Thursday, 14 December 2017

New Study Confirms Not Many Cheetahs Left in Southern Africa; More Work to be Done in Botswana

Ground-breaking scientific collaboration adds to calls to up-list cheetah status from Vulnerable to Endangered, and reaffirms the importance of Botswana for cheetah conservation.

The cheetah may be able to run faster than any other animal, but it can’t hide from researchers determined to know how many of them remain in the wild. The importance of knowing how many cheetahs there are, and where they occur, cannot be overstated. Conservation management plans for the species rely heavily on this information. In particular, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) uses this information to decide the status of a species. Cheetahs are currently classified as Vulnerable, but this research adds impetus to the call by conservation scientists to up-list the species to Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The Cheetah Counting Challenge

To answer the call for better information, a group of 17 conservation scientists, including five from Botswana, produced the largest dataset of verifiable cheetah records in history. Besides using their own records from collared cheetahs, track (spoor) counts, and camera traps, they sought to include photographs and videos produced by the general public for social media. Of the latter records, only those with a confirmed location and date when the image or video was taken could be included to ensure the greatest accuracy possible.

Amazingly, they produced accurate population density estimates for 35% of the cheetah’s range in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. This level of accuracy is unheard of for large carnivores over such a broad study area. Indeed, their proven range for cheetahs in these countries is a vast 789,700 sq. km – 32% larger than the whole of Botswana! They further report that cheetahs could occur in nearly double that area, given the suitability of the remaining habitat for which they could not confirm cheetah presence. 

The Importance of Botswana

Despite the huge area, the number of cheetahs they estimate to live in the proven range is only 3,577 adults. Given the current Africa-wide population estimate for cheetahs is 7,100, this study confirms southern Africa as a stronghold for this species. Of the four countries covered by this study, Namibia and Botswana support more cheetahs than the other two countries. In particular, the ecoregion known as the Kalahari Xeric Savannah, covering south-western Botswana and central-eastern Namibia, supports the highest number of cheetahs in southern Africa. Due to its geographic location, Botswana is at the heart of southern Africa’s cheetah population. This makes the country of special importance to the species.

Within Botswana, the Ghanzi and Kgalagadi Districts are likely to support most of the cheetahs, and are thus critical for conserving the species. Although the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Kgalagadi Trans-Frontier Parks provide large protected areas within these Districts, cheetahs are known to thrive more outside of protected areas than inside. The main reason for this is that they are outcompeted by larger carnivores like lions and spotted hyaenas, which occur in high densities inside protected areas.

Derek Keeping, who provided much of the data for this work by counting cheetah tracks in these key Districts, is especially concerned about how the land between protected areas is used: “Currently, about half of Ghanzi and most of Kgalagadi Districts are zoned as Wildlife Management Areas (25,000 sq. km and 40,000 sq. km, respectively). The urgent challenge for Botswana is to avoid treading down the path its neighbours did in carving up public lands for fenced ranch holdings, and instead facilitate creative wilderness tourism and sustainable wildlife use opportunities for the remote communities residing within these vulnerable Kalahari Wildlife Management Areas.”

The fact that this globally important cheetah population relies largely on farmland to survive shows that farmers are crucial to conserving this charismatic big cat. Although tourists love to see cheetahs, farmers often bear the costs associated with supporting the cheetah population. Cheetahs generally prefer hunting wild prey, but they can kill goats, sheep, and even young calves and foals. Dr. Florian Weise, the lead author for this study from Claws Conservancy, says: “The future of the cheetah relies heavily on working with farmers who host these big cats on their lands, often bearing the cost of coexistence.” 

Rebecca Klein from Cheetah Conservation Botswana emphasises the roles of both appropriate land use planning and working with farmers in Botswana: “Ensuring that livestock farming communities have the tools and the incentives to minimise conflict incidents is one approach, along with equally important efforts to diversify livelihoods towards wildlife and culturally based tourism which will bring the species a value in the eyes of the people with which they must share the land to survive. We hope this paper will be a landmark in providing policy makers with the spatial and population information required to make responsible decisions regarding land use changes in the region.”

