Lions in the balance

One too many?

"We had a full guest list and were sitting down to breakfast. We watched four lionesses chase the buffalos just down there". Lodge manager Simone Micheletti points across the river that flows in front of the lodge to the grass beyond. "It was National Geographic live!"

Nkasa Lupala lodge sits on the border of Nkasa Rupara National Park in Wuparo Conservancy: the southernmost tip of Namibia’s Caprivi Region. The lodge is a luxury canvas and wood construction owned by the Micheletti family from Italy, and a joint venture with the conservancy. As long as the tourists keep coming to see the wildlife, the conservancy will earn a steady income from the lodge, which provides good employment for local people.

Despite the optimism, everybody is in mourning for 'Tarzan', a black maned lion shot in the conservancy last month. Lions are the big draw. "Tourists want to see cats," says lodge guide Hans Fwelimbi. He tells you they can be hard to find. “You have to look at movement, and to know the habitat.” The same lions inhabit in the national park and the conservancy, and move between them.

So it was a stroke of luck when four female lions chased some buffalo right in front of the lodge. Micheletti was overjoyed, and posted pictures of the pride males on the lodge website. It was an even bigger stroke of bad luck for the lodge when Tarzan was killed.

The shooting was legal, but it was still a problem for Wuparo Conservancy, which had asked the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to include a male lion on their hunting quota. The hunter paid Wuparo N$100,000 for the trophy. That's a lot of money for a small rural community, but the income has to be balanced with two other factors: potential income from the lodge as more tourists come to see wildlife, and the local villagers’ fear of lions.

Ask Beavan Munali, who works for the IRDNC, the conservation organisation supporting the conservancy. He knows all about lions. Back in 1994-1997 the area was crawling with them. “I could cry for a farmer trying to plough his field with oxen,” says Munali, who recalls how lions were killing livestock.

He mentions Mr Mutabilezi, a local who ran with his rifle to help another farmer whose livestock was being attacked. He fired and missed, and next thing the lion was on top of him. It was a good samaritan, Pastor Tendekule, who grabbed the rifle and beat the lion over the head, only to find himself attacked in the process. Finally Mutabilezi managed to grab the rifle and shoot the lion in the head.

Last year two cattle were taken by lions. Most livestock is lost to hyenas, not lions, but fear tells a different story than the statistics.

Conservancies have to balance income sources with the cost of conservation. As a local headman put it: income from tourism and hunting goes to the conservancy, but income from livestock comes to me.

Not everybody has a job in a lodge and not every conservancy is suitable for tourism, so income from trophy hunting is an important source of revenue. Even where there is a lodge, it may take years for it to become profitable and to yield a good return to the conservancy, so hunting fills the gap.

Wuparo has a hunting quota with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in line with its policy on sustainable use: wildlife may be hunted as long as populations are stable or growing. This year the conservancy asked for four elephants, each of which brings in N$129,000, and ten buffalos. That's over half a million dollars from those two alone. The question Wuparo is asking: should it have shot the lion?

According to 'Shine', the conservancy's acting Deputy Chair, Lameck Limbo - probably not. Sitting in the conservancy office with a picture of an elephant behind him, he outlines the benefits of wildlife to Wuparo.

"We struggled for ten years to find a good investor, and they are helping us to build an environmental education centre for visitors to the conservancy and the park. Now we have a lodge we need wildlife to grab the attention of tourists."

Steve Felton
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