Saving the lions of Northern Okavango


Written by Jumbo Junction

January 25, 2020

Lions are an icon of the Africa savanna, yet recent surveys show drastic declines in their populations across the continent. People fear living with lions and potential losses to livestock. As human populations expand, the range of lions and their prey have declined, leaving remnant, isolated populations with increased risk of inbreeding. 

In southern Africa, one large continuous population still roams across the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), an area which expands across five countries and multiple land use systems.

Though lions are present, that does not mean that they are safe.

Northern Botswana is located at the heart of KAZA, where lion populations show resilience in the face of high persecution. 

As unattended livestock wander the landscape they cause overgrazing, erosion and desertification while predators get an easy meal. Now Claws Conservancy, based at Jumbo Junction, are resurrecting the traditional herder to reverse the impacts of overgrazing, reduce lion conflict and build capacity.

Above: Along the northern edge of the Okavango Delta lions and cattle share a landscape. This lion, Etola (meaning “Handsome Man”) was watching the cattle (in the background) as they walked home at the end of the day without a herder. They even crossed a river with hippos and crocodiles. Etola did not attempt to kill cattle this time but we are doing our best to work with communities to protect cattle and lions on this landscape.

In Eretsha Village, they have formed the first communal herd in Botswana including more than 80% of the village cattle (>1,000 head) and formed a community committee that creates rotational grazing plans and monitors the results. They’ve also hired 6 certified herders (and their magnificent dogs) to monitor livestock health and protect against predator attack.

With a herd of 740 cattle so far, it’s a lot of work for our 6 herders to manage but they are doing extremely well. Herding is key to environmental health of this ecosystem and also protects livestock from lion attack. Our herders have literally chased lions away from the cattle!

Above: Etola and Ditonga have joined two uncollared males in the middle of their range? We know of at least 3 more collared males in the same area. Though male coalitions can separate for short periods before reconvening, this is likely an artifact of an unstable population where strong territorial males are not exclusively holding the area. Lion killing still occurs causing power shifts in the tenure of of territorial males giving newcomers an opportunity to try their luck.

Images: Collaring & tracking lion

Previously, the villagers would try to poison the lions to avoid them from coming after their livestock. This resulted in a great loss of the local lion population and ended up poisoning other animals as well. Now, when we collar a new lion, the villagers name it, we track its movements and alert the locals if they are coming close to the village. This way, safe yet effective tactics can be used to protect livestock and deter lions – without damage.

Our kraal team: Raps, Kenneth, Stallen and Pro

CLAWS core team: Dr. Florian Weise, Pro Tomeletso, and Dr. Andrew Stein

One way we protect villagers‘ livestock is by building these enclosures called “kraals”. It keeps the lions out, and reduces human conflict. Our kraal team sustainably harvest branches from local trees then weave them into mats that protect livestock from lions and other predators at night. We’ve built 20 so far without a single livestock lost! The communities, the cattle and the lions are better protected from their efforts!

The key to conserving large predators is working with local communities to reduce livestock conflict. In our study area in Northern Botswana, traditional herders are an essential ingredient for reversing the impacts of overgrazing, desertification, livestock health, reducing losses to predators and promote self sufficiency. Thereby conserving lions. In recent generations culture has shifted away from effective herding. Through our program Pride in Our Prides, we hosted the first ever herder training course in Botswana to “resurrect” the traditional herder!

The success of our #PrideInOurPrides program is largely in part due to our belief in people. We believed that when people knew more about what they didn’t understand, that they would care and change. We were right.

To learn more or to donate to this important program, please visit CLAWS.

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