Derek Keeping, Dr. Glyn Maude (Kalahari Research and Conservation), Rebecca Klein and Jane Horgan (both Cheetah Conservation Botswana) all contributed scientific records for cheetahs in Botswana. Although they provided valuable records for cheetahs living on farmland and protected areas in the proven cheetah range, large areas in the Kgalagadi and Ngamiland Districts that are considered potential cheetah range have not yet been surveyed. The new study revealed that understudied areas such as these in southern Africa could support another 3,250 cheetahs, which would further demonstrate the importance of Botswana and her neighbours for cheetah conservation. There is therefore much work still to be done, to more effectively count the current cheetah population in Botswana, and conserve the species for future generations. 

By Gail C. Potgieter

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Money, Money, Money, Isn’t Funny, in a Conservationist’s World

The current global state of biodiversity has been described as a crisis, with some scientists going as far as declaring that the sixth mass extinction is already happening. What is also well documented is that in order to reach our global conservation goals, we need more money. The public, particularly in the Western world, has become more aware of conservation needs in recent times, and are thus more willing to donate to the cause than ever before. For example, the global outcry over Cecil the lion’s death led to massive public donations to organisations involved in lion conservation. However, one of the key take-home messages from the resultant Cecil Summit on lion conservation was that we need more money to secure the future of lions.

Members of the public wishing to donate to the conservation cause face a bewildering array of organisations that are asking for money, many of them concerned with the same species. The discerning donor also wants to know how well their hard-earned money is spent, in terms of conserving wild animals and their habitats. Donors are advised to do their homework on the cause and organisation of their choice before committing to them. However, having done your homework, how do you separate the good from the bad? Here, I will provide some pointers on how to do just that.

This article is not yet another call for more money or a definitive guide for which organisations are best, but rather a closer look at how the issue of funding affects conservation outcomes. I will take you on an insider’s tour of fundraising mechanisms used by conservation organisations, and reveal that how and where an organisation obtains its funds can influence its effectiveness. Additionally, I will highlight some critical, yet frequently overlooked, money-related issues that are hindering conservation. Having ‘taken the tour’, I trust you will have a greater understanding about how conservation works (or doesn’t work), which should allow you to make more informed decisions about supporting conservation efforts in future.

The importance of people

First off, let’s talk about people. Every human endeavour on earth is, by definition, driven by people, and conservation is no different. Humans are the ultimate driving force behind the destruction of the environment, and humans are the key to resolving this problem. These points may seem obvious, and yet it frequently seems that the world of conservation finance is unaware of them. One of the most common complaints about conservation organisations (particularly large ones) is how much money is spent on staff salaries. This sentiment is echoed by many donor organisations that do not provide funds for salaries or administration costs.

Conservation is nowhere without dedicated conservationists

Objections to paying people are somewhat understandable, as conservation donors like to know that their money is going ‘to the animals’. Additionally, paying for equipment that is perceived to provide the resolution to conservation problems appears to give you more ‘bang for your buck’ than paying for someone’s salary, or office space. However, in my experience, the actual effectiveness of any conservation-related project or organisation is determined almost entirely by the quality and dedication of the people working there. One could sponsor a hundred anti-poaching drones, or the materials to build a similar number of predator-proof kraals, but without the right people involved, all that money could go to waste.

People are not just an important part of conservation; they are critical. Directors and principal investigators (in the case of conservation research) are key to ensuring that an organisation fulfils its mission. Besides organisation leaders, the people on the ground – e.g. park rangers; post-graduate students; employees from local communities – are the little cogs that make the whole machine work. Particularly for employees drawn out of local communities, salaries and general staff treatment can make or break a locally based project, as this example from India demonstrates.

