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Essential Namibia we meet Shackleton, one of the Agab pride's young males, drinking at a spring. In the grass nearby we spot Xpl- 36, twitching in her sleep. Perhaps she's dreaming of her trip to the dentist. T he lioness's breath is warm against our hands; her musky scent perfumes the still evening air. She's out for the count, immobilised by a tranquilliser dart, but her yellow eyes are open, staring straight ahead. Is she aware of us as we squat beside her prone form? Dr Flip Stander lifts one of her huge paws and gently squeezes it to expose a 4cm claw, inviting us to touch it. It is razor- edged and needle sharp. Flip pries open the big cat's jaws to reveal an intimidating set of teeth, and begins measuring the canines and recording the state of the animal's dental health. It feels surreal to be here in this remote desert wilderness, watching a researcher giving a lion a dental check- up. Lioness Xpl- 36, as she is prosaically named, is part of the Agab pride, and we are acutely aware that other pride members are observing us intently from close by. Earlier we had watched Flip drag a springbok carcass behind his Land Cruiser to lure the lions out into the open, where he could safely dart the lioness. The cats had loped behind his vehicle, pounced on the bait, and polished it off within minutes. Retreating to a patch of long grass, they didn't seem to notice that Xpl- 36 had stayed behind, sound asleep, a dart impaled in her rump. But they are aware of us now, and with darkness falling fast, we are distinctly nervous. Flip, though, has done this dozens of times, and works carefully and methodically, measuring and recording data. Finally he takes out a sharp knife and saws through the thick leather collar around Xpl- 36' s neck. Manhandling the lion's deadweight, he slips a new radio collar around her neck and fastens it securely. Job done, we pile back into our vehicle and reverse away from the scene, leaving Flip to administer the tranquilliser antidote. Within minutes the lioness is groggily getting to her feet, and soon she's safely back with the pride, nothing but her dignity hurt. Later back at camp we listen to Flip explaining how the radio collars are essential to his work. He's been running the Desert Lion Conservation Project since 1998, collecting data on the population dynamics and movements of these unique desert- dwelling big cats. Locating lions in this vast 55,000 square kilometre wilderness of mountain and desert is a really daunting task, even with the help of a light aircraft, GPS and satellite tracking, and Flip spends long periods living in his Land Cruiser. He's a legend in this part of the world. Wiry framed, bare footed and deeply tanned, his firm blue- eyed gaze hints at 30 Travel Namibia Flip pries open the big cat's jaws to reveal an intimidating set of teeth, and begins measuring the canines and recording the state of the animal's dental health. It feels surreal to be here in this remote desert wilderness, watching a researcher giving a lion a dental check- up CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The Agab pride devour a decoy springbok carcass; desert lions are tracked using their radio collars; Flip and his team work quickly to record data, change the radio collar and give a quick dental check- up; desert lion numbers are increasing, thanks to Flip's work the resolute nature of a man dedicated to a cause. His brown arms and legs are covered with bizarre hieroglyphics, field data recorded on the first places that came to hand. Since his project started the desert lion population has increased from fewer than twenty individuals to more than a hundred. It's good news for the lions, but inevitably causes conflict with local people, when lions prey on their livestock. Flip sees lion- based tourism, with local people deriving financial benefits, as an essential part of encouraging communities to see the lions as a positive asset. " Tourism is vital, it's a real part of the reason the lions are increasing, without tourism there'd be no lions," he explains. He has now teamed up with Kunene Conservancy Safaris, a community- owned company, to offer desert lion safaris. Small groups join him for several days in the desert, as he tracks the big cats. A substantial proportion of the cost of these safaris goes directly to local communities, to compensate for livestock losses. Next morning, as we bump along the jeep track on our way back to civilisation,

Travel Namibia 31 DESERT LION SAFARIS n Desert lion safaris are run by Kunene Conservancy Safaris. These are ' reality' experiences, working closely with Dr Flip Stander, so the exact itinerary and logistics of each trip depends on what he and the lions are doing. Visit www. kcs- namibia. com. na for details. n To find out more about the Desert Lion Conservation Project, visit www. desertlion. info. n Wilderness Safaris provide logistical support for the project, and you may see desert lions when staying at their Desert Rhino Camp, or on guided game drives from Palmwag Lodge. Visit www. wilderness- safaris. com Did you know? Ordinarily, a lion's home range rarely exceeds 80 square kilometres; a Namib Desert lion, however, may have a territory of 20,000 square kilometres or more