Remarkable relearned behaviour shows the resilience of Namibia’s quite remarkable desert-adapted big cats. By Philip Stander. Image above by Carel Loubser, Shutterstock
he image of a lion walking along an isolated beach has captured the imagination of many filmmakers, scientists and wildlife enthusiasts. It is a phenomenon that has, in recent times, occurred only along Namibia’s coastline.
The Namib Desert is the oldest and near-driest desert on the planet. The coastal zones of the rest of Africa are productive and nutrient-rich areas, and humans have occupied and dominated those habitats for millennia. Along the hyper-arid coast of Namibia, however, humans have lived at low densities, and therefore have not had the same impact on the environment as they do elsewhere along the coast of Africa. As a result, several large mammal species, including Black rhinos, giraffes and elephants, found refuge here and developed unique adaptations to the arid conditions. In 1971 the Skeleton Coast National Park was proclaimed in an effort to protect this unique habitat and its endemic animals and plants.
The Skeleton Coast lions became famous in 1985 when legendary wildlife filmmakers Des and Jen Bartlett took remarkable images of the cats on the beach. Staff and researchers monitored the lions regularly, and in 1986 a rudimentary research project was started, focusing on the lions’ movements and population ecology.
At that time, the land-use practices in the areas bordering the Skeleton Coast National Park were not geared towards the protection of wildlife, especially not of lions. Tourism was in its infancy and community-based conservation was a foreign concept. In an area with tremendously high tourism value, local communities living outside the park were attempting to survive on uneconomical and unsustainable livestock farming.
Conflict between the lions and farmers was inevitable. Lions raided their livestock and the farmers retaliated by shooting or poisoning the cats. By 1990 all the known and radio-collared lions had been killed.
Then, in 1997, a small remnant group of approximately 20 desert-adapted lions was discovered in a mountainous region on the eastern edge of the Namib, and the Desert Lion Conservation project was launched. Much had changed since the 1980s: several years of good rainfall had seen an increase in wildlife numbers, tourism was booming, local people derived benefits from wildlife and tourism through the communal conservancies system, and the conditions were right for lions to find their way back to the Skeleton Coast.
During the next two decades the lion population increased and expanded to most of its former range. Today there are between 130–150 lions living in an area of 35,000 sq km between the Ugab River in the south and the Hoaureb River in the north.
Lions found their way back to the Skeleton Coast, and some even briefly visited the coastline. But their knowledge of the rich marine food source along the coast was lost: the lions showed no interest in patrolling the beaches in search of seals, as they had during the 1980s.
It required a remarkable lioness and her descendants to make the breakthrough that eventually saw the return of the coastal lions nearly 35 years later. Xpl-10, or ‘the Queen’ as she became known, was born north of Palmwag in 1998 and became the subject of an intensive study until her death in May 2014. During her rich and eventful life she produced a total of five litters, raising seven lions. Her daughters had six litters and successfully raised an additional 11 cubs.
The QueenXpl-10 exposed all her descendants to the ocean, and gradually they started exploring more of the coastal habitat. The first confirmed evidence of their feeding on Cape fur seals came in 2006. Several more isolated cases followed, but it was only in 2017 that three young lionesses — the great-granddaughters of the QueenXpl-10 — rediscovered the rich food resources that the coastline has to offer.
The young lionesses had had a rocky start. Their mother died of natural causes when they were barely a year old, and they became known as the ‘Orphans’. Driven by hunger and desperation, they found their way over the dunes and swam onto an island at a fresh-water spring near the coast. Here, they started killing cormorants that roost on the island at night. This was their saving, and soon they became specialised in hunting a range of wetland birds, including flamingos and ducks. But it was the large numbers of resident Cape and White-breasted cormorants that provided them with a nutritious and reliable marine diet.
The Orphans began following the large flocks of cormorants, hunting them at night on the mud-flats and along the coastline. This brought them into contact with Cape fur seals that occasionally rest on the beaches. At first the lions scavenged seal carcasses, and then they expropriated them from brown hyaenas. Early in 2018 the Orphans started killing seals themselves. Initially they took only juveniles less than one year old, but with experience came confidence, and recently the Orphans have killed several larger seals, including a few adult females.
After an absence of nearly 35 years the coastal lions of the Skeleton Coast are back in force. The legendary lioness, the QueenXpl-10, was the founder of a new era of lions that are suitably skilled and adapted for survival along the Skeleton Coast. It required all that time, and several generations, for the lions to regain the knowledge that was lost at the end of the 1980s.
With the growing tourism industry in Namibia, these lions have become valued national assets. We will now, hopefully, provide sufficient protection to ensure the long-term conservation of this iconic and uniquely adapted species — for it is not every day that you see a lion on a beach.
Dr Philip Stander is the founder of the Desert Lion Conservation (www.desertlion.info) and the author of the remarkable new book, Vanishing Kings.