Kalahari Transfrontier Lions

Posted on 01 August 2000
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, southern Africa: Few people realize that the Kalahari sands represent the largest uninterrupted expanse of sand anywhere on Earth, stretching from the Congo north of the equator to south of the Gariep River in South Africa. In the far south especially, rain is scarce and natural freestanding water almost entirely absent. Yet plants, animals and the last remaining clans of San or Bushman hunter-gatherers still live in this hostile world, having adapted to it in unique and fascinating ways.

Fortunately this desert is well-conserved: two enormous game reserves, the Kalahari National Park (KGNP) in Botswana and the Gemsbok National Park (GNP) in South Africa have recently been amalgamated into southern Africa's first transfrontier conservation area, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This uninterrupted expanse of protected area covers eight million hectares - and the Kalahari lion is unquestionably its premier icon.

Until very recently, there were estimated to be only around 120 lions in the former KGNP and there were real fears that continued conflict with stock farmers on the fringes of the protected area could spell their eventual demise. In September 1996 a pride of 17 lions left the park and crossed the border on to commercial farmland in Namibia, where 13 of them were shot.

But this tragic event launched a unique and exciting project.

In South Africa the only two viable lion populations are those in the Kalahari and in the Kruger National Park The Kalahari lions demographics and biology could be of enormous value and provide a clearer understanding for their continued survival. Conservationists have asked two major questions: what is the status of the Kalahari lion in terms of numbers and genetic isolation?; can the population sustain the problem animal off-take along the borders?

Such an ambitious project was a test case for transfrontier cooperation. Free access across the border was essential, as was flying time in fixed-wing aircraft to track lions over the vast project area. Funding was secured from The Green Trust (a partnership between WWF-South Africa and Nedbank) and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, with additional logistical support from both the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Botswana and South African National Parks. Dr Paul Funston, a biologist and specialist on lions, was appointed as project executant.

Paul is now going into the desert with his Global Positioning System (GPS) to record, within 30 metres, the exact position of every lion located. But the problem was how to locate the lions. Solving it required the addition of an entirely different set of skills, ones honed for more than a 100,000 years - two San trackers with original traditional knowledge. On the left of Paul's Land Cruiser is a metal seat - the trackers' perch. From there the tracker feeds back spoor information to Paul, who records this information and cross-references it to a six-grid GPS position.

The initial survey covered more than 4,000km2 of the entire park. Since then, research has focused on four key study areas. A small number of lions have also been fitted with radio collars, monitored from the air during 10 or 11 hours of flying over two days every two weeks or so.

"We're pretty confident that we've got to the stage at which we know these lions individually when we encounter them," Paul Funston says. "Our analysis suggests there could be as many as 450 animals in the park's overall lion population. I suspect we may be able to say at the end of the project that, provided human pressure doesn't change the kill rate from about 20 to 30 a year, the population is relatively stable."

This means that the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park might be supporting the most genetically healthy and sustainable lion population in southern Africa.

This study is laying solid foundations for the long-term monitoring of the Kalahari lions -- and makes us realize just how important it is to provide enough space for the continued survival of Africa's regal monarch.

(This article first appeared in Africa - Environment and Wildlife)

(743 words)

* Greg Laws, a former Manager of The Green Trust, is now WWF-South Africa's Project Manager of the WWF/Sappi Forest and Wetlands Programme in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.