The Search for Desert Adapted Lions

We heard about a small group of desert-adapted lions in Namibia located in the northwest corner of the country, in a desert area around the Skeleton Coast.  These unique lions were made famous in a recent documentary called the Vanishing Kings, and had a fierce protector in a researcher and conservationist, Dr. Philip Stander.  The desert-adapted lions are only location in this small remote area of Namibia and number approximately 150 in total.

These lions are different when compared to other lions because of their special adaptions and habits.  Their legs are longer than typical African lions to adapt to walking across hot sand dunes, but their coats are thicker because of the cold desert nights.  To cool down during hot days, they can sweat through their paw pads and pant.  They can go longer periods without water and can get some of their hydration needs from the blood of their prey.

They are also different in the way that they hunt.  In the desert prey is scarce and the the lions have to travel long distances to find food.  They are willing to hunt smaller prey, like field mice, which other lions wouldn’t waste energy hunting.

We had special access to the protected Skeleton Coast National Park where we were going to start looking for the lions thanks to Wilderness Safaris.  Our guide, Elias, met us at Hoanib Camp and drove us out. There are several groups of lions in the area that are well known to the guides.  The most famous were the five Musketeers, five brothers which were featured in the documentary Vanishing Kings, sadly only one of them survives today.  There are also the three sisters, and their aunt. There is a group of two sisters and a brother.  Elias, warned us about the high chances of not seeing any lions.  Recently there had been several incidents of farmers killings lions. Human wildlife conflict is one of the biggest problems for all African wildlife conservation and desert adapted lions are no exception.  When predators wander into the herder’s land for an easy meal, usually a cow or goat, they become the enemy.  Lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, and even jackals are shot, trapped, or poisoned to save the herder’s livestock.

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We drove several hours into the sand dunes towards a special oasis where the group of young lionesses, the three sisters, like to hang out.  Elias hoped we could spot them there.  We looked around and didn’t see them.  We talked about how it was okay that we couldn’t find them, because of course their territory was large, and they were so few.  It would be more unusual if we were lucky enough to see them in only a few hours on our first day.  We were going to meet with Dr. Philip at his basecamp on the Skeleton Coast so we were okay with not seeing the lions.  I was disappointed, but hopeful that maybe we would see them elsewhere.  I put on my lions ears for the rest of the drive and for goodluck just in case.

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We left the oasis lions ears firmly attached, talking about interview questions with my mum. Elias’ radio started chattering, one of the other guides had found the three sisters just on the other side of the dunes, and we were only 2 minutes from them.  Elias got all giddy, he hadn’t seen the lions in ages, and decided that my lion ears had brought us good luck!

We pulled up slowly and as quietly as a jeep can behind the other vehicle and there they were!  Three lions, sleeping ten feet away from us!  One of them was in the shade, while the other two were directly in from of us in the sun. The three sisters used to be a family of four sisters and their mother.  During a flash flood when they were small, their mother had to move them to higher ground one by one and the fourth cub didn’t make it, no one knows what happened.  When the sisters were a year old, their mother got in a fight with a leopard and died, leaving them too young to survive.  They learned to hunt on their own, surviving mostly on field mice.  Now they are healthy looking two year-old lionesses.

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We watched them for twenty minutes, until the two in the sunshine yawned, stretched and walked over to the shade.  Then we slowly drove away and headed to the coast to meet with Dr. Philip.  When we got there, his research truck was parked outside a little cabin on the beach near the ranger station.  He was barefoot, sitting at his desk, writing.  We were lucky to meet with him, because he is usually in the field somewhere in his truck for weeks at a time.  Sleeping, eating, and working out of the truck as home, office, and research station all in one.  At Desert Rhino Camp we had heard a rumor about him writing on his body when he ran out of paper.  If you want privacy, working in a national park that doesn’t allow visitors is a good place to be based.

Dr. Philip talked about his background studying the lions for the past 20 years.  Growing up on a farm in Namibia, his earliest memories were of animals.  He doesn’t remember what got him interested in studying animals. He studied zoology and got his PhD in evolutionary biology.

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“Lions are under threat because they threaten people”.   The local people don’t typically like the lions, they are often afraid of them.  This is why the farmers are the greatest threat in the area, especially lately, poisoning several lions and shooting them.

