Namibia is home to a unique population of lions specially adapted for life in the desert. Their thick coats protect them from extreme temperatures and they can survive almost entirely without drinking water. And yet, for all the hardships of desert life, the biggest danger to these iconic animals is the local human population.

Last week, three lions were poisoned and killed by local farmers, and now police, along with the Namibian Environment and Tourism Ministry, are looking for the culprits. Not only is killing these protected lions illegal, but poisoning wildlife is also incredibly harmful to local ecosystems. Last week, for example, over 100 endangered vultures were killed in Botswana after feeding on poisoned carcasses intended for lions.

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The lions are perfectly adapted to the harsh conditions of the Namib Desert. Image: Desert Lion Conservation Foundation/Facebook

No arrests have yet been made in connection with the lion killings, but government officials have indicated that those responsible will be charged with the illegal killing of protected game. "The ministry condemns this illegal activity ... and those involved will face the full wrath of the law," said the country's Environment and Tourism Minister, Pohamba Shifeta, this week.

Namibia's big cats are of particular importance to Dr Philip "Flip" Stander, founder of the Desert Lion Trust. His organisation is dedicated to protecting and expanding Namibia's lion populations, recently estimated at only 150 individuals. But more lions can mean more conflict with humans, so Stander is also committed to fostering peaceful relationships between the cats and the local farmers.

To that end, the group works to educate communities about these predators, promoting strategies like using bright lights, loud noises and even fireworks to keep the animals away from livestock. They also engage with safari operators to encourage tourism focused on the lions, which brings in funds for supporting local villages. This way, they hope to prevent incidents like last's week poisoning.

Stander has studied the lions for many years, and recently participated in a documentary that focused on five young cubs called the "five musketeers", who were left to fend for themselves after the death of their mother. 

For years, the five musketeers have been under close study, but the last few months have been tragic. In July, one of the brothers was shot dead after a confrontation at a cattle post. Then, throughout the first week of August, the lions had several run-ins with the village of Tomakas, which resulted in the deaths of livestock.

In response to rising tensions, a decision was made to relocate the cats. Plans were put into place, and with just days to go, officials were waiting for three of the musketeers to rejoin their fourth brother from a recent trip into the mountains.

Then, on August 9, the Desert Lion Trust posted an alarming update online: the three lions' radio collars had stopped responding. The next day, reports came in that the trio had been found dead, poisoned and burnt near a previously unknown cattle post. The one remaining Musketeer was immediately relocated, and an investigation into the killings has since been launched.

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The last survivor was quickly relocated to safety in the aftermath of the killings. Image: Desert Lion/Facebook

"The lions killed a donkey and the people retaliated by poisoning the lions. The carcasses and the satellite collars of the lions were then burnt," said the Desert Lion Trust.

The deaths were a hard blow to conservation efforts, but the group has been speaking out to prevent a backlash against the local community. "[The] majority of the local community members, especially those of Tomakas village that were most affected by the musketeers, have in fact shown tremendous patience and worked alongside lion researcher Dr Philip Stander to try and mitigate this conflict," said the group in a statement. "On the fringes of the desert there is just enough grassland for rural farmers to keep some livestock. It is far from easy for these farmers to live side by side with lions."

After recovering just fine from his long trip, the last musketeer is now living in a safer location at the Uniab Delta. Though there is some concern that he might want to return to Tomakas in search of his brothers, he has so far stayed put, which is a good sign. 

"We hope that this tragic event will not overshadow what all the people on the ground ... have achieved so far. As devastating as this is, we must use the death of these musketeers as a catalyst to get going with a crucial action plan to keep lions and people safe," said the group.

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Top header image: soepvlees, Flickr