males of the Floodplain pride whose territory includes the camp, was shot by a man protecting his livestock. With so few desert-adapted lions, a single death can wreak havoc upon the gene pool and severely impact the future of the regional population. But as Dr. Stander quipped with pride, “Nature will not be defeated.” Miraculously, around the same time as the adult male’s demise, three lionesses from the same pride gave birth to five cubs, all males, a miracle of probability .
Stander coined the cubs the Five Musketeers, and at the time, they held the future of their pride in their big, sand-scorched paws, a story immortalized by a wonderful documentary entitled The Vanishing Kings (a.k.a. King of the Desert Lions on the Smithsonian Channel in the states), that had just wrapped up shooting when I arrived.
A Lazy Day For The Desert-Adapted Lions, an Epic Sighting For Me
It’s the morning after Stander’s talk and we’ve left camp early to explore and spot the Musketeers at sunrise 20 minutes from camp, walking near the bank of the dry Hoanib riverbed. Strong, honey-colored cats with amber eyes that sparkle in the sunlight. They’re a little thin but not horribly so, and their adolescent manes stick out at all angles. Two sport tiny fauxhawks; a youngster’s version of an adult mane.
The air is relatively cool. Whisps of sand twirl and disappear in the soft breeze. Apparently, it was time for a nap after a night of hunting. The lions’ eyes droop, and when they sit, it’s with a plop as if there is no more energy to do so with grace .
Spread out in various directions but staying within eyesight of each other, the Musketeers each choose the perfect patch of sand upon which to lounge. A pair cuddle on the edge of an embankment, one head gently resting on the shoulder of the other. In the afternoon, we see the males again, lounging (again) in a shady spot under an outcropping of skinny, weather-beaten trees.
I admit I’m star-struck. Giddy that I’m able to see such rare, important creatures in the flesh in their natural habitat. The fact that they did nothing more than walk, sit, and sleep, was of little consequence.
He Named Her Queen
The mother of two of the Musketeers––her daughters gave birth to the other three––is a legend in her own right. It was clear when Dr. Stander spoke of her the night of his talk, she’d touched the stoic researcher’s heart. Like most scientists, he referred to the lions by their scientific designations (Xpl dash this, Xpl dash that) but when it came to her, he called her “Queen.”
Stander met Queen as a cub in 1998, and over the next 16 years watched her grow into a fierce and protective mother producing five litters with a total of 13 cubs. For years, she survived the worst the desert could throw at her, including angry full-grown males.
Dr. Stander’s affection and respect for the lioness were clearly unrivaled. He became more animated when he talked about her prowess and how she had been responsible for re-populating her territory near the Hoanib River. And of course, she begat the Five Musketeers.
An average lion in the desert lives around 12 years but Queen was at the ripe old age of sixteen when an infection from a fight wound, and a possible spine injury, brought her down. Stander watched her, gaunt and crippled, fading away. “You couldn’t help her?” I asked. “We don’t interfere in the developments of the natural world,” he replied with a catch in his throat, sighing, eyes closed, momentarily lost in his recollection. It had been agonizing to see her come to such an end.
For him, at least for now, he has hopes for the five musketeers, Queen’s memory lives in them.
Epilogue: The Worst That Could Happen, Happened.
I wrote the piece above in June 2015, a few months after I returned from Namibia. For the rest of the year, the Musketeers thrived. As males will do as they mature, two went off to conquer their own territories, while the other three stayed together.
In July 2016, one of the brothers was shot and killed at a temporary cattle post. A month after that, three others were poisoned after killing a donkey––their carcasses and collars burned. In an attempt to save the last remaining, Musketeer Xpl-93 (a.k.a Tullamore), was translocated to another area where he became the dominant male of a pride. But it was not to last. Dr. Stander lost Tullamore’s signal in April of the following year and in August 2017, he found his body along with a female and two cubs. They’d been poisoned. The Musketeer’s were no more.
The Present and Future
Years have passed and as you might have guessed, Stander continues his work in Namibia. In 2020, according to a press release, the Wilderness Wildlife Trust allocated USD 20,000 toward Dr. Stander’s efforts. The funds were used to “…procure 10 early-warning GPS and satellite collars, as well as two remote alert units.” Relationship building with farmers also is a high priority in hopes of reducing human-lion conflict. A total of 23 lions wear collars.
Periodically, Dr. Stander updates his Desert Lion Conservation website to include information on the current population, their movements, and any other variables that might positively or negatively affect the lions.
The night I met Flip, I asked him what I could do to help. “You’re doing it,” he replied. “You’ve come to Hoanib, you’ve seen the lions. Share their story.”
“I will.” I said
Now you can too….
How you can help: Donate to the Wilderness Wildlife Trust.
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