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.