Funding the un-fundable

Besides salaries, administration and overhead costs are vital to making a non-profit organisation of any kind work, yet they are frequently not covered or severely restricted by donor agencies. The people employed may be dedicated and passionate, but they soon become disheartened when vital equipment (e.g. vehicles) do not work, or there is no budget for basic office equipment like computers. As an example, I once looked for money to build much-needed predator-proof kraals in a remote rural area. All the potential donors I looked at that provided the modest amounts of funding I required (US$1,000-5,000) excluded vehicle expenses. Consequently, had I received funds from these organisations, the budget would have covered the costs for building several large kraals, but not for transporting these materials to target communities!

Using funding from one grant, I was able to buy, transport, and pay to build predator-proof kraals for remote rural communities. This project was discontinued, as funding for transport and overheads is not available from many grantors.

With the emphasis on funding equipment directly related to project activities (vehicles, computers etc. are categorised as ‘indirect’) and tangible, measurable outcomes, donors rarely support projects that rely on building relationships to find sustainable solutions. Projects that are aimed at local communities especially require time and patience, with measurable outcomes few and far between. Time and patience obviously requires the salary and indirect costs associated with getting the right kind of person into the right places, thus making the critical early phases of community projects virtually un-fundable. Some of the greatest conservation success stories were created through such unattractive processes as listening to and truly engaging with local people (e.g. establishing communal conservancies in Namibia), yet these successes are rarely repeatable due to donor reluctance to fund this kind of work.

A recent grant proposal I helped write was aimed at reducing conflict between humans and lions. The timescale provided was two years, in which we had to produce such measurable outcomes as ‘the number of lions saved’, and ‘the proportion of lion range in Africa conserved’ as a direct result of our project. Anyone who has worked with local communities would realise that things are never that simple. You need to develop relationships and build trust, listen to what communities really want, and then present your ideas on potential solutions, respectfully allowing them to support or reject those ideas.

In some areas, the idea of coexisting with lions is so nonsensical to local people that a measurable outcome such as ‘number of lions saved’ could take a generation to accomplish. Changing deeply held beliefs and perceptions simply does not happen on a two-year timescale. However, not spending the time needed to do this, and favouring instead projects that have donor-satisfying short timescales, frequently results in local communities realising that the NGO dedicated to ‘helping them’ actually has other priorities. The consequences of this breakdown in trust for long-term, ultimate conservation goals (like ‘saving lions’) are dire.

The less attractive face of conservation. This cow was killed by lions. Changing local perceptions of dangerous wildlife takes time and patience, which are difficult to fund.

A lack of funding to employ and keep the best people can render a conservation organisation useless, or worse. Dynamic leaders are forced to spend their time fundraising, rather than furthering their conservation goals. Underpaid anti-poaching rangers could be tempted by bribes from well-funded poaching groups. Young, promising scientists could leave the field of conservation and apply their skills in another scientific field that holds better career prospects. I have not made these examples up; I have witnessed them time and again in different countries and organisations.

Anyone working in Human Resources in any other industry will attest to the fact that the treatment of staff is key to the success of any organisation, and non-profit organisations are no different. What happens to an industry when all of the organisations therein underpay their staff and consequently underperform? The entire industry suffers, potential investors look elsewhere, and very little innovation or achievement is accomplished. Considering the consistent undervaluation of people in conservation, is it any wonder that our conservation goals are rarely achieved, and that donors are fatigued by constant requests for funds by a seemingly inefficient industry?

But what about the overpaid CEOs of large, bureaucratic organisations that employ a legion of staff, yet don’t seem to get anything done? Or what about those organisations that drum up more than enough money through clever fundraising campaigns to fund bloated budgets? Sadly, unscrupulous organisations do exist in the otherwise noble field of conservation. Besides the outright fraudsters (such as cub-petting operations), there are an untold number of organisations that started off well, yet have been derailed by the conservation financing system. This leads me to the next critical issue: accountability.

Do donors know what conservationists are doing with their money?

