New Leopard Survey Builds on Founder's Work in Namibia

Female leopard in Etosha National Park, Namibia

Female leopard in Etosha National Park, Namibia

In 2011, CLAWS founder, Dr. Andrew Stein, led a team of local researchers to generate the first national estimates for leopards in Namibia. The survey used both camera traps and road transects looking for tracks to estimate their abundance in three designated areas of commercial farms. Each of these areas was chosen to designate high, medium and low density based on questionnaires of over 100 commercial farmers in the interior of the country. At the conclusion of the study, Dr. Stein and Amon Andreas estimated that there were approximately 14,154 leopards in the country, however, this estimate needed refinement. “Though we tried our best to acquire information from all regions of the country, there are still large areas that have not yet been surveyed and therefore we feel that this study is just a first step toward improved management” says Stein. IN addition, the report outlined an adaptive management strategy for assessing the impacts of of trophy hunting on the leopard population- which was part of the impetus for conducting the survey in the first place.

This new survey, conducted by Dr, Louisa Richmond- Coggan has resurveyed the original areas and incorporated 13 additional leopard studies since the original survey in 2011. This additional information and refinement of the original distribution map has generated an estimate of 11,733. Dr. Richmond-Coggan’s report is quite comprehensive and details mainy of the issues currently facing the leopard population. Click HERE to read the report!

From Found to Founder: Andrew Stein's Journey

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It was in Kenya in 1998 when the world made sense to me for the first time. I was a junior in college studying abroad and I found the secret that I had been looking for. As a child growing up in Massachusetts I was fascinated with animals. Most children are. At the lake I caught frog, in the yard I caught snakes and at the beach I caught hermit crabs. I volunteered at zoos to work with more exotic animals. When relatives asked if I wanted to be a vet I always said no- imagining myself working with domestic dogs and cats did not keep my interest. I was fascinated by wild animals in far off places and the big cats seemed the wildest of all. Watching documentaries on cheetahs of the Serengeti or lions in Kruger National Park truly captured my imagination. My family had never traveled to Africa, so watching documentaries seemed to be the extent of my vision for myself. I hoped one day that I would be able to go on a safari but I couldn’t imagine how that would happen since we had little money for regional family vacations.

A throughback to my youth, catching turtles in New England. Photo: Alexandra Carvache

A throughback to my youth, catching turtles in New England. Photo: Alexandra Carvache

Then I started looking at colleges. I applied early to Connecticut College in New London as it was the only small school close to home with a Zoology program.  Back then I did not know the difference between a Zoology degree and a degree in Wildlife Management. I did know that animals were in my future but I didn’t know how. My grades were not great in my introductory classes as we memorized the functions of minor structures in embryonic development. I was not sure how these lessons would allow me to make an impact for wild cats. I found a study abroad program through the School for Field Studies that focused on wildlife management.  This was my chance to learn about field conservation.

When I arrived in Kenya, I was grateful for the opportunity. I saw my first wild giraffe and zebra in Athi River. I saw my first elephants, lions and leopard in Samburu National Reserve. My curiosity about the animals was matched by my interest in the tribal communities we worked with. As we got to know Kenyans through our case-study based curriculum, I realized that helping wildlife would only be achieved by working with people. If people felt secure then wildlife could have a chance- if done right.

On my return to Kenya working on African wild dogs with Maasai, Samburu, Turkana and Pokot communities. Here I am with my boss Dr. Rosie Woodroffe (center), Symon ole Rana (bottom center) and (left to right) Symon’s mother, aunt and sister.

On my return to Kenya working on African wild dogs with Maasai, Samburu, Turkana and Pokot communities. Here I am with my boss Dr. Rosie Woodroffe (center), Symon ole Rana (bottom center) and (left to right) Symon’s mother, aunt and sister.

We met experts in the field of conservation. These were the people I had long admired in documentaries. I learned how they approached their work, ate lunch with them and it shaped the way I saw myself- not as a kid who liked animals with an average GPA- but someone who could do this work and make a difference.

By the time I left Kenya it was all clear to me. All of the things I liked most were wrapped up in the field of wildlife conservation.  Of course Wildlife was at the heart of my interest, but so was learning about Culture and Problem Solving.  These three pillars- Wildlife, Culture and Problem Solving- are cornerstones of all wildlife conservation programs. This was it. This was my purpose and nothing was going to deter me.

I returned home to the States a different person. My goal was to return to Africa within 5 years. After a few short detours, I started my first leopard conservation project in South Africa, then a job studying wild dogs in Laikipia Kenya then a Fulbright Scholarship to start my PhD on leopards in Namibia. Now, after a post-doc in Botswana, I have started my own community centered conservation non-profit called the CLAWS Conservancy. CLAWS stands for Communities Living Among Wildlife Sustainably and our flagship program Pride in Our Prides works closely with communities along the northern edge of the Okavango Delta to promote coexistence with communities living with lions. I am proud of our work and our program staff who are all locals- including two PhDs!