Right now he has 27 lions with radio collars.  The collars only last about a year or year and a half, but they give vital data for his work understanding how to protect the lions.

Humans are the biggest problem for lions.  “Sadly that is the case for most species in the world.”

Is there a solution?  “Yes. I believe there is.  When its in the interest of the people to want to protect the lions.  When the people want to protect them, or they admire them.  Its the only way that they can be conserved.  I do believe its possible.  But this is process that takes many years to develop.”

What do lions need?  Space.  Land and space is the critical thing for all wildlife.  Humans have taken the space away for animals.  We need to create space.  Boundary problems are the issue – where animals and human meet.  Namibia has certain rules set up to help protect these boundary areas.  One solution for the human animal conflict specific to desert adapted lions is making livestock corrals required and setting up trained patrols when lions are spotted in the area.

Does conservation in Namibia work?  Namibia has been recognized internationally for its conservation work.  Involving the local communities in conservation has been a really good step.  Tourism brings a lot of income into the country and helps to filter down into the communities.  Like many people have told us, it could work better, but its a start. Conservancies and national parks working together are helping to protect wildlife and reduce human animal conflicts.

 

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Desert Rhino Camp

We flew into Desert Rhino Camp in a Cessna, the first small airplane I’ve ever flown in.  There were only nine seats and we flew low over the landscape so we could see the detail below.  Desert Rhino Camp is in the Palmwag Concession in northwest Namibia, a remote desert area known for its desert adapted wildlife.  It was about an hour from Windhoek to a small airstrip where we switched to another Cessna that took us to the camp.  We landed on a dusty airstrip and our guide picked us up in a safari jeep.  His said his name was Bons.  He drove us to camp, and when we arrived we were greeted by singing.  All of the staff were standing outside and singing us a welcome song.

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Bons took us out for a sunset drive around the camp before dinner, we saw Hartman zebras, one of the three species of zebras, these ones are unique because their stripes go down to their hooves but they have white bellys.  We also saw oryx and lots of springbok. The trails were very bumpy and Bons called it the ‘African massage’.  The desert landscape here is very dry, there is very little water for the animals, especially since it is winter now and the riverbeds are dried up. There are a few springs, but the animals really have to work for their water.  Oryx are a great example of an animal adapted for the desert, because they can get a lot of their water from the grasses and tubers they eat.

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The next day was our first day of tracking desert adapted rhino, which here are black rhinos. This area is the only area left in the world of free roaming rhinos of anykind white or black which make it very special to try and track.  Save the Rhinos Trust is working in partnership with Wilderness Safaris who run Desert Rhino Camp to monitor and protect and save the rhinos.  This area has had less poaching than national parks like Etosha.  While we were in Windhoek, we read in the newspaper about a recent pregnant rhino being killed.  Rhino poaching is still a huge problem in Namibia despite its conservation efforts.  Rhino horns are worth a lot of money and people are still willing to take the risk. Rhino horn prices have risen to over $100,000 a kg, despite it being made up of the same stuff as our fingernails.  This is mainly because of people in Vietnam that believe rhino horn powder is a cure all for many things including hangover cures and cancer.

We woke up at 5am to have breakfast and get on the road by sunrise with Bons.  The trackers were already out and looking for signs of the rhinos from the night before, and communicating with Bons. We were driving towards what they called Zone 3.  As we drove we saw more oryx, springbox, Hartman zebra, and our first desert adapted giraffes.  Bons showed us tracks of a leopard in the dry riverbed and rhino tracks from he said where fresh from that morning which are very large and three-toed.  We also found elephant and rhino scat which looks almost the same, but Bons showed us that when you break it apart the sticks and grass have been chewed at a 45 degree angle if its a rhino because of their teeth. Also, that it is basically safe to touch elephant and rhino scat because they are grass eaters and has been processed so much that it’s harmless, unlike carnivore scat which is full of bacteria because they are meat eaters. I still didn’t want to touch it though.

We drove for about an hour on very rough rocky roads, and suddenly Bons stopped the jeep and took his binoculars out… far away on the mountain, he spotted two white dots….rhinos. He called the trackers on the radio and immediately made a plan to get up to where they were without scaring them away.  The idea is to get downwind so that we could approach closer on foot.  That is the amazing thing about meeting up with Save the Rhino Trust trackers is being able to get close to the rhinos on foot and observe how the trackers and rangers work to protect and monitor the rhinos.