Much of conservation funding these days comes directly from the public, as well-marketed conservation can generate popular support. Many organisations are becoming adept at fundraising from the public, and are looking at ways of marketing their cause as broadly as possible. Indeed, a recent study showed that increased marketing to the general public is a key factor for conserving less attractive animals. Whilst it is wonderful that more people are becoming aware of conservation needs and are willing to contribute to meeting them, this situation allows scope for abuse.

Window dressing and exaggeration are common aspects of the fundraising campaigns of more conservation organisations than you want to know about. In the race for the public’s attention, each organisation tries to outdo the other by describing their cause in the most emotive way possible, knowing that tugging heart strings often loosens purse strings. Additionally, the success of each conservation project is talked up, and some projects are sustained simply because it looks good to the layman. Finally, few individual donors are interested in the financial nitty-gritty of their chosen recipient, so fund wastage and mismanagement can go entirely unchecked.

The abuse of funding can be minimized by donor organisations that give grants to conservationists based on detailed project proposals and budgets. Having received a grant, the conservation organisation needs to provide regular update reports and financial statements that prove that the money is being used properly. However, from a conservationist’s point of view, fundraising from the public and writing grant proposals share one key drawback: time.

Time is money – unless you work in conservation

The extreme competition for limited funding (from all sources) leads conservation organisations to devote increasing amounts of time to fundraising. In smaller organisations, the director or CEO is forced to spend most of their time either touring the Western world, or writing endless grants just to keep their projects going. Costs incurred by either of these activities are rarely covered by the funds received, and the general public have negative perceptions of organisations that, ironically, spend money to raise funds from the public. Larger organisations employ people to write grants and lead fundraising or marketing campaigns, thus freeing up time for their directors to focus on actual conservation work. Yet employing a fundraiser is one more administration cost criticised by potential donors as ‘unnecessary’.

This situation is not helped by the fact that every donor organisation has different demands for how they want their grant proposals formatted or worded. Each proposal must be different from the last one, because donors have such a wide variety of demands and interests. A human-wildlife conflict project, for example, must be framed as conserving animals for one donor, and then re-framed as assisting local people for the next. Even donors with relatively similar interests request proposals in completely different formats, thus making it time-consuming to write several proposals for the same project.

As for public fundraising, in-person tours generate more attention than online campaigns, which leads to the fundraiser racking up the air miles in a bid to reach as wide an audience as possible. A globetrotting director is vulnerable to becoming out of touch with local project staff, which can cause internal staff-related problems that hamper their organisation’s efficiency.

At the end of another glorious day in the African bush, one pauses to reflect on how the day's time has been spent. For many conservationists, the answer is "trying to raise money".

Money can be an obstacle to conservation

Sources of funding have an inordinate impact on conservation outcomes. In general, donor communities are either from developed countries, or urbanised subsets of developing countries. For African conservation NGOs, the people who are likely to be affected by their work are rural people in developing countries. The needs and desires of the donor and target communities are frequently at odds with one another, and it takes a brave balancing act to reconcile the two. Sadly, if they are not reconciled, then the wishes of the donor community are likely to outweigh those of the target community – money talks. This issue is certainly not limited to conservation NGOs, as all foreign-based or funded organisations in Africa walk the tightrope of helping communities and keeping donors satisfied.

Here a just a few examples of how money can become an obstacle to conservation. NGOs that receive money through volunteers focus on projects that are attractive and allow a ‘hands-on’ approach for foreigners, even if such projects have dubious conservation value. Those supported by universities may focus on research questions that lead to publishing scientific journal articles, rather than producing practical guidelines for conservation managers (the world of scientific publishing is itself manipulated by money). Public-funded organisations may avoid controversial topics and choose not to lobby for legislation changes they know to be necessary, in case their followers do not agree with or understand their stance. Projects funded by short-term grants may show promise, only to be terminated when the funding runs out. Conservation NGOs run the risk of turning local communities against them by focusing on outcomes that tick donor’s boxes, rather than undertaking true community engagement.

