Post Submitted by Andrew Stein. Stein is a repeated Big Cats Initiative Grantee, as well as the founder and director of CLAWS.
Too often in conservation we are squarely focused on protecting wild species. Since the inception of our lion conservation program, poison use has stopped entirely and lion killing halted in 2016. We see the lion population is on the rebound as all five known females have cubs. The tide is shifting for lions.
But this only tells part of the story. People are still losing livestock at an alarming rate. Most conflicts occur in the floodplains to the south of the village where cattle mingle with the northward moving zebra- followed closely by stalking lions. Most of these livestock are not accompanied by herders and the temptation is too strong. Often the livestock owners do not know the fate of their stock because they were at their job or in the village attending to other matters. The children who historically herded livestock now attend school, so the noble herder of the past is all but a memory.
In the meantime, there is a slaughter going on. Villagers have lost >80 head of cattle in the last two months and lions were the primary culprits. Something has got to give! Even small losses can be devastating to a subsistence livestock owner. For example, one of our friends at Xau cattle post lost 4 of his 5 calves within a month. He called us immediately to document each report to file for government compensation. In one case, we followed as the fresh lion tracks paced in both directions around periphery of his flimsy livestock corral. They encircled the cattle, likely stirring them into a frenzy. Then, we found the place where the cattle jumped through the thorny branches to escape. The vulnerable, young calves were taken and dragged under a nearby thornbush where they were consumed. The whole story scrawled in the sand.
The lions fed, but not well. The next day, in the same village, we saw a similar story. This time the lions killed a full-size cow and fed on her within meters of the nearest house. Judging by the damage, the lions had fed for a substantial amount of time without interruption under the cover of night. People are getting frustrated and feel the need to take action.
It is against this backdrop that we heard of the attack. In late January, we received another, more chilling report. Six armed villagers found fresh lion tracks in the morning and decided to follow them. It is not clear what the group’s intentions were- did they plan to scare the lions or kill? In such circumstances, it is not easy to get an honest answer. As they advanced on the tracks they found the cats. There was a young male and a female (neither wearing one of our tracking collars). The villagers shot at the lions, the male turned, charged and mauled one man across the chest. Bloodied, the group returned to the village and sent the injured man to the nearest hospital. After short consultation, he was sent on an 8-hour drive to Maun where he received medical care before his quick recovery and release. Luckily the lion did not kill him. Lions rarely attack people in our area. I am only aware of a single case in the last 10 years when a lion bit the hand of an elderly man who was in pursuit after a livestock attack. These lions are certainly capable of killing, but they don’t.
Since we are the face of lion conservation in our region, we were approached by members of the community for answers. We did what anyone would do in this case, we offered our support to the family and the Department of Wildlife. We spent time talking to the affected livestock farmers. We listened to their fears and understandable frustration. They are a community under siege by protected invaders. Their experience has value and regardless of all other information, people will act on their fear and frustration. We wanted to show that their concerns are valid, reasonable and we would help in anyway short of killing the cats.
This is where our community outreach has paid off. We have built a foundation of mutual respect over the last 2.5 years. We do our best to provide useful information to the communities so that they don’t feel the need to kill these animals after every attack and we have provided alerts when collared lions approach the village, lion-proof livestock corrals and advice when asked. In this case, we provided all the information we had about the patterns of attacks and general information about these specific cats.
Following the most recent livestock kills by these 2 cats, the Department of Wildlife plan to capture and relocate the cats to a safer area. This is only a short-term solution as unattended cattle will surely remain a high target for the remaining lions.
In 2017, we will embark on a livestock herder training program. This program will highlight the traditional knowledge that kept livestock safe for millennia. We will integrate some basic technology, lessons on rangeland management and predator protection so that participants can receive a trade certification so once again the herder is a position of esteem and value in the community. We will incentivize strong herding practices so that livestock, lions and people can coexist as they historically have.
As lion populations continue to grow these conflicts will become even more contentious. With good will, respectful communication and partnerships we hope that our approach can sustain people and these magnificent cats into the future. Thank you supporters of National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative for your assistance in our mission to help people and lions coexist.
All images provided by Andrew Stein of CLAWS.