The Pride in Our Prides field Team including Dr. Erik Verreynne (veterinarian) and myself (center) who are part time in the field as well as (left to right from top) Pro Tomeletso, Dr. Edwin Mudongo and Dr. Keoikantse Sianga with Chris Dimbindo (front)

The Pride in Our Prides field Team including Dr. Erik Verreynne (veterinarian) and myself (center) who are part time in the field as well as (left to right from top) Pro Tomeletso, Dr. Edwin Mudongo and Dr. Keoikantse Sianga with Chris Dimbindo (front)

My journey has taught me to follow my passion and try to make the world a better place for the wildlife I care about and the people living among them.

In the next few blogs, I will be exploring my approaches to our current conservation work in Botswana. I hope you find them interesting.

Reflections on our herding program. Photos and Text Dr. Erik Verreynne

Keeping us safe from the lions, keeping us safe from man.

The calves’ bellowing in the mobile kraal warn you long before you hear their bells. A lingering dust cloud behind the tree island gives away the approaching herd. Then you hear their bells, and the bellows, and the voices of the herders. 
And through the dust you see the shining horns of the cattle, walking closer and closer to the night’s protection, and to their calves.

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I am south of Eretsha in NG12 on the flood plains of the Okavango Panhandle, assisting the herding program for Pride in our Prides, an initiative by Communities Living with Wildlife (CLAWS). The program is aiming to conserve the lion population in the area by promoting co-existence between people, their livestock and the lions. While the elephants challenge is pausing, still dominating the media landscape, life silently moves on for this group of people, dedicated to protect the fragile coexistence between man and lion beast that existed for years on these flood plains.
Not only subsistence crops are the livelihood of the communities. Cattle is an important part of their daily existence. It is their source of meat and milk, often their ploughs and transport. It is their bank. When they sell one or two or three big oxen, it is money for school clothes, school books, maybe a generator, or furniture, building material for a house, or maybe even down payment on a car.....

The cattle stream into the kraal, the calves rushing to their mothers to suckle the warm richness of their full udders. The oxpeckers retreat from their tick removing duties with shrill protest. Silence soon settles with the dusk and the setting sun as I sit down with Dr Edwin Mudongo to discuss the progress of the program under his care. Behind us a elephant break some branches. To our right a hippo express his annoyance with us. A lonely scops owl calls above in the lead wood tree. The moon is just a ghost as the herders voices quiet down.

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The following morning, the calves are separated again. Lured by the whistling of the herders, the adults leave the kraal, herd as far as 6km away where the best grazing awaits. The calves are chased out later to hang around the kraal. As I follow the herd, they cross the inflowing water several times, drinking before moving through, the many hooves stirring up the “dust” on the bottom of the stream. The herders spot a few elephant bulls on an island ahead and skillfully direct the cattle around. Using two way radios assist with coordination and communication. Soon they reach the grazing area and settle, the herders forming a watchful circle around the cattle, while some of the cows walk deep into the water to graze the green soft reeds.

About 3km to the west lurk a few lions in the thickets of an island, sleeping but still keeping an watchful eye on people and cattle passing near. We heard them roaring early last night to the south west. One male has a satellite collar around its neck, his current location is a dot on the computer of Dr Sianga Keoikantse at Jumbo Junction. If the male moves closer to the cattle, a clever computer program that considers both the movement of the cattle and the lions, and the location of the villages will warn Sianga. And the program will warn Edwin and the herders. Should any of the lions move closer to the people, or conditions favorable for lions attacks occur, the program will warn the villagers or cattle owners by text, in their own language, on their own phones. The CLAWS program has three legs: Monitoring the lions, protecting the cattle and educating the people. It uses high level technology and trusted old fashioned methods in combination.

The flood plains become a dead zone certain times of the year. When the water retracts, exposing the lush flood plains, livestock and wildlife descent on the abundance, followed by the lions. The many dry skeletons on the flood plains silently testify to that, their hollow eye sockets telling stories of feasts.

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This year is different. The inflow is low. The usual deep water levels preventing use of the floodplains before August is not there. The rain that provides grazing in the mopane veld north from the flood plains for the cattle, and grass on the apple leaf islands for the wildlife to the south did not come. The carnage will start early. And as most previous years, the conflict will reach a breaking point, often with deadly consequences to the lions. And that is why we are here.

The herding has only started recently. At first it was met with suspicion. Only about 300 cattle are being herded at the moment. But the owners of more than 1000 cattle have agreed to join, just waiting for the veterinary department to finish the Foot and Mouth Disease vaccination program. Then the herd will grow, with it more training to the herders to monitor the health of the animals under their care. Vegetation maps and controlled rotational block grazing will ensure optimal use of the area. 
Eventually all farmers will join. The flood plains will be empty of cattle at night and the lions will prowl away from the villages. And a win win situation is created whereby the cattle, their owners, the grazing and the lions benefit.

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Tomorrow, while the herders are taking the cattle out, we will be off with Sianga and Pro and Chris to locate a few problem lions, fitting them with collars to enable monitoring their movements. Pro will inform the people. Life will continue as usual on the flood plains.

We know the flood plains will claim a few more cattle in the next few months. And most likely a few lions. Life on the flood plains has always been fragile. But every day the work these guys do, will bring life here a step closer to the balance, a balance where there is a future for both man and beast. And most importantly a future for the flood plains.