In Namibia, Lions Are King of the Beach | Science

Coastal Lion

After nearly 40 years, desert lions are once again hunting marine prey along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, where scientists believed the knowledge had been lost.
Hemis / Alamy

This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.

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.

Dreyer, who runs kayaking safaris in Walvis Bay, 350 kilometers to the south, had longed to see a desert lion since he was five years old. In January 2022, after a three-decade wait, he spotted two of the lionesses separately on the beach near Torra Bay and photographed one as she fed on a fur seal against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean.

“She looked up a few times while eating but didn’t display any aggression,” says Dreyer, who kept his distance.

Coastal Lion Eating Prey

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.

Courtesy of Naude Dreyer

The lioness Dreyer photographed was likely Xpl-108, who spent more than 30 days in the geofenced area from late November through January. She, Alpha, and Bravo have all been fitted with satellite collars, and the tracking project is as much for the lions as it is to keep visitors safe.

Tourists crowding the beaches during peak seasons, such as southern Africa’s recent December–January holidays, could disrupt the lions’ hunting activity or push the animals inland, toward conflict with farmers.

As a safety measure, the geofence isn’t perfect. One night, Xpl-108 slipped down to the coast and killed a fur seal. The next morning, anglers arrived to fish before the rangers could cordon off the beach and startled Xpl-108, who dragged her meal four kilometers inland to the safety of a rocky outcrop.

But evidence from elsewhere suggests that the project should work. Matthew Wijers, a postdoctoral lion researcher from the University of Oxford in England, who is not part of the desert lion project, says that although costly, geofencing has been effective in other parts of southern Africa.

“This technology, coupled with educational programs that highlight the ecological importance of desert lions as well as the potential dangers to the public, should help reduce the risks of conflict between lions and anglers along the Skeleton Coast,” he says.

Whether the lionesses will continue to hang around Torra Bay is an open question. After nearly eight years, Namibia’s drought appears to have finally broken. In that time, the lion population fell from 150 to 80 animals. Vallat predicts that within a year or two, the lions’ land-based prey—and hopefully lion numbers—should rebound.

In the meantime, Vallat hopes that the geofence will keep everyone safe.

This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.

Related stories from Hakai Magazine: