When a drought decimated zebra, springbok, oryx, and ostrich numbers, Namibia’s desert lions turned to hunting cormorants, flamingos, and even fur seals to survive. Photo courtesy of Naude Dreyer

NA - In Namibia, Lions Are King of the Beach

As lions return to hunting fur seals on the Skeleton Coast, a new geofencing project tries to keep people out of the way

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

Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism and the nonprofit Desert Lion Conservation Trust (DLCT) created the virtual fence line, known as a geofence, to track lions approaching a 40-kilometer stretch of beach around Torra Bay, a popular fishing and camping area. Each time a lion wearing a satellite collar crosses the geofence, the system records the animal’s GPS coordinates and sends automatic alerts to the DLCT’s lion rangers and managers of the local campsite, who close the area to visitors.

The early warning system is in response to a number of potentially dangerous incidents between lions and people. In one last year, a party of recreational anglers got too close to a lioness on a beach near Torra Bay, and the animal charged their vehicle.

Fortunately, no one was injured, but the odds of aggressive interactions are increasing as Namibia’s desert lions re-establish themselves on the Skeleton Coast.

Lions in Namibia’s northwest, renowned for eking out a living amid the Namib Desert’s harsh gravel plains and endless dunes, have a history of feeding on marine species, such as Cape fur seals, beached whales, and cormorants. Remarkably, they are the only lions known to target marine prey. But in the 1980s, the desert lions abandoned the coast after local farmers wiped out most of the population.

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

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

The lionesses started targeting coastal prey in 2015, when a drought decimated the park’s mountain zebras, springboks, oryxes, and ostriches. To replace these dietary staples, the young lionesses turned to marine birds, mainly cormorants, flamingos, and red-billed teals.

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

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

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

Read more.