The above examples are just a small selection of the pitfalls conservation NGOs can fall into due to the source of their funding. Considering this list (which is by no means comprehensive) may leave you cynical about conservation in general – are there any organisations that do what they say they do? Are there any that use their funds in the best possible way? Should I spend my hard-earned money on conservation efforts, or will it just be wasted? How can we fix a system that seems so broken, before time runs out for global wildlife?

What can we do about it? Solutions lie on both sides of the equation

As a conservationist observing the industry from the inside, it is easy to become despondent and think about giving up the whole effort. However, our wildlife deserve better than that. Furthermore, it is not all gloom and doom, as there are several organisations that have set out to do things a little differently from the rest. I will refrain from naming names here, just as I have for some of the dubious ones I referred to previously, as I do not have complete information on every organisation, and my opinions on any of them are entirely subjective. Nonetheless, I will outline some of the positive funding strategies I have seen that help conservation NGOs become more effective.

A few of the larger conservation NGOs get around the problem of paying reasonable salaries, whilst remaining attractive for public donations, by funding their operating costs through endowment funds or conservation-minded philanthropists. This system is based on understanding how important people are in the conservation effort, and how difficult it is to raise public funds to pay them what they are worth. The salary-paying philanthropist then also has the right to know how the organisation is operated, and is more likely to hold them accountable for their use of time and money than the general public.

Philanthropists and large endowment funds are rather scarce, and very little could be done worldwide if we needed one of these for every conservation attempt. However, the salary issue can also be addressed by businesses supporting conservation. Some companies have established Trusts that do conservation work, with the conservationists’ salaries covered by the business side of the operation. Specifically, wildlife-based tourism operators can play a greater role in conserving wildlife by adopting this model. As not all tour operators are big enough to support a Trust on their own, they could club together and support one Trust that does conservation work on their behalf.

If you are interested in donating to a cause, don’t be put off by organisations that need funding for salaries and overheads, as not every worthy organisation has a philanthropist or business supporting it. Rather, donors should focus on finding out how an organisation is run, and how it proposes to meet its objectives. If possible, talk to a neutral party in the industry who can tell the difference between window dressing and real conservation. Paying the salary of someone who takes the time to engage with communities, or has the skills required for managing large wilderness areas, or the diplomatic tact needed to engage with governments at the highest level, is certainly not a waste of money.

High profile award funds (e.g. the Tusk Awards) have been established to provide publicity and funding for hardworking, sometimes relatively unknown conservationists. Besides giving individual conservation projects a financial boost, the public recognition of the work done by these individuals will certainly help to keep their projects going in future. These awards also demonstrate that without dedicated conservationists, there would be no conservation, thus improving public perceptions of spending conservation money on people.

Zoos with Trusts that act as donor organisations are talking about standardising their requirements for grant proposals, such that one proposal may be sent to several Trusts without needing extensive changes. This is a very positive development, and more grantors with similar interests should come together to standardise their proposal requirements. This would lift a great burden off the shoulders of small conservation NGOs that cannot afford fulltime grant writers.

I recently found a new conservation group that promised to post all their financial records on Facebook, thus ensuring that their donors knew how their money was spent. This is an enormous step forwards in transparency and accountability, and I think many other public-funded organisations would do well to emulate this example. Donors should have easy access to such information, rather than having to do extensive research to find out where their money is spent. On the other side of the coin, donors need to understand that salaries and overheads (or indirect costs) are essential to the functioning of most NGOs. They should not discontinue their support just because their chosen NGO honestly includes these items in financial reports.

Finally, some conservation NGOs that understand the importance of research for guiding conservation action have teamed up with universities. The conservationists on the ground play a major role in determining the research agenda, and the university supplies students to find answers to relevant research questions. In this way, research funding from international universities can support conservation action. This system serves to prevent research from becoming too detached from conservation realities, and helps increase continuity between research projects. The local conservation NGO thus becomes a hub of research and an overarching body under which post-graduate students can operate.

This field trip to monitor carnivore populations in an under-studied area of Botswana was funded by the University of Wisconsin (Steven's Point). Their students accompany us into the field and help collect data.