We parked the cars and watched their behavior first before approaching on foot.  We then walked over and observed the two rhinos for about 15 minutes.  It was a mother and her adolescent calf, known as Top Notch and Troy.  Rhinos eyesight is very poor, but their hearing and their smell is very good. We stayed very quiet and the trackers and rangers used hand signals to communicate. Top Notch snorted loudly several times and moved as though she was going to walk towards us, but eventually they both trotted off.  One ranger stayed back and took notes while we went back to the jeep.

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Later we learned from Samson, the director of Save the Rhino Trust, that they don’t publicly discuss how many rhinos there are in the area, or where they are, so as to not give poachers any potential information or leads that could aid them.  This is much different than how conservation works with big cats who are often radio collared to aid in tracking and monitoring numbers and territory.  There are approximately 5,000 black rhinos left in the world and they are all concentrated in southern Africa with the last free roaming herd outside of a game park in Namibia.

We also saw lots of desert adapted giraffe, black back jackal, and ostrich while we were driving around.

At dinner, Winnie and Nicole, announced dinner in English and in Damara, the click language.  A local tribal language based on clicks.  The manager was sitting next to us at the table and told us how similar the words are for spoon, elephant, blue, and wind in Damara and joked that he is too scared to learn the language for fear he would ask for an elephant to eat his soup with. After dinner when it was dark, a spotted hynena came walking by the edge of the camp and that night in bed we could hear several ‘laughing’.

The next day we went out again and were lucky enough to find two more rhinos, Don’t Worry and an unnamed female that had traveled in from another area.  This was a harder approach, we had to walk for thirty minutes over very rocky ground to reach the rhinos downwind.  We were more exposed but I felt very safe with Bons who stayed close to me and the rangers signaled when they felt that we needed to move when the wind direction changed or the rhinos were moving too close.  The unnamed female watched us intently, walked around in circles, pawed at the ground a few times, and false charged a few times which was a little scary.

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We turned to observe Don’t Worry who is 27 year old, born in 1990, the year of Namibian’s independence.  Bons said, he is the one rhino he feels comfortable closing his eyes around, because he’s so predictable and super chill.

We decided to go out one last time to try and see the rhinos the morning of our departure and got lucky.  We were able to see the unnamed female again in a different location.  She was in a riverbank, it was another long walk in, but much easier.  We got very scared when she almost charged us and even made the trackers a little nervous.

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IMG_3133 copyWe drove back to camp and interviewed Bons about his life and working at Desert Rhino Camp as a guide and had time for one last game of chess.  He says he isn’t very good, but he is actually an expert.  He taught me a few tricks.  Winnie, tried to teach me the word for spoon in Damara, the click language, but I really struggled to make the sound of the click at the same time as the word.

As we got into the jeep to leave, the staff came out to sing a song and Bons told my mom to get her camera out to video.  Then he jumped out of the car and told them to sing the Desert Rhino Song and he joined in.  Then they really got going and one of the guys ran off to grab his drum and the cook said, “that guy’s obsessed with music”.  They sang two more songs for us, and Bons showed us his dance moves.  It was hilarious and made me want to stay longer.

I miss them all already and can’t wait to come back again!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Namibia

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London to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Nairobi, Nairobi to Ethiopia, Ethiopia to Namibia. In total around 16 hours of travel not including layovers.

Namibia is our first destination of our 14-month journey for many reasons. One, this is a country that has found ways to live not only amongst the wildlife but with it. Two, this is one of the only countries in the world that has written conservation in its constitution. Three, there are many problems regarding the wildlife such as poaching and many animals are endangered, some are nearly extinct, but despite these problems there is a lot being done here to protect wildlife and their habitat.

Namibia is in the southern part of Africa bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. It’s neighbors are Angola, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa.  Namibia only recently got its independence in 1990, after decades of rule under South Africa. Namibia got its name from the Namib desert, the oldest desert in the world, estimated at 55-80 million years old. It stretches for more than 2,000 kilometers along the Atlantic coast of Southern Africa. There are approximately 13 different tribes in Namibia.

