In Namibia, lions are the kings of the beach | Science News-thread


After almost 40 years, desert lions are back to hunt marine prey along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, where scientists believed unconsciousness had passed out.
Hemi / Alamy

This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication on science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at

In a desolate stretch of Namibia’s arid Skeleton Coast National Park, an invisible fence keeps lions and visitors apart.

The Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism and the non-profit organization Desert Lion Conservation Trust (DLCT) created the virtual fence line, known as a geofence, to track lions that approach a stretch of beach from 40 kilometers around Torra Bay, a popular place for fishing and camping. area. Every time a lion wearing a satellite collar crosses the geofence, the system records the animal’s GPS coordinates and sends automatic alerts to DLCT lion rangers and local camp managers, who close off the area to visitors.

The early warning system responds to a series of potentially dangerous incidents between lions and people. Last year, a group of recreational fishermen got too close to a lioness on a beach near Torra Bay, and the animal charged their vehicle.

Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the odds for aggressive interactions are increasing as Namibian desert lions re-establish themselves on the Skeleton Coast.

Famous for eking out a living on the harsh gravel plains and endless dunes of the Namib desert, lions in northwestern Namibia have a history of feeding on marine life including Cape fur seals, stranded whales and cormorants. Remarkably, they are the only lions known to target marine prey. But in the 1980s, desert lions left the coast after local farmers wiped out most of the population.

When the lions returned in 2002, it was a sign that the population was on the mend. But the animals were no longer hunting marine prey, and lion ecologist Philip Stander, who founded DLCT, became concerned that the population had lost consciousness.

However, in the last eight years, three orphaned lionesses, known to researchers as Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, have led a revival of coastal hunting on the beaches around Torra Bay. The resurgence is exciting, but it has also brought risks; It was probably one of these lions, or a fourth, known as Xpl-108, who charged into the fishermen’s car last year.

The lionesses began attacking coastal prey in 2015, when a drought decimated the park’s mountain zebras, gazelles, oryx and ostriches. To replace these staple foods, the young lionesses turned to seabirds, mainly cormorants, flamingos, and red-billed teals.

Then, in 2018, DLCT scientists saw lionesses hunting seals, some of the first lions to do so in four decades. In a subsequent diet study spanning 18 months, Stander observed that seafood, particularly cormorants, seals and flamingos, accounted for 86 percent of the lionesses’ diet.

“It is fascinating to follow it from the point of view of a biologist”, says Félix Vallat, coordinator of the DLCT project. “It is knowledge that has been lost. Now it’s slowly coming back.”

One local who is particularly excited about the lions’ coastal renaissance is Naude Dreyer.

Dreyer, who organizes kayak safaris in Walvis Bay, 350 kilometers to the south, has longed to see a desert lion since he was five years old. In January 2022, after a three-decade wait, he spotted two of the lionesses separately on the beach near Torra Bay and photographed one feeding on a sea lion against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. .

“He looked up several times while eating, but he didn’t show any aggression,” says Dreyer, who kept his distance.

coastal lion eating prey

When a drought decimated the numbers of zebras, gazelles, oryx and ostriches, the lions of the Namibian desert turned to hunting cormorants, flamingos and even fur seals to survive.

Courtesy of Naude Dreyer

The lioness Dreyer photographed was likely Xpl-108, which spent more than 30 days in the geo-fenced area from late November to January. She, Alpha and Bravo have been fitted with satellite collars, and the tracking project is as much about the lions as it is about keeping visitors safe.

Tourists crowding beaches during peak seasons, such as the recent December-January holidays in southern Africa, could disrupt lion hunting or drive the animals inland into conflict with farmers.

As a security measure, the geofence is not perfect. One night, Xpl-108 slid ashore and killed a sea lion. The next morning, the fishermen arrived to fish before the rangers could cordon off the beach, and Xpl-108 departed, hauling their food four kilometers inland to the safety of a rocky outcrop.

But evidence from elsewhere suggests the project should work. Matthew Wijers, a postdoctoral lion researcher at Oxford University in England who is not part of the desert lion project, says that while expensive, geofencing has been effective in other parts of southern Africa.

“This technology, along with educational programs that highlight the ecological importance of desert lions, as well as potential dangers to the public, should help reduce the risks of conflict between lions and fishermen along the Coast of Skeletons,” he says.

Whether the lionesses will continue to roam Torra Bay is an open question. After nearly eight years, Namibia’s drought appears to have finally ended. In that time, the lion population dropped from 150 to 80 animals. Vallat predicts that within a year or two, the lions’ ground prey, and hopefully lion numbers, should rebound.

In the meantime, Vallat hopes the geofence will keep everyone safe.

This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication on science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at

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