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Man Friday: Unfenced bush camps have no lion problem — it’s a human one


Tony Weaver is a freelance photo-journalist, environment writer, columnist and editor.

Is it just a matter of time before another camper is taken by a lion or mauled by a hyena in one of southern Africa’s unfenced bush camps? More especially, in Botswana or Namibia where many of the camps are unfenced?

First published by Die Burger

I ask this question in the light of a lively debate on the popular SA 4×4 Community Forum. The question was raised with particular reference to the Mabuasehube section of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP), that small section that lies in the far eastern section of the KTP north of Tsabong.

None of the Mabuasehube campsites is fenced, but some have a water standpipe and shower, A-frame shade shelters and a long drop toilet. Prides of lion regularly “invade” the camps, drawn by pools of shower water, using the A-frames as shade and lookout points.

But they also come because some campers are unschooled in the ways of the bush, deliberately leaving out water or chop bones to lure predators for better photo opportunities, and not packing away rubbish, dirty dishes or food containers at night.

It is an accident waiting to happen — but largely a human-created accident because the lions have become habituated to the presence of people and actively seek out the camps as a source of food and water.

The last documented case of a camper being taken by a lion that I can find is that of a highly experienced bush camper, Pete Evershed, who was killed on 30 October, 2010 at dusk at Chitake Springs in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.

Subsequent to this there have been two documented leopard attacks on campers in southern Africa, neither fatal — at Motopi in the KTP, and in Namibia’s Kuiseb Canyon. The Matopi victim (a Capetonian) was in a nylon tent, the Kuiseb victim (a German tourist) was attacked through the open window of an overland camper van.

Various suggestions have been made about the lion “problem” in Mabua, from fencing the camp, to drastically raising park fees to keep out the “riff-raff”, to having a heavily increased ranger presence. I would go further — remove the A-frames and water taps, taking away the main attraction for the lions.

But ultimately, this is not a lion “problem”, it is a human problem. I first visited Mabua in 1998, and have been back several times, always without any other campers anywhere near us. Yes, we had a lion or two in or near our camp, but nothing like the situation today, where bookings for Mabua are very hard to get as it has become so popular.

The answer lies, to my mind, in first removing the lion attractors, and then embarking on a heavy education campaign: Do not bait the lions with leftover braai or water; keep a tidy camp and lock all food in the vehicle, and — this will always be controversial — do NOT braai at night. The smell of braai meat is a huge predator attractor.

And the common fallacy that a big fire will keep lions at bay, is just that, a fallacy. Professor Fritz Eloff spent more than 40 years studying the Kalahari and its lions, some of those years in the company of Joep le Riche, one of the founding chief wardens of the Kalahari Gemsbok Park. It was from Oom Joep that Eloff first learned that fires were a magnet for lions and other predators.

In his seminal book, Hunters Of The Dunes: The Story Of The Kalahari Lion, (Sunbird, 2002), Eloff writes that:

I learned that fires actually attract lions, and not only lions, other predators too. Hyenas, especially, will investigate a fire in their territory. And, if there are young lions in the area, you can safely assume that you will get little sleep at night around your campfire.

Out of sheer curiosity or impudence, the young lions will come right up to the fire, and if you are sleeping alongside the fire, they may even venture right up to your bed… Oom Joep also gave us an instruction on what to do under such circumstances: ‘If you wake up to find a lion beside you, lie dead still,’ was his unambiguous advice.”

And don’t let small children run around camp: That’s another lion magnet.

Of course, the other option in places like Mabua is to do nothing and let natural selection take its course. A tourist death-by-lion will be the best education tool of all. DM


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