Namibia is one of the only countries in the world to specifically address habitat conservation and protection of natural resources in their constitution. In the Namibian constitution, Article 95 states, “The State shall actively promote and maintain the welfare of the people by adopting international policies aimed at the following: maintenance of ecosystems, essential ecological processes, and biological diversity of Namibia, and utilization of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future.”  One  of the ways in which this is addressed is by integrating conservation into the school system, school children are taught conservation at every grade level.

We have spent the last week in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. We have been researching, exploring Windhoek, and working. We met up with World Wildlife Fund (WWF for short). We walked to WWF’s Namibian headquarters located in Windhoek, and talked to Chris Weaver and Steve Felton. Chris is the director of the program in Namibia and funnily enough is also from Colorado, our home base. We talked to him about what WWF is doing in Namibia and how it works with the wildlife and the communities. He told us that WWF is not actually working with the wildlife in Namibia directly but they are working with the civil society and infrastructure. They are teaching communities how to protect wildlife in and outside of parks and helping to set up conservancies, which give communities a source of income and create incentives to protect wildlife. If the wildlife is benefiting them then they will see a reason to protect it, and become additional resources against poachers.

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The next day we went back to WWF  but this time to meet with Michelle who is in charge of the wildlife crime research. We asked her about poaching and what is being done to protect the animals in Namibia. We asked her about what she does and the ways it benefits Namibia’s wildlife. She told us that in Namibia wildlife crime is not seen as a crime and so they are working with government to get stiffer penalties for wildlife crime. “It’s not about protecting animals because you can just put a fence around them and put them in a cage if you wanted to protect the animal, it’s about protecting species and their habitat.” So the best ways to protect species is to give ownership to the communities that live with the wildlife and to make sure that you have enough rangers on patrol to report as eyes and ears. In a place like Etosha National Park you have a lot of poaching simply because of the environment, it is so vast and very hostile. The park is protected but it is 20,000 square km.  It makes it very difficult for rangers to patrol so much space. For example last year, 80 rhinos were killed in Etosha and only 3 or 4 were killed in smaller conservancies.

Lots is to learn in the weeks ahead.  We are leaving for 6 days on the northern remote Skeleton Coast tomorrow to learn about this unique ecosystem and hopefully see desert adapted lions, rhinos, elephants, and giraffes.

Favorite animals from the WWF staff:
Chris – wild dogs
Steve – insects
Michelle – leopard

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Preventing the Dolphin Slaughter

Last night I watched The Cove documentary.  This film is about the dolphine slaughter in Japan that happens every September.  They estimate around 23,000 dolphins are killed each year.

Fisherman herd the dolphins into the bay by creating a wall of sound, by sticking a metal pole into the water and hitting it with a hammer which scares the dolphins.  Once the dolphins are near shore, they set up nets so that no dolphins can escape.  Buyers from Sea World and other marine parks come and pick out the dolphins that they want for their shows.  The remaining dolphins are taken into a secret cove where nobody can see what happens next.

The next day, the fisherman return and using spears kill every single dolphin trapped in the cove, turning the water red with blood.  Scuba divers find all the sunken dolphins and bring them onto the boats to sell as dolphin meat.  Which is sad because dolphin meat contains very high levels of mercury and most people do not want to buy or eat it.  Since no one wants to buy dolphin meat, they disguise it as whale meat which is much healthier. False advertising on the packaging means that people don’t even know they buying dolphin meat.

What can we do?  Unless you live in Japan where these slaughters happen, its difficult to know how to help.  So the best place to start is:

Watch the video below and then take action against dolphin slaughters at www.takepart.com/thecove 

Making Friends in Santa Barbara

Over winter break me and my mom went to Santa Barbara, California. We stayed with friends Lynn and John Seigel Boettner, and for dinner they invited over friends that are also activists. 4 generations of activists ate pizza and shared stories, one of the women was 82 year old Eva Haller. There is a new movie coming out about her life, Eva Haller: A Work in Progress, because she is still evolving and being an activist in new ways. Jeanne Meyers is behind the film, and the My Hero project – she was also at dinner. Eva is also a close friend with Jane Goodall, someone I really want to meet, and she told me the story of how she first started to work in Africa. She also told me about her youth program, Roots and Shoots so that I could look into that when I got home.

