My first real encounter with wild lions happened many years ago, when I tracked their movements as part of a research project conducted by the University of Pretoria, on a vast private farm in the Northern regions of South Africa. I remember that we had to climb along a steep little ridge, to the edge of a flat clearing on the plateau. When I peaked over the edge, I stared straight into the eyes of the lead lioness, and she stared straight into my soul.
She lay there, ears slightly pulled back, tail twitching, barely 15 meters away from me. She could easily have had me for lunch – I had nowhere to go but very far down, backwards, if she decided to attack. I did not notice that she had sent her minions to encircle us, two lionesses on each side, slowly flanking us. They were waiting for an unspoken, silent signal to attack. The rocky ridge made it difficult for them to remain hidden, and tricky to storm us in a straight fast kill-dash. By now the lionesses flanking us had taken up positions from which to watch closely. I silently saluted the queen with a glance of deep respect. Warily, we made our way back down.
Her absolute power and fierce wildness stayed with me. That day, she cultivated a feeling of so much love and awe in my heart, that I can instantly tap into that whenever I need to. It was onto that emotion I clung, after hearing the devastating news of the killing of a Namibian desert lion.
Only a handful of lucky people in the world can boast that they have seen any of the Namibian desert lions. If you are one of the Big Five and a Namibian desert dweller too, you probably need to seriously re-think your survival strategy. The past couple of months have not been kind to Namibian rhino (poaching), elephants (trophy hunting) or lions (human wildlife conflict). The legendary male lion called Rosh was killed a few weeks back, and his death rocked nature lovers to the core. When the news of the senseless murder of a male lion called Terrace Male broke a few days ago, the heartache and loss was palpable, in every conversation, and with every picture posted.
Terrace Male, like Rosh, was collared and his movements closely monitored. They were both part of the research done by Dr. Phillip Stander of the Desert Lion Conservation Project, started in 1998. Since 1999, a total of 40 lions were collared, and 86 were identifiable individuals. The estimated total population of desert lions number between 96 and 154. The main causes of mortality among desert lions are human wildlife conflict and trophy hunting. Terrace Male was born in November 2007, and was known as the Skeleton Coast Wanderer, a tribute to the vast distances he covered in his travels. He even crossed into Angola by swimming across the Kunene river in August 2012, and staying there for a two week "vacation."
In a sense, the killing of Rosh set the stage for the killing of Terrace Male, because Rosh used to frequent areas where human wildlife conflict (HWC) were common. When Rosh was shot, Terrace Male started to explore the area that used to be Rosh's territory, and as a result came into the areas where HWC would be a potential problem. Terrace Male's Collar was found about 100 meters from his body; it was charred from an attempt to burn it. The killers of Terrace Male tried to hide the fact that he was dead. Surely if this killing was justified, there would be no need to hide the evidence? There has been no evidence found that Terrace was a threat to livestock or humans when he was killed. The only consolation in this tragic story, is the fact that a bullet straight to his heart killed him quickly. He did not suffer for too long.
Desert lions, like desert elephants, are a flagship species of the Namibian tourism industry. The outrage against the senseless killing of such magnificent animals needs to reach the attention of the world, and the hearts of the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism. The Namibian government needs to live up to the propaganda of their spotless conservation record they spout so effortlessly. What they are doing is not working. We are losing irreplaceable legends faster than you can say sustainable utilization. Soon there will be nothing left to see in Namibia, and no reason to spend top tourist dollars either.
As I write this, tears are streaming across my face, and I feel gutted by the thought of this majestic lion's life being snuffed out like he was nothing but a piece of inedible meat.
Rest in peace, Rosh. Rest in Peace, Terrace Male. You are both mourned worldwide.