Lessons of the San: African lion conservation and cultural heritage in the Kalahari

Human-lion conflict persists throughout Africa, particularly as it relates to lions’ predation of livestock. Yet, despite an abundance of studies aimed at mitigating human-wildlife conflict, little effort has been made to discover the underlying behavioral and ecological factors that determine lions’ choice of prey (e.g. cattle versus wild prey). This issue is partly explained by the difficulties of observing lion hunts and data collection; the occurrence and timing of hunts are unpredictable and hunts often occur in dense bush, over long distances, or at night, resulting in partial observations and few details on individual- and group- level behavior. GPS collars can measure individuals’ movements with respect to each other but cannot track movements in relation to the prey.

To circumvent these challenges, lion lab members Dr. Packer, Dr. Borrego, and Keitumetse Ngaka are working with San Trackers in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), in collaboration with the Leopard Ecology and Conservation Project, to collect data at an otherwise impossible level of detail on Kalahari lions. Project results will identify the ecological and behavioral determinants of lion predation behavior, identify circumstances favoring complex cooperative hunting strategies, and compare factors determining lion predation on livestock and wild prey.

The San people are hunter-gathers indigenous to southern Africa and have been living in the Kalahari for ~20,000 years. San trackers have spent most of their lives following a tradition of tracking and interpreting wildlife spoor (e.g. lion foot prints) and are well known for their outstanding animal tracking abilities. However, during the past few decades, the San have lost access to most of the their land and many have abandoned their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle; the Botswana government resettled large numbers of San and encouraged them to practice agriculture, which has led to a decline in the practice and valuation of their traditional skills.

By celebrating the traditional field craft-skills of San Trackers, the project preserves and perpetuates the skills of local San trackers, involves the local community in wildlife conservation and research, and uses non-invasive methods to monitor wildlife.

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