As many and as difficult as the funding challenges appear to be, I believe that there are workable solutions. However, conservationists need to see the potential pitfalls of their particular funding strategy, and be willing to find ways to avoid them. As I have shown above, the source of funding can influence conservation work negatively, but it can also have a positive influence by increasing accountability and effectiveness. To this end, educating the donors about conservation funding issues is paramount. I would encourage all conservation organisations to take an honest look at how their funding sources influence their work. If this self-appraisal is negative, then look to engage with donors to find a way of making money work for conservation.

By Gail C. Potgieter

Monday, 8 May 2017

Studying “The Servant of Vultures” to Save Them

Along with several other African vulture species, the Hooded Vulture is globally threatened (Photo by: J. Loughran).

The Hooded Vulture, with its small body and slender bill, is on the lowest rung of vulture society. This point is succinctly made in Setswana (the official language of Botswana), as the Hooded Vulture is called motlhanka-wamanông, which means “servant of the vultures”. However, these diminutive vultures are not stupid, as they follow African wild dogs when they hunt, knowing that the dogs are excellent hunters that are likely to provide fresh meat.

Sadly, these clever little vultures are under severe threat, and their numbers have declined catastrophically throughout Africa. In 2015, the IUCN drastically adjusted the conservation status of Hooded Vultures from Least Concern to Critically Endangered. It is now faced with extinction, unless the trends can be reversed through dedicated conservation efforts.

Although this species occurs in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, we are not sure how well they are faring in Botswana. Although we know that they occur in the northern parts of the country (the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park are population strongholds), we don’t know how far individuals fly and how much time they spend in unprotected areas. We also do not know if the national population is increasing or decreasing. In response to this lack of information about a species that is declining globally, Raptors Botswana has embarked on a project to find out more about its life history. The project is part of this local NGO's commitment to using raptor research to guide national conservation efforts.
Pete Hancock, the director of Raptors Botswana, releases an immature Hooded Vulture after fitting it with a tracking device (Photo by: R. Reading).
The Hooded Vulture study was recently initiated by fitting two birds (an adult and an immature) with satellite tracking devices in Kasane in the north-western corner of Botswana. The devices will help us determine the birds’ movements, and provide insights into the threats they face. Having obtained the necessary permits, the Raptors Botswana team arrived at the Chobe Crocodile Farm owned by Sue Slogrove. The farm was perfectly suited to our mission, as up to 40 Hooded Vultures visit regularly to scavenge on left-over meat that is fed to the crocodiles. This is surely one of the best places in the whole of Africa to see these rare vultures!

Despite their familiarity with the farm, the birds are wild and remain wary of people. We therefore deployed our cannon net machine to catch the birds; we have used this device to catch vultures before and have found it to be a humane and efficient method. We caught nine Hooded Vultures in our very first attempt! After fitting the transmitters to two of them, the remainder were quickly measured and released.

The value of using tracking devices was quickly realised, as the vultures defied our initial predictions. We thought that they would stay near the abundant, steady food supply at the croc farm, returning each day to feed. To our surprise, they soon dispersed towards the Okavango Delta, and they continue to cover significant distances each day. This information could never have been obtained without using satellite trackers, making it well worth the expense and effort. We will continue learning more about this under-studied species as the solar-charged transmitters send us their locations on a regular basis.
The first week’s movements of the two vultures (represented by red and blue dots) shown on a Google Earth backdrop. The capture location is in the top right. (Map by: P. Hancock).

By Pete Hancock

Acknowledgement: Raptors Botswana would like to thank Sue Slogrove for allowing us to catch the birds on her property, and for assisting with capture logistics.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Living with Lions – Using the Latest Technology to Tackle an Ancient Problem

This lioness has been sedated so that researchers can place a collar on her and keep track of her movements as part of the Pride in Our Prides lion conservation project. (© CLAWS Conservancy).

