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Namibian desert lions are again taking to the beach to hunt

Lioness feeding on seal on Skeleton Coast © PE Stander / Desert Lion Conservation

Lions from Skeleton Coast, in the desert region of Namibia, are now regularly attacking seals and sea birds to feed themselves.  For some lions this food source constitutes almost 80% of their diet. 

During the 1980 s, Namibian lions were severely threatened due to cohabitation problems with human populations.  The big cats attacked farmer’s livestock and as a result locals retaliated by culling the lions using guns or poison.  By the 1990s all of the Namibia’s Skeleton Coast lions had been exterminated.   However a few years later a conservation law was installed and in 1997 a small population of 20 lions that were specially adapted to desert living conditions settled in the area.  Humans can no longer (legally) shoot lions so their population has gradually reestablished.  These lions have adapted to their desert landscape which has limited food sources and are now feeding on seals, cormorants and other sea birds. 

Hunting marine life becoming more regular

In 2006 a researcher saw a lioness from the reestablished pride attack, kill and eat a seal.  However this behaviour was only observed 9 times between 2006 and 2016.  It appears that during this time, this type of hunting was purely opportunistic and these lions didn’t deliberately hunt seals.  However this style of hunting changed about three years ago as these lions are now regularly hunting marine wildlife.  Instead of burning up energy in more humid areas, lions have started to look for food closer to the shore. The lion prides on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast are now frequently hunting seals and sea birds.

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A lion that is hunting a cormorant. Credits: P Stander/ Namibian Journal of Environment

Almost 80% of their diet

Philip Stander, who has been following the region’s lion populations for several years has recently reported the case of three young lionesses under the age of one. In March 2017, the three orphaned sisters started to hunt cormorants as explains the Namibian Journal of Environment.

Driven by hunger and desperation, the young lionesses found their way over the dunes and swam onto an island at a fresh-water spring near the coast“, the report noted. The lionesses then started to hunt the cormorants that were sleeping on the island at night and have since learnt how to chase bigger winged birds, notably flamingos and green-winged teals.  Eating marine wildlife has become so regular that it constitutes 79% of these lion’s diet.  

The researcher explained that, “These lions have found a rich and reliable marine resource that can provide then with an important source of energy.”  Researchers also explain how initial observations  could suggest these lions are learning to prey on other marine wildlife like crabs, shellfish and turtles.  It is clear that the Skeleton Coast provides a rich source of energy for these lions especially when their traditional land food sources are in short supply.  This is a perfect example of how a species can adapt to their changing environment.

Scientist Stander, P. (2019) has researched the marine diet of lions living in the Skeleton Coast Park, Namibia. Namibian Journal Of Environment, 3, Section A, 1-10.

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