Large Carnivores, Tourism and Conservation in the Kunene Region, Namibia.

Conserving Namibia’s Desert Lions through Eco-tourism

It is broadly accepted that tourism can play an important role in the protection and conservation of wildlife and the natural environment. The simultaneous growth of wildlife populations, tourism, and community-based conservation during the past five years in the northwest of Namibia is testimony to this. Under the current climate where local people benefit from wildlife, primarily through tourism, and communal conservancies enter into agreements with tour operators, the tourism industry’s potential role in wildlife conservation is increasing. With the inclusion of Black rhinos and elephants, lions and the other large carnivore species are the most popular species among tourists. These carnivores, however, are mostly nocturnal and secretive in their habits, and are generally poorly understood. Tour operators will benefit from accurate and current information on large carnivores, and there is a need to provide such information to the industry.

This project aims to assist the tourism industry by improving the utilisation of large carnivores for tourism and, in doing so, increase the potential benefit of tourism to wildlife conservation. This can be achieved in two stages: first, by providing training to local tour-guides and lodge staff to improve a) the quality and accuracy of information on large carnivores conveyed to tourists, and b) their knowledge of, and ability to find and approach, large carnivores during game drives; and second, by developing and implementing a system to record these observations, in such a way that it contributes to the ecological monitoring of the species.

Methods and Activities
1. Develop and compile a short training-manual / field-guide for tourism operators in the Kunene. This will be a small (A5 sized) booklet of approximately 10 laminated pages. It will contain summarised information on the ecology, conservation, and eco-tourism of large carnivores, and will include pictures and diagrams to illustrate, for example, age/sex categories.
2. Develop a training curriculum on large carnivores.
3. Offer two training courses to prominent tourism operators in the Kunene Region.
Information display
1. Develop information displays on large carnivores that can be placed at local tourism lodges.
2. Implement structures that allow lodge managers to regularly update information displays using observations of large carnivores, recorded by tour-guides and tourists.
Ecological monitoring
1. Develop user-friendly monitoring forms for tour-guides and tourists to record observations of large carnivores.
2. Design data capture and monitoring procedures that will optimise the ecological value of observations on large carnivores by tour-guides. Attention will be placed, for example, on correlating the number of large carnivores observations, recorded by tour-guides, with the effort expended. In doing so these observations will become a valuable tool to monitor population trends and distribution patterns.
3. Compile and analyse abovementioned data once per year and present the results in a written report. The findings must serve to update the information displays at lodges, and the report must be circulated to all major tourism operators in the Kunene Region.

Specialised "Desert Lion Safaris" - a collaboration with Kunene Conservancy Safaris
In addition to developing lion eco-tourism ventures at key conservancies, such as Purros, Sesfontein & Anabeb, I also approached Russell Vinjevold to initiate a limited, but more specialised, lion-eco-tourism product. I worked with Russell during the 1980s, when I was studying lions in western Etosha and he was the Chief Warden at Otjovasandu. We spent years locating, darting, and monitoring lions in the area. With all that practical experience, Russell, who now runs Kunene Conservancy Safaris, is the ideal person for the venture. After much discussion and deliberation we agreed on a marketing product, called “Desert Lion Safaris”. There will be a limited and finite number of Desert Lion Safaris (DLS) per year, where small groups (2-4 people) will experience the realities and excitements of studying and conserving lions in the Namib Desert. During a DLS, Russell and the tour group will join me for four days as I go about my work. A substantial portion of the funds generated by the DLS tour will go directly to the local communities, to compensate for livestock losses due to lions, and to the research project. From my perspective these tours are not for financial gain, but as a means to generate benefits to the local communities and to conserve lions. Inquiries can be directed to Kunene Conservancy Safaris. More detail will follow soon.

A case study of Lion Eco-tourism in the Purros Conservancy - See 2008 Research Report for latest update.

This project, funded by the Go Green Fund, aims to develop specialised lion eco-tourism throughout the Kunene Region. The first phase is focused on the Purros Conservancy and the local tour operators and lodge owners . During the course of two-years this project will aim for five primary products. 1) A detailed protocol for the implementation and running of Lion Safaris. This protocol will address locating lions, by means of radio-tracking and following spoor, approaching lions with specially designed tourist vehicles, and observing lions. 2) A training manual on running Lion Safaris for the Purros Conservancy. 3) A field guide on lion tourism, aimed at both the tour operators and the tourists. The field guide will contain, for example, current information on lion ecology & behaviour. 4) Training courses for the Purros Conservancy and their partner tour operators on the required skills and protocols of running Lion Safaris. 5) Facilitate the establishment of a “Lion Fund” for the Purros Conservancy.

Progress update: 15 March 2007- Preliminary analyses of data collected during 2006 produced interesting results.

