September 27, 2017 NAMIBIA’S DESERT LIONS Laura Ann Walton Frikki von Solms, Namibia, Untamed Travel Africa Frikkie received the gift of raising two brother lions, Zion and Trust. Zion was just a little cub who fit in a shoe box the day he was entrusted to Frikkie’s care. His brother Trust joined the little lion family a few months later. At the time he was working as a consultant for a Namibian wildlife sanctuary. His bond with Zion and Trust changed his life forever. I tell that story in my book, God is a Lion. On pages 244-247, you can read the details about the joys and challenges of raising lion cubs to adulthood. (von Solms Family photo.) I received the gift of spending over 3 months in the presence of Zion and Trust through 2013-2015. I wrote the first draft of God is a Lion and edited it in their presence, day after wonderful day. It was one of the deepest joys of my life. This is my photo of the two of them looking right out at me. I have often remarked that they were the actual authors of the book and I created a collage to illustrate this. The Lion writes the book – and the truth is that God is a Lion would never have come to be if I had not been up close and personal with Zion and Trust. I will love them forever. Aside from the joy and strength they give to the humans who are bonded with them, Zion and Trust will spend their entire lives behind a fence. They will never have a natural lion life, never have a pride family. They have only each other and their bonds with humans. However, due to the fact that they are not afraid of humans, they can never be released in the wild. They are safe in captivity, kept from the guns of trophy hunters and the rifles of farmers. They will likely live longer than than their counterparts in the wild but the trade off is immense. I write in my book, “would it be better if lions..could live in a natural habitat and have little or nothing to do with humans? For the human being..the opportunity to know and be known by a lion is a wonderful, transforming experience. The question remains, however, if there is any value in it for the lion? Frikkie told me, “yes,” that the experience opens up capacities in the lions, deepens their lives also.” Everyday, when I went to the enclosure of Zion and Trust they would come to the the gate and rub their heads against the fence in greeting and I could reach in and touch them. Their mane hairs got caught in the fence and over the months I collected the strands. The sad reality, however, is that there are few options for lions. They have a precarious existence – their natural habitat has been dramatically reduced due to the encroachment of human activity. This fact is even more serious than the greed of trophy hunters and the desperation of farmers protecting their livestock from hungry lions. Zion and Trust and other rescued lions are homeless refugees. At places like wildlife sanctuaries they survive and live with us on a liminal bridge between the edges of our respective boundaries. They are held captive in the enclosure of the human heart. Other lions in captivity have the horrible fate of living out their brief lives in a canned hunting farm. About 2 years ago, I created this collage which depicts the onslaught of trophy hunters against African wildlife. We are at a crossroads in our relationship to wild animals – those who exist in what’s left of their natural eco-systems. I believe that if we kill them all, we are essentially killing ourselves, our souls, hence the gun pointed outward from the center of this collage. Wild lions in Namibia have retreated to the desert wilderness where they have adapted themselves to survive. When I came to Namibia in March of this year, 2017, it was my hope that Frikkie and I might be fortunate enough to see even one of the Desert Lions. There is a man in Namibia who works with these lions, Philip “Flip” Stander, Phd. I took the liberty of using photos from his website about the Desert Lion Conservation project (DLC) begun in 1998. It is my practice to use my own photographs and reflect on my own experience of my journeys with Frikkie von Solms through Untamed Travel, Africa. However, although we were definitely in the actual presence of Desert Lions at least twice in our adventure, we did not see them. So in this section of the post I decided to use photos from the DLC website because the cause is dear to my heart and I want to promote the work Dr Stander is doing. In addition, the photos make the story more vivid – such as this one in which Lions make their way into the heart of the desert in order to survive. Flip Stander began his work for Desert Lions in Namibia in 1998 by founding the Desert Lion Conservation Project. Dr. Flip, as he is called, is the expert the most recognized for felines, especially the lions adapted to the Namibian desert. He is the only one working full time on the population to which he has devoted the last 14+ years. He received his doctorate in Zoology from