06/10/2015 05:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Elusive Desert-Adapted Lions Of Namibia And The Man Who Loves Them

Across the dimly lit tent stood Dr. Philip "Flip" Stander, the world's foremost expert on Namibia's famed desert-adapted lions, looking every bit the grizzled, stereotypical researcher who's spent most of his life alone in the field.

(Two of the Five Musketeers)

His hair askew, as if he'd just run his hand through it, he sported the prerequisite sun-baked skin and scraggly beard. He was thin and lanky; his elbows and knees a tad too big for his frame. He was barefoot and his arms were covered in notes he'd written on himself with a sharpie.

On this night, Stander was at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp to talk about desert-adapted lions, more specifically the Five Musketeers and the nearly 20 year-old Desert Lion Conservation he founded. It's a wonderful opportunity for guests to learn more about the animals and the environment, and it's my impression that it's a dog-and-pony show he's willing to endure for the sake of educating travelers about the wildlife to which he's dedicated his life.

(Dr. Philip "Flip" Stander, 2013)

Stander operates independently from Wilderness Safaris, the company that owns Hoanib and hosted my Namibian adventure, but they have a symbiotic relationship. Stander provides necessary intel on the lions so that guests can see them when they're near camp. Otherwise, with the rough terrain and the sheer size of their territory, the lions are as hard to find as the elusive snow leopard. He also advises Hoanib on protocols for approaching and viewing the lions, as well as overseeing the efforts of a part-time Wilderness employee who is conducting research on the local brown hyena population. In return, Wilderness, which has made conservation a hallmark of its business, provides logistical and funding support for Stander's research.

I didn't know much about desert-adapted lions before my trip to Namibia. I knew they were endangered like every other lion in Africa. But that's just part of their story. It wasn't until Stander's talk that I fully understood the magnificence of these majestic creatures--the mere 150 that are left.

(Flip's tricked out research vehicle/home-away-from-home)

Life in the wild isn't easy anywhere, but it's brutal along the Skeleton Coast in Namibia's northwest. It's the oldest desert in the world and one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet, though stunningly beautiful in a post-apocalyptic kind of way. In addition to the scarcity of food and water, blinding fog banks and sandstorms, its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean results in temperature changes that can range from bitter cold to blazing hot, often in the same day.

Over countless generations, the lions have adapted. They are genetically the same as the big cats in Kenya, but their evolution has enabled them to survive where their east African cousins cannot. They need very little water and derive most of the liquid from the prey they consume. Their coats are also slightly thicker to deal with the colder temperatures and they travel greater distances to find food.

A flood, the first in 15 years and a couple of months before my visit, made things even tougher for the lions. According to Stander, it was one of the worst things that could've happened. I remembered the lush, almost tropical floodplain I'd seen that morning--an area usually covered in cracked mud and dust--and was completely confused. Why would water be a problem?

( A lone Musketeer)

First, the rains to the east, lured prey animals such as the Oryx out of the area, depleting the lions' food source. Later, animals dispersed because the new, widespread vegetation growth negated the need to congregate around watering holes or ephemeral rivers where they are easier to hunt. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, for Stander's lions the rain was a disaster.
The Five Musketeers

A little over two years ago one of the last adult males of the Floodplain pride was shot by a villager protecting his livestock, leaving a void in the genetic pool. Human-lion conflict is the biggest threat to the livelihood of the cats on the Skeleton Coast. With so few numbers, any deaths can wreak havoc on the future of the population.

But as Stander quipped, "Nature will not be defeated." Around the time of the shooting, three lioness from the same pride, gave birth to five males. The mothers were Queen (a courageous female close to Stander's heart that died in May, 2014), and her two daughters. Stander coined the cubs the Five Musketeers and they hold the future of their pride in their big, soft paws. All they have to do is live and procreate, but that's not an easy feat in such a desolate place.

(A Musketeer takes his time catching up with with the rest of the lions as they look for a place to rest)

When Stander spoke of Queen that night in the desert, her name caught in his throat. For a second he stood silent, his eyes glistening as he stared at the ground. His hesitation spoke volumes.

It was clear that Stander's love for Queen was boundless. He watched her survive 16 years in a desolate environment to give birth, hunt and protect her young. He also watched her die - the researcher unwilling to intervene in the natural process. It must have killed him to see her fade in front of his eyes.

We first spotted the Musketeers at sunrise 20 minutes from camp, walking near the bank of the dry Hoanib Riverbed. Big and honey colored, their amber eyes gleamed in the sunlight, they were a little thin but not horribly so, and their adolescent manes stuck out at all angles. Two sported tiny fauxhawks. It was relatively cool outside and their eyes were drooping; it was time to take a nap. They spread out in various directions but stayed within eyesight of each other before choosing the perfect patch of sand. Two cuddled on the edge of the embankment, one head resting gently on the shoulder of the other.

The Musketeers are at an awkward stage. They're big boys with the growl and roar of adults but they like to be with their mammas now and then and rejoin the two surviving females periodically. Eventually, they will go off on their own, perhaps alone or together as a coalition, the term used when adult male lions live and hunt together. I learned from one of Stander's blog posts that they managed to kill their first giraffe on May 13, albeit a baby. Considering a giraffe is 6 feet tall at birth, still an impressive undertaking. It seems as if separation is near.

(A Musketeer family portrait)

One of the first things I noticed about the lions was their collars. They're an essential part of Stander's research. The technology isn't cheap, but sweet-talked five companies into each sponsoring a lion's collars for life.

The collars enable Stander to track their movements and every morsel of information he receives provides crucial insight into their behavior. The more he understands the better equipped he is to recommend strategies that will help the villagers learn to co-exist. He also uses the collars to inform Hoanib guides of their location and alert villages to their approach if necessary.

"What can we do?" I asked him. "You're doing it," he replied. "You're learning about the lions and hopefully you'll be inspired to tell others to do the same. Ideally, more people will come to Namibia and spend money."

Tourism dollars gives Stander the leverage to argue with those in power that keeping the lions alive is in everyone's best interest. In a 2008 interview with Safaritalk Stander notes, "Much of my current work is focused on ensuring that the local communities derive benefits from lions through tourism that out-weigh the costs of living alongside them. The lions are a big draw but while the villagers have to share in the burden of living with lions, they don't seem to be benefiting from the success of tourism."

Stander finished his talk with a trailer for a new documentary The Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib. He helped with production and is featured in the film. Will and Lianne SteenKamp, the producers, wrapped only a few days before my arrival after a grueling two years.


To see the documentary trailer click here.

It's a beautifully tribute to the Musketeers and a tool to get the word out on a global scale. In it you'll see the boys as young cubs and the valiant Queen in all her glory. It will air internationally in July and in the United States on the Smithsonian channel.

When the trailer ended, his words and the film did what Stander hoped it would do.

I'd learned and was inspired. Hopefully, you are too.

More here from my trip to Namibia

This article first appeared on The Insatiable Traveler