Ewaso Lions Adapts to Climate Change

By Alison Clausen, as told by Shivani Bhalla, Ewaso Lions

Ewaso Lions was established in 2007 with the aim of conserving Kenya’s lions and other large carnivores by promoting coexistence between people and wildlife. We focus on sound science, education, and capacity building to foster support for conservation and help guide the long-term conservation management of lions in community areas. We work in an area that covers over 2647.8 km2, which includes three National Reserves and adjacent community conservancies in northern Kenya.

This area is critical for lion conservation at a larger national scale because the resident lions provide genetic diversity to lion populations outside the reserves – should anything disturb these resident populations, it could severely threaten the future of the lion population in this part of Kenya.

In the past seven years we have observed significant changes in the local climate that have required us to adjust the way we work. The most visible is the drastic ebb and flow of the Ewaso Nyiro River. Twelve years ago, the river flowed throughout the year. Over the last seven years, it has become increasingly erratic – some years it flows all year round, some years it floods, and some years it remains dry for long periods of time. We can no longer predict what the weather is going to do or what the flow in the river will be like.

Lions are resilient and have evolved to cope with long, dry spells. We have observed that lions actually do quite well in dryer conditions, whereas in the rainy season they get into trouble and face significant threats. During the dry season, herbivores that need to drink regularly are drawn to the river, providing lions with easy, localized prey. When it is dry and the river flows erratically or not at all, these herbivores die off and the lions survive on the carcasses.

In wetter conditions, such as in 2010, herbivores have different options for drinking water, and thus, disperse out of protected areas. The lions have to travel further to find a meal. Moving out of reserves to find prey leads them into human-occupied areas, which leads to conflict over livestock depredation and potential retaliation by herders.

Learning to Adapt

The area where we work is very isolated, with limited access to climate and weather information. With no seasonal forecasts or region-specific local weather predictions available to us, we have had to embrace a truly adaptive approach to our work in the face of climate change.

Community member. Copyright Ewaso Lions

Community member. Copyright Ewaso Lions

When conditions are dry and lions are doing relatively well, we focus our efforts on community outreach, and during the 2009 drought we helped villagers develop waterholes for livestock and domestic use. When it rains and lions start moving out of the reserves, we focus our efforts on lion conservation and managing lion-human conflict.

In previous years, we generally had a good idea of how to plan our annual workload. Now, we have to take it month by month and see what the weather brings. We have had to adapt and accept this uncertainty and factor it into our work.

Once the climate starts ‘changing’, a number of scenarios are possible. In one scenario, it may be some time before a new ‘normal’ is reached. Under this scenario, there will be a‘transition period’ during which we will need to be flexible and change our activities rapidly in response to unpredictable conditions, but which will eventually end and lead to a new, longer-term stability in conservation. Another scenario is that we may never reach a new normal. The ‘transition’ period may continue indefinitely and will make conservation planning very difficult. This is the situation we find ourselves in now.

In the past, we had a reasonable degree of certainty regarding the future weather patterns and could plan our activities accordingly. This is no longer possible based on our experiences over the last couple of years. We have lost all predictability now, and find ourselves having to change our work planning in line with changing weather conditions. To make the best of this uncertainty, we are incorporating climate-related factors into our strategic plan in an effort to have a more thought-out approach to lion conservation.

Key Messages

•          Climate change can mean different things for different species in the same ecosystem. Not all effects of climate change are negative. For example, prolonged dry conditions in 2009 triggered an increase in lion populations in northern Kenya due to the abundance of prey along the region’s only waterway.

•          A changing climate means embracing uncertainty, being flexible and undertaking planning for shorter cycles. There’s no point fighting it – climate change is here to stay.

•          There may never be a new ‘normal’ climate – the weather may never again be as predictable as it was in the past and incorporating a flexible and adaptive approach to conservation is likely to become the new way of doing business.

For more information on the activities of Ewaso Lions visit http://ewasolions.org or contact Shivani Bhalla at shivani@ewasolions.org.