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The next day, we went sea kayaking with some new friends, one of the girls Ella is in a group called, Teen Press. Teen press is a journalism program at the Santa Barbra Middle School started by John when he was a teacher there. This group goes to different places and interviews famous people, for example they have interviewed: Jennifer Lawrence, Yvon Choinard, and National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths. There is a documentary about Teen Press at the film festivals right now.

We went sea kayaking near the harbor then paddled out a bit to a bouey covered in sleeping sea lions! Sea lions are not endangered but are protected as all marine mammals are under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. It was super cool to be able paddle so close to these animals, so close yet so stinky! I was a bit scared (as I bet most kids that don’t live by the ocean are) of the ocean because the water was very dark in the harbour, but I faced my fears and climbed into the double kayak. By the end of the day, I was ready for my own kayak, and was even swimming in the ocean. Now I am a lot more comfortable in the water.

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It is really sad because it is estimated that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic then fish in our oceans! This is so sad because there are more then 1 million discovered species of plants and animals in our oceans and scientists think there there are over 9 million species in our oceans we have not discovered yet!

photo credits: Shannon Galpin

Racing Extinction

 

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Racing Extinction is a film about the rapid extinction of animals on our planet.  The film shows how a group of activists go around the world to prevent a man-made mass extinction. Earth is losing species 1000% faster than the natural rate of extinction. “We are losing species faster than we can describe them,” says director and activist Louis Psihoyos.  “When you are talking about losing all of nature its no longer a spectator sport, everyone has to become active somehow. 

Much of the film focuses on the places where people kill endangered animals like manta rays, sharks, and whalesharks, and then go to the illegal black markets that sell them for profit.  Many endangered species are used for Chinese medicines and remedies. The Chinese believe for example, that shark fin soup can cure cancer, which has contributed to the practice of finning.

One of the people in the film is Joel Sartore, a photographer that is taking photos of all the endangered animals before they are extinct.  Another person in the film is Shawn Heinrichs, filmmaker and marine conservationist.  One of the things Shawn says in the movie, “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” I think he says this because it is better to do one thing, even if it seems small, than to do nothing at all.  Which means all of us can do something.

They use the idea of Start with One Thing. The movie ends with some of those small changes that we can all do to get started.  #startwith1thing

  1. Turning off the lights when you leave the room, saving energy and reduce our impact on fossil fuels.
  2. Walk and bike more places instead of driving cars.
  3. Reduce your plastic use. Don’t buy bottled water, and recycle when you can.
  4. Don’t buy endangered animal products.
  5. Eat one meal less a week of meat and cheese, it is like taking 2,700 cars off the road

And if the entire population of the United States did not eat meat or cheese for just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

You can learn more about the film and how to take action at www.racingextinction.com

The movie is available on iTunes and Amazon.com

 

Finning of the Sharks

 

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Sharks have survived 5 mass extinctions.  They are the top predator in the oceans.  Most people think that sharks are super scary, and many are even scared to swim in the ocean for fear of getting attacked.  Did you know? You are more likely to die of a mosquito bite than being attacked by a shark?  Every year approximately 274,000 people die from mosquito bites, but only 12 people die of shark attacks.

Even more surprising, humans kill over 100 million sharks every year.  This is due to overhunting and finning.  Finning is when fishermen catch a shark, cut off its fins, and throw it, still alive, back into the water.  The shark either drowns, is eaten alive by other fish, or starves to death.  Fins are harvested like this for one reason only.  People want to eat shark fin soup!

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According to the organization, Stop Shark Finning, since the 1970’s several shark species been decimated by over 95%.  Stop Shark Finning has been campaigning for a worldwide ban of finning.

How can you help?

  1. Don’t eat shark fin soup, and tell others not eat it either, and don’t go to restaurants that serve shark fin soup.
  2. If you see a story about sharks attacking people, contact the reporter and ask them to do a story about shark finning.
  3. On your next vacation, go shark diving.  Shark diving encourages conservation and protection of local shark populations through tourism.  It provides a source of income instead of hunting.
  4. Talk about sharks, to your friends and family.  Education creates understanding of these fierce predators, and understanding creates change to help save them from extinction.

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