Lions in the Night

It is 4 p.m. on Sunday, 23 April 2017. Mr. Matsimela* receives a message on his cell phone with the following information: Good afternoon. Mutlawankanda and Nduraghumbo [two collared male lions] are moving back into Beetsha area. They are 4 km east of Matswii and Nxeku along the Okavango Delta channel, please kraal cattle at night and inform other people in your area. Thanks, Flo. (*Name changed).

Mr. Matsimela lives in the village called Beetsha, and his cattle graze in the surrounding area. He is also a village elder who knows everyone in the area and has been given the responsibility to pass the information on to others. Having received the text, he spreads the word through cell phone messages and word-of-mouth. He calls his herder and asks him to find the cattle and make sure they are brought in for the night. Additionally, he sets to work with his family to build fires around the cattle enclosure that will keep the lions at bay. His message reaches the people farming closest to the lions’ position. This family has recently received a sturdy cattle enclosure from the Pride in Our Prides project (PiOP), who sent the initial warning message. They chase their cattle into the enclosure and close the gate securely, knowing that their cows are safe, even if the lions come right up to the enclosure.

During the night, the lions came to the well-built enclosure, but they could not enter, or scare the cattle into breaking out of the enclosure. They carried on to the village, but skirted around Mr. Matsimela’s farm due to the fires he had set around his traditional cattle enclosure. Seeing the lions by the firelight, some young men came out banging tin plates and shouting. The lions took flight and left the village, heading back to the safety of the Okavango Delta.

The story above typifies the work done by CLAWS Conservancy’s Pride in Our Prides project among communities living in the far northern region of Botswana. As recently as 2013, before Pride in Our Prides began, the lions’ approach would have gone unnoticed until the next morning, when farmers discovered several dead cows. Their response to continued livestock losses from lions was to poison livestock carcasses, in the hope that they would kill the responsible lions. Poisoning events in 2013 killed 50-60% of the known lions in this area, and caused the deaths of many vultures and other scavenging animals. It was clear that something needed to be done to help the local people find better ways to live with lions.

Finding a Solution: Pride in Our Prides

The founder of CLAWS Conservancy, Dr. Andrew Stein, immediately recognised the importance of this lion population, as it lies in a key part of the KAZA Trans-Frontier Conservation Area that includes parts of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Zambia (see map). Although KAZA encompasses several protected areas in the member countries, subsistence farmers occupy the land between these wildlife areas, where they grow crops and raise livestock. If lions cannot move through farming zones between protected areas, then this lion conservation stronghold may become fragmented and isolated, which is the first step towards losing this population altogether.

The KAZA Trans-frontier Conservation Area (in green) covers parts of five southern African countries, including Botswana. The project area is at the heart of this landscape, where communities live on the edge of the Okavango Delta World Heritage Site. (Map created by: Dr. Florian Weise).

Dr. Stein partnered with Dr. Florian Weise, who currently heads the PiOP project with assistance from the local community liaison Mr. Mathata Tomeletso. Both researchers have years of experience working with livestock farmers to address the conflict between them and large carnivores, particularly cheetahs and leopards. One of the key lessons they learned was that information and transparency are critical requirements for successfully changing farmer attitudes and hence their reactions to large carnivores. They found that the judicious use of satellite collars and consequent information on animal movements could be a game changer for large carnivore conservation. Farmer hostility turned into genuine interest in individual carnivore movements. Suspicion about the motives of carnivore conservationists turned into working relationships that brought farmers into the conservation world, rather than alienating them. 

The PiOP project operates on the same principles of information sharing and transparency, and their strategy has once again yielded positive results. To add to the community buy-in to the project, the local villagers are asked to give their own names to individual lions that are collared. The act of naming a lion gives the community a sense of ownership and personal connection, in that they now see the lions as individual animals with different characteristics, rather than branding all lions as a problem. One lioness was named “Maleherehere” which means “the Sneaky One” – for good reason. This particular lioness has had close encounters with hostile people in her life (shown by old gunshot wounds in her shoulder), and has learned to sneak away quickly after killing and eating cattle. Even the researchers have confirmed her ‘sneakiness’ as they battled for several days to dart her for collaring! 