Finding and viewing lions near Purros
Between September and December 2006 a total of 68 days were spent searching for lions in the Purros area. Lions were located on 67 days (98.5% success rate) and viewed on 66 days (97%). On most of these days the lions were located in the Hoaruseb River (85%) and occasionally in rocky outcrops approximately 5 – 10 km south of the River (15%). These findings suggest that, with the correct approach and knowledge, lions can be located and viewed with reliability.
The impact of current tourism pressure on the lions was evaluated in the Hoaruseb River during the same period. During 12 days when lions were resting in the River, an average of 4.2 vehicles drove past them each day (range: 1-15 / day). Peak traffic was during mid-morning (09h00-11h00) and in the late afternoon (16h00-18h00; Figure 1). The average distance between passing vehicles and the lions was 74 metres (range: 15-250 m). Surprisingly only 18% of the vehicles saw the lions. This is partly because the lions selected resting spots behind vegetation and other forms of cover (Figure 2). The lions were mostly relaxed when vehicles drove past them, but when vehicles were noisy or caused disturbance, they often walked or ran out of sight (Figure 3).

Figure 1. Periods of the day when tourist vehicles drove past lions in the Hoaruseb River. Figure 3. The response of lions to tourist vehicles in the Hoaruseb River.
Figure 2. An example of resting spots chosen by two lionesses in the Hoaruseb River during three days of observation.

15 January 2007
The lions that inhabit the Purros Conservancy area were studied intensively between 5 September and 22 December 2006. During 89 days of observation data were systematically collected on movements patterns, behaviour ecology, predation, and the impact of tourist vehicles on the lions.In addition, lions were also followed and watched continuously over a 24-hour cycle (day & night), using night-vision goggles at night, on 22 occasions. During these extended follows, detailed data were collected on hunting behaviour and habitat use. When lions rested in the ephemeral riverbeds during the day, the frequency of tourist vehicles driving past them, and the impact of these vehicles on their behaviour, was recorded. These data provide a sound foundation for developing the eco-tourism product.

25 October 2006
A field training session in the Purros Conservancy was held on 21 & 22 October 2006 with Ernst Karutjaiva & Pieter de Wet (EOL) gaining exposure to searching for lions. On 11 October 2006 the two resident adult lionesses (Xpl-10 & 25) returned to the Hoaruseb River and joined their offspring, two sub-adult females, feeding on a gemsbok kill. The lions are now being monitored over 24-hour periods. Flip Stander is following the lions at night, and Amanda Barrett & Owen Newman (BBC Natural History film-makers) are watching over them during the day.

The first "Lions & Tourism" training course was held at Okahirongo Elephant Lodge on 9 October 2006. The tour-guides, senior staff, and management of OEL attended the course: Steve Kasaona, James Kasaona, Pollen Karutjaiva, Pieter de Wet, Ernst Karutjaiva. Click to see enlarged photo.

8 October 2006
Field research started on 16 August 2006. Lions that frequent the Hoaruseb River have been tracked and monitored. Their movements in relation to the Hoaruseb Rivers, and the areas utilised by tour operators for game drives, have been recorded. These data are necessary to determine the expected frequency and reliability of tour operators finding lions in habitats that are suitable for viewing. To facilitate this process a sub-adult lioness was darted on 13 September 2006 and fitted with a radio collar. Controlled tests on spoor ageing were started on 13 September 2006 by marking individual spoors of known age, in a range of substrates, and monitoring the rate at which spoors fade away. A training programme for guides, addressing lion biology and methods of approaching lions, has been developed and the first training session will take place on 21 October 2006. A monitoring system for recording observations of large carnivores during game-drives was developed.

---------------Original Funding Proposal----------------
Namibia is home to a unique population of desert-adapted lions. These lions are valuable to tourism but not to local communities and livestock farmers, due to frequent conflicts over livestock. Namibia has received wide recognition (e.g. IUCN) for successful conservation efforts (e.g. Communal Conservancies), and significant increases in wildlife numbers, especially in the Kunene Region. However, this increase in wildlife populations, has led to heightened conflict between lions and the local people. Lions prey on domestic livestock, and farmers respond by shooting lions to protect their livelihood. Local communities have to bear the costs of living with lions but do not always share in the benefits. There is a need for sustainable-use of lions, through eco-tourism, with tangible benefits to the communities, and proactive management of human-lion conflicts.

Along the borders of the Skeleton Coast Park, in the Kunene Region, a small and isolated population of lions survives in extreme desert conditions. These lions exhibit unique adaptation to their environment and live in a harsh habitat of sand dunes, gravel plains and barren mountains, and occasionally forage along the beaches of the Skeleton Coast. Nowhere else in the world can free-ranging lions be seen on the beach. This is unique, and should be viewed as a National asset to Namibia, that needs to be protected and managed wisely to the optimum benefit of the Namibian people.

