THE LION MAN

He’s been at­tacked by a grumpy male lion, barely es­cap­ing with his life. He’s been at­tacked in cy­ber realms by ig­no­rant key­board war­riors ques­tion­ing his unique ap­proach to con­ser­va­tion. He lives on bil­tong and bis­cuits, mostly all by him­self, for weeks o

Leisure Wheels (South Africa) - - ADVENTURERINTERVIEW -

Flip Stander’s work­ing day is very dif­fer­ent to most peo­ple. He nor­mally catches up on sleep dur­ing the day, and works at night. And when we mean work, he tracks lion in the wild Namib­ian Skele­ton Coast.

Be­sides a few close calls with some of the more ag­gres­sive big cats, Stander’s big chal­lenge is chang­ing peo­ple’s per­cep­tions and fears about the an­i­mal. Thing is, the desert lion pop­u­la­tion, which num­bers about 150, is un­der threat, mostly from hu­mans. Sense­less killings of these an­i­mals have com­pli­cated his work im­mensely, but the ec­cen­tric re­searcher re­fuses to give up on his mis­sion.

And to think it all be­gan decades ago when he saw a lion feed on a seal car­cass. We spoke to the leg­endary con­ser­va­tion­ist. In what car did you learn to drive, and what was your first car? The first car I learnt to drive was a Nis­san 1 200 bakkie. In 1983, I had saved enough money for a de­posit and bought a Toy­ota Hilux 18R for R9 000. For the next three years, the monthly pay­ment was R250 and my salary as a ranger in Etosha Na­tional Park was R295 (for the first few months).

The Hilux, named ‘Ha­gar the Hor­ri­ble’, had an il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer and was my com­pan­ion in the field for more than 25 years. It logged in ex­cess of 750 000km with­out any ma­jor re­pairs to the en­gine.

What is your favourite 4x4 that you've owned or driven?

Ha­gar the Hilux, by a long way. But when the Land Cruiser Club of SA do­nated a Toy­ota Land Cruiser 4.5 EFI, I stepped into a new realm and re­gard it as the best ve­hi­cle for my work.

How did the Desert Lion Project start?

Dur­ing a visit to the head ranger at Mowe Bay in the Skele­ton Coast Na­tional Park, I saw a li­on­ess on the

beach feed­ing on a seal. It left such an im­pres­sion on me that it still drives me to­day.

You pre­fer to work alone… why is that? And doesn’t it get lonely or bor­ing?

Work­ing alone is the most ef­fec­tive way to study lion in the desert. You make less noise dur­ing the long hours of wait­ing, you can stay out in the desert for longer and you be­come very fo­cused and in tune with the lions and na­ture. It does get lonely – but never bor­ing – and soon you be­come used to it.

What do you eat and drink when you’re in the field? And where and how do you sleep?

Eat­ing is a so­cial event, so when I’m alone for long pe­ri­ods, I eat only once a day, or when I’m hun­gry. Food nor­mally con­sists of dry stuff like bil­tong, fruit and bis­cuits. Be­cause I of­ten work at night, I sleep in the early morn­ing or late af­ter­noons. Nor­mally next to my ve­hi­cle in the shade of a rock over­hang.

What is the clos­est call you’ve had with a lion yet? Or other an­i­mals?

Lion that ap­proached when I was sleep­ing have sur­prised me once or twice. But I have learnt to pick bet­ter spots to camp. Ele­phant can be prob­lem­atic be­cause they move so qui­etly and some­times ap­proach my ve­hi­cle at night when I’m ob­serv­ing lion. That can be scary.

What are your best and worst mo­ments of the Desert Lion Project? And the big chal­lenges?

Best: Fol­low­ing and watch­ing the Ter­race Male (Xpl-68) dis­cover the Uniab Delta, and walk­ing along the beach (af­ter an ab­sence of lion for more than 20 years).

Sad­dest: Stay­ing with the Queen (Xpl-10) for a week and watch­ing her die of old age (16 years). I’d known her since birth and fol­lowed her through­out her en­tire life. Worst: The poi­son­ing of the three Hoaruseb li­onesses; the un­nec­es­sary shoot­ing of Adolf (Xpl-3); the un­nec­es­sary shoot­ing of Rosh (Xpl-73); the waste­ful and point­less killing of the Ter­race Male; and the un­for­tu­nate killings of the Five Mus­ke­teers – five males that would have made a big im­pact on the desert lion fu­ture.

Hu­man-lion con­flict is the big­gest threat to the lion pop­u­la­tion and it is not some­thing that can be changed overnight. The chal­lenge is to stay mo­ti­vated.

Where do you see this project in say, 10 years from now?

Chang­ing the at­ti­tudes of peo­ple and man­ag­ing hu­man-lion con­flict is an on­go­ing process. We have to keep chip­ping away at the prob­lem. In all hon­esty, I can­not see it chang­ing in my life­time, but I do be­lieve that the work we do to­day will pro­vide a strong ba­sis of knowl­edge and set the stage for the next gen­er­a­tion to take it all the way.

If money was ab­so­lutely no ob­ject, and you could pick any ve­hi­cle with which to con­duct your re­search, what would it be?

Toy­ota Land Cruiser 4.5 EFI, or sim­i­lar low-revs-big-torque en­gine, that is quiet and pow­er­ful. Good vis­i­bil­ity and space for all the equip­ment are key ele­ments. To be able to move around and sleep in the ve­hi­cle would make a big dif­fer­ence.

And lastly, if Av­er­age Joe & Jill want to some­how get in­volved with your project, how can they do it?

Visit de­sertlion.info or mail con­tact@de­sertlion.info

Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top: Flip Stander used a Toy­ota Land Cruiser dou­ble cab un­til a few years ago for his re­search work. Here two se­dated lions await new GPS track­ing col­lars. The interior of Flip’s lat­est Cruiser – a cus­tom wagon in which he lives. Ha­gar the Hilux on one of its last ex­pe­di­tions be­fore be­ing re­placed by a Cruiser. And yes, that’s a Land Rover roof. Ha­gar the Hilux when he was brand spank­ing new and cost R9 000, out the box. Be­low: Flip fol­lows his lions wher­ever they roam.

Dr Flip Stander’s Desert Lion Project in Namibia aims to se­cure the fu­ture for these amaz­ing big cats. It was be­lieved that, when Namibia was still South West Africa and was run by the Na­tional Party in Pre­to­ria, lion there were pretty much shot to extinction. Decades later, lion have again been spot­ted along the Skele­ton Coast – hav­ing sur­vived in the desert by liv­ing off the seal colonies. Since then, Flip has made it his life’s mis­sion to con­serve these an­i­mals.

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