The two male lions in the lion alert at the beginning of this article were also named by the community. Nduraghumbo or "Head of the Homestead" is an old male, previously part of a coalition that was killed by villagers before the project started. Mutlawankanda "One who forages for food" associated with a pride consisting of two females. One of the men from the village said, "I like Mutlawankanda, he has two wives like me", thus revealing his new connection with lions.

Currently, six lions from five prides living on the edge of wildlife management areas and near communal livestock grazing lands have been collared. The lions in these prides are the most likely to cause livestock losses, and the collared individuals are those that are identified as pride leaders or are known to have caused livestock losses in the past. The collars are programmed to send Dr. Weise a text message whenever they cross one of two virtual lines (or ‘fences’) that correspond with: 1) the areas where livestock graze, and 2) within a few kilometres of five focal villages. He translates the detailed information (exact GPS location, direction of travel) into an understandable warning message that can be used by the community to proactively protect their livestock. The effort put into the community programme has paid off – since the PiOP project began in 2014 no lions have been poisoned, and during 2016 not a single known lion was killed using any means. 

This graphic is used to explain to communities how the lion alert system works. This system ensures that livestock farmers can proactively protect their livestock from lion predation. (Graphic by: Dr. Florian Weise).

The Future: Introducing New Technology and Strengthening Old Traditions

In future, the CLAWS Conservancy team aims to make the project self-sustaining by employing the current community liaison officer as the project leader. A key part of this strategy is to fine-tune the lion alert system and automate it, thus reducing the need for an expert to translate and transmit the information. To this end, they have partnered with Professor Volker Wulf and his team from the University of Siegen in Germany. 

Prof. Wulf has developed the field called Socio-Informatics, which aims to make highly technical information conveniently available to local communities in a form that they can understand and use. For the PiOP project, they will engage with the community to find out: what types of cell phones are predominately used; the local level of literacy; which languages and/or images are widely understood; the kind of information from the lion collars that will be most useful. They will use this knowledge to create a user-friendly cell phone application that will provide the right information to the right people, at the right time. 

Although the lion alert system is an innovative solution to the ancient problem of human-lion conflict, the CLAWS team does not view it as a silver bullet that will fix the problem by itself. Rather, lion alerts are part of a much broader, holistic plan to change the way livestock are managed and encourage sustainable farming that is adapted to local conditions. As part of this strategy, they are building strong cattle enclosures that can withstand lion attacks, to replace the current traditional enclosures that cannot deter lions. They have built 17 enclosures to date and closely monitor their use by farmers; no losses have been recorded from within these enclosures over the past two years. 

The livestock enclosure on the left was built by the Pride in Our Prides project, and is predator-proof. The traditional enclosure on the right is designed to keep livestock inside, but cannot prevent predator attacks. (© CLAWS Conservancy).

Another major challenge is to encourage people to employ full-time herders that protect their livestock during the day and bring them in at night. At the moment, most farmers allow their cattle to wander unprotected during the day, and battle to find them to bring them in at night. Consequently, the CLAWS team plans to partner with several other conservation groups who can assist with farmer education and herder training in future.

Herders are a critical part of pro-active livestock protection and grazing management. (© CLAWS Conservancy).  

The innovative, highly practical methods used by CLAWS in this project are to be lauded as an example for other human-wildlife conflict practitioners to follow. Perhaps even more remarkably, they are using rigorous scientific methods to monitor and test the relative success of all aspects of the PiOP project. This strategy shows their commitment to not only reducing human-lion conflict at a local scale, but to use the knowledge gained to inform conflict mitigation measures worldwide. Furthermore, the technology used for the lion alert system has great potential for other conservation-related uses, such as anti-poaching. 

This pioneering work in northern Botswana is breaking new ground for global conservation efforts. If you would like to find out more about CLAWS Conservancy and how you can get involved, check out their website. We will keep you up to date on the PiOP project’s progress in future articles of Conserve Botswana.