However, occasionally the lions move into areas of livestock farming where they prey on cattle and donkeys. They are then shot or poisoned by the local people in protection of the livestock. Local communities are expanding in the region and are taking charge of the management and utilisation of wildlife resources by forming communal conservancies. If local conservancies can receive direct financial benefits from lions through organised and controlled eco-tourism the occasional livestock losses could arguable be tolerated.

This project, “Conserving Namibia’s desert lions through eco-tourism” forms part of the Kunene Lion Project, where baseline data on the ecology of the lion population are being collected. In addition, this project aims to collaborate with local communal conservancies and tourism enterprises, in developing specialised “lion photographic safaris” as a form of non-consumptive utilisation.


The Purros Conservancy supports a stable pride of lions that utilise the Hoaruseb River, and occasionally move to the coast. This pride is arguably the most valuable lions for tourism in Namibia. The Purros Conservancy established a joint tourism venture with Okahirongo Elephant Lodge. This is the ideal platform to develop eco-tourism of lions with benefits to the Purros Conservancy, the Lodge, and the conservation of lions.

The philosophy behind developing eco-tourism of lions in the Purros Conservancy is that the sustainable use of lions should generate financial benefits to the Conservancy that out-way the costs of living with lions, and contribute to the conservation of the species. This can be achieved by developing an eco-tourism activity, that can be termed “Desert Lion Safaris”, consisting of specialised tours offered by a tour operator, in partnership with the Conservancy and the Kunene Lion Project, to track and view the unique desert-adapted lions.

Intensive research into the ecology of this lion population, since 1998, shows that their movements and grouping patterns are quite predictable. They remain in sub-groups of between 2 and 10 lions for extended periods and spend most of their time in riverbeds (49%) and at springs (18%). Even though home ranges are large (2000 – 15000 km2) they concentrate their movements in small areas, especially around springs and dry riverbeds, moving from one concentration area to another. Such data on the ecology of the lions are crucial to the design and success of an eco-tourism product.

Between October 2006 and December 2008, experiments will be designed to test the reliability of finding and observing lions in the unique habitat. These experiments will be directed at developing a protocol for the implementation of organised photographic safaris. A sound understanding of the habits and behaviour of the lions, acquired through the intensive research project, will enable us to develop cost-effective procedures for locating and viewing lions by predicting movements and habitat preferences.

The Purros Conservancy will be involved in the design and development of the protocol for implementing the eco-tourism package (Lion Safaris). Information on the movements and habits of the lion population, acquired through the intensive study, will be disseminated through a workshop, several short training sessions, and an easy-to-use field manual. Selected members of the Purros Conservancy will be trained in the techniques of locating, by looking for spoor and other signs of lions, radio tracking, and observing lions during the periods that they are most active.

The success of this project depends on a) a sound knowledge of the behaviour ecology of the lions, acquired through intensive and specialised research, b) a well developed and tested eco-tourism package that is based on cost-effective, practical and reliable techniques, and c) extensive involvement and training of the Purros Conservancy, where they will retain ownership over the tourism activities and derive direct benefits from lions.

The Purros Conservancy and the local tour operator should negotiate a “conservation fee” generated from Lion Safaris. The Purros Conservancy should establish a “Lion Fund” to manage the fees paid by the local tour operator. These funds must benefit the Purros community, counter losses resulting from Human Lion Conflict (e.g. HACSIS, following the IRDNC model), and contribute to the monitoring and conservation of the lions.


Coinciding with this project there is a need to develop and implement a Human Lion Conflict Management Strategy for the Purros Conservancy. Records and investigations of all significant incidents of Human-Lion Conflict (HLC) reported in this region form the baseline data on the nature and extent of HLC. Options to manage and resolve each incident of HLC will be proposed and, where possible, implemented. Management options will include “preventative” measures, such as specific livestock management techniques, and reactive” measures, like trophy hunting and/or translocation of lions. The success of each management option will be monitored. Baseline data on HLC and data on the success of various management options, will contribute to the design of a Management Plan to address HLC in Purros and as a blueprint for all other Communal Conservancies.

During the course of this two-year project there will be five primary products.
1) A detailed protocol for the implementation and running of Lion Safaris will be developed. This protocol will address locating lions, by means of radio-tracking and following spoor, approaching lions with specially designed tourist vehicles, and observing lions.
2) A training manual on running Lion Safaris for the Purros Conservancy.
3) A field guide on Lion Safaris, aimed at both the tour operators and the tourists. The field guide will contain, for example, current information on lion ecology & behaviour.
4) Training courses for the Purros Conservancy on the required skills and protocols of running Lion Safaris.
5) Facilitate the establishment of a “Lion Fund” by the Purros Conservancy, and a HLC management plan.

Last data analysis & update - January 2008