See—and Help Save—Namibia’s Desert Lions, Before It’s too Late
If you want to see what the surface of Mars looks like without leaving earth, head straight to Namibia. Here, sandstone-colored mountains abut canyons and dunes and desert plains. For as far as the eye can see, everything is painted in rust and amber and clay.
The aptly-named Skeleton Coast is hardly conducive to spotting the so-called Big Five safari animals; the elephants and rhinos that live here don't look quite like the ones in South Africa or Tanzania. Wildlife here have adapted to deal with scarce desert resources, developing unique features that set them apart from their ilk.
But seeing a desert-adapted lion in Namibia is like seeing a Siberian tiger in China or a snow leopard in the Himalayas. It’s a rare feat that justifies the journey. Unlike conventional lions, their thick coats can withstand dramatic temperature swings, and they can survive without drinking water at all—they get all the hydration they need from their prey. According to several on-the-ground experts, only 150 are left in Namibia; based on estimates from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, that number was as high as 795 just 10 years ago. With such limited resources in the desert for humans and animals alike, both communities have encroached on each others' territories, creating conflicts that didn't exist before.
Little global awareness exists for these resilient creatures. So in honor of World Lion Day last week, the Smithsonian Channel aired a new documentary about five remaining lion cubs who were though to hold the key for future generations. (See the trailer here.)
To ensure their survival, the so-called “five musketeers” were collared and monitored by Philip Stander, a conservationist who works in collaboration with Wilderness Safaris. He has been known to study the cubs’ every movement from a healthy distance; when they approach village livestock, he’s gone so far as to blast “annoying” music from his 4x4 to drive the lions away from harm. He’s also created educational initiatives to help farmers avoid human-wildlife conflict.
But Stander’s heroic efforts have fallen short. A few weeks ago, one of the lions preyed on a villager’s cattle and was shot to death; last week, three more were found poisoned nearby. In the span of just a few days, the five musketeers narrowed to just one.
Almost immediately, the last survivor, Tullamore, was translocated to the Uniab Concession, near Wilderness Safaris’ Hoanib Camp. His protection—and that of the remaining desert lions—has become one of the direst conservation concerns anywhere.
If Tullamore is a symbol of hope for his species, his new home is a beacon for community-led conservation. Here, locals benefit directly from tourism; Wilderness Safaris leases its land from, and shares revenue with, three nearby villages, making them directly invested in conservation. Each visitor that arrives increases the value of the wildlife they’ve come to see. Where responsible travel exists, lion mortalities seem to decrease—the lions, it turns out, can bring more value to locals than even their cows can.
In other words: Tourism is probably the last chance for the desert-adapted lion. There are also desert-adapted elephants and rhino to consider. And with pioneering five-star camps opening up in some of the remotest corners of Namibia, it’s possible to help save much of it without compromising on comfort.
Where to stay: Hoanib Camp, mentioned above, is by far the best property in Namibia, and it just happens to be where you have the best chances at seeing Tullamore. You can plan a whole itinerary with Wilderness, which has five properties in Namibia, offering access to the salt pans of Etosha, the Skeleton Coast, and the red-dune-filled Sossovlei. You can also book stays at design-forward properties by AndBeyond or Namibia Exclusive, which offer comparable service and locations should availability be thin elsewhere. (Expect to pay roughly $2,000 per night at the top-tier safari lodges.)
If you’re flying in through Windhoek, spend a night at the lovely Olive Hotel—by far the city’s best stay. (Until it opened in 2012, hotel standards were not high.) Each of the seven suites was designed individually, with furnishings inspired by different regions of Namibia. There's no spa, but the rooms have deep soaking tubs—a perfect foil to dusty days in the bush.
What to see: Combine your stay with a few nights in Sossusvlei, the photogenic region on the southern tip of the Namib Desert, where you can travel by hot air balloon over dunes that feel as tall as skyscrapers. Then visit Damaraland, in the north, where desert-adapted rhinos run wild. You'll get bonus points if you make it to the Kunene River, where you can get a less arid outlook on Namibia, or cross over into Botswana for incredible wildlife sightings in the plentiful Okavango Delta.
Who to call: You can plan a bespoke trip with Abercrombie & Kent or Absolute Travel. (Trips can vary wildly in cost; you can spend $300 a day or $3,000 a day, depending on where you stay and how you'd like to get around, so offer up your budget and dates and have it planned accordingly.) Or get in touch with Chris Liebenberg, a travel adviser who specializes in planning trips to Namibia.
Where to donate: Chris Roche, chief marketing officer of Wilderness Safaris, is at the front lines of this cause. He recommends reaching out to the Desert Lion Trust and Desert Lion Conservation Foundation if you'd like to make a difference without leaving home.