the University of Cambridge in 1994. His thesis on the social evolution of felines was awarded the prize “TH Huxley” of the Zoological Society of London (LZS). He worked 28 years at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism of Namibia (MET), and was in charge of the study of large carnivores of the Etosha National Park in Bushmanland and the Kunene region. There were under 50 Desert Lions when he began his work. Currently the populations is up to 150. (DLC photo) This map shows the general area in which Namibia’s Desert Lions live, the Kunene Region. It is an area of about 51,380 kilometers stretching from the Skeleton Coast to the Palmwag Concession near Khowarib. Frikkie toured me throughout this region during my March, 2017 trip. (internet map) Dr. Flip and his team dart the lions, give health check ups and fit radio collars on the lions when they reach 2 years of age. Their well being is continually monitored both by motor vehicle and small aircraft. Their heads are covered when they are under sedation to protect their eyes. There is quite a bit of information available on the internet about Namibia’s Desert Lions. There is both general information and scientific data. In this post, I mainly want to share that this project exists and hope that those interested will pursue additional information. I would consider it a great honor to someday meet Dr. Flip. ( DLC photo) Desert Lions travel constantly in search of food. Desert life is harsh even for an animal as resilient and strong as the lion. These desert adapted lions do not drink water – their primary source of moisture is the blood from their kills. The primary cause of cub deaths is starvation. The primary cause of death in adults, particularly males, is being shot and poisoned because they pose a danger to the live stock of local farmers. A big part of the work of the Desert Lion Conservation project is working with farmers for whom loss of their livelihood is a serious problem. Trophy hunting and trafficking in lion bones is also a big problem. In fact the website for the Desert Lions no longer gives out the longitude/latitude of the lions’ whereabouts because hunters were using the data to seek them out and shoot them. (DLC photo) I am going to share the story of a group of Desert Lions who became known as the Five Musketeers. They were born in 2012. Here is a photo of them as young cubs. (DLC photo) And here they are as very young adults looking healthy, strong and beautiful. You can see the beginnings of their manes in the short ruffs around their heads. Here is the sad part: one of them was shot and three of them were poisoned by 2016. The lone survivor was nicknamed Tullamore and was re-located from the area where his brothers were killed. However, in the months after he was tracked heading back to his previous territory, probably to look for his brothers. (DLC photo) In April, 2017 his radio collar was found and it was determined that he also had been killed by a local farmer. You can see that he was still a juvenile. Only adults have full manes. This is so sad – I can’t find quick words to write about it. I address the topic of lion-human conflict at length in God is a Lion, pp. 381-391. I recommend reading those pages to get deeper insight into the situation. However, for this post, I will now tell about the Desert Lions that Frikkie found for me during my trip. They were very much alive. (DLC photo) As part of our tour, Frikkie took me to the Palmwag Concession which is a vast conservation area of 5,500 km in the Kunene region. The reserve is managed by people of the Damara culture. This region provides habitat for a number of species including desert adapted animals such as lions. We arrived at the gate into Palmwag early in the morning. Frikkie had heard the previous evening that there had been a lion kill in that area. The Damara in charge for that day, greeted us and went in with us part of the way to indicate the direction from which he had heard the sound of lions roars and fighting the night before. The lions and hyenas were probably fighting over the kill. We began to tour around the areas where humans were allowed to venture. Above is a view of one section of the Concession. Then, we happened upon a rare site – a wild hyena family – two cubs and their mother. This is one of the cubs. Frikkie observed that the cub was gnawing at what looked like fresh bones and that they must have been scavenged from the lions’ kill. This is either the same cub or his sibling checking in with Mom. You can see her head within the shadow of the reeds. Eventually Frikkie drove the car up the top of a plateau from which there was a panoramic view of the vast plains below. In this view, you can see the shadows of the thunder clouds on the hills to the right. While I was taking photos, Frikkie was studying the area with his binoculars. All around me the vast beauty of that wild place held me in its silence and solitude. The soul of the earth is visible, palpable here. Frikkie called softly to me, “come and see.” He had been watching a giraffe who had stood absolutely still for at least 10 minutes peering into the trees nearby. Sure enough there it was, looking no bigger than a tiny toy animal. In the bottom center of this photo locate the one tree in the center with three other trees across the way from it. This is where the giraffe stood watching carefully. He had moved slowly away by the time I took this photo. Frikkie said, “that’s where the Lions are – under those three trees.” Nothing else would have stopped a giraffe in its tracks like that. We were in the presence of Desert Lions(!!), though we could not see them. This happened one more time during my trip. I have to acknowledge Frikkie’s skill and knowledge of the wild. My life is increased by learning from him even a little of how to see and understand the stories playing out in this untamed land which you would never experience in a more causal tourist drive through. During another part of the trip, we were traveling along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, when Frikkie stopped the car and said, “let’s explore this area,” We hiked in and came upon this fresh water lagoon like pond surrounded by reeds quite close to the ocean. A view of the pond which had been refreshed by recent rains. Turning west, we could see the ocean. Frikkie began to look for tracks in the sand. Again, I was taking photos and drinking in the beauty and scent of the ocean when he said, “I’ve found something – come and look.” Lion tracks! They were fresh – maybe even made that morning, or at the latest, yesterday evening. There was a strong breeze, so tracks in the sand would not last for long. I was thrilled. We peered around, studying the rocky bluffs just north of the pond. The lions could be there watching us. What a wonderful place for lions, I thought – game come to drink from the pond, and the lions can find enough to eat and hide in rocky clefts and take their siestas and raise their cubs. Then, I suddenly felt a pang of sadness – wishing that Zion and Trust could live in this place wild and free, thinking of how they were safe, but trapped in a wildlife sanctuary. Loving lions is a bitter-sweet experience which continually breaks my heart with both joyful wonder and exquisite sadness. This is a photo from the DLC gallery which bears witness to the lions living next to the ocean. And this is the beach as I saw it that day in March, 2017. As I have reflected on this experience since I returned home, I realize that not seeing the lions with my eyes actually deepened and widened my soul to their presence and to the presence of all being- its beauty, its vastness, and the peace it can give us if we let it flow through us in the silence with only the sound of the sea filling our hearts. I would like to end this post on notes of hope and gratitude. The hope is that there are enough humans in the world who care about the fate of lions, the fate of the untamed wilderness – to make a difference, to resolve the needs of humans with the needs of the other beings we share the world with. On a practical level, Namibia is learning to value the Desert Lions – and other threatened species – because they vitalize the tourist industry. So come! and be in the presence ofthe Desert Lions – your interest supports their lives and the lives of humans as well. My gratitude is for lions who have so enriched my life. When I originally took this photo of Zion (2013) he was behind the fence of his enclosure. With great care and patience I photo-shopped the fence away. It is only a photo, but as I took away the fence, tiny bit by tiny bit, I felt I was setting Zion free. And my gratitude goes to Frikkie von Solms, his love for lions, and his excellent tours – Untamed Travel Africa. Stay tuned for more posts from me. For booking information, email Tillie von Solms at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share this:EmailFacebookPrint Related
September 30, 2017 @ 5:44 pm
Dear Laura Ann, thank you, your posts are so impressive! Especially this post touched me deep in my heart. I pray for the endangered kings.
October 7, 2017 @ 5:14 am
I have to admit, I skipped some of your latest posts and went right ahead to the Desert Lions – I couldn’t wait to get to the gods I suppose. Dr. Flip’s work is amazing, and his photos complement your entries. I like to think about the beach Lions, maybe they surf, maybe they dine on surfers, but they love the same things I do, a good steak dinner and a day on the beach. Soul mates. Thanks Laura Ann.
Clarissa M Brandes
December 31, 2017 @ 6:21 pm
I hope someday you’ll get to meet Dr. Flip. He sounds like a soul mate. Your work, book and blog, are also furthering the protection and love of lions. As Jim said lions are like soul mates. It is just absolutely amazing that they live near the ocean! Thanks again for sharing your experience through words and pictures.