Life with the lions
Kenya’s Maasai warriors are known for being fearless lion killers but times have changed and the country’s lion’s population is in danger of being wiped out. Now the Maasai in southern Kenya are taking part in an initiative to preserve the big cats.
For thousands of years the Maasai co-existed with huge herds of wildlife. Their lion-killing rituals kept down the number of lions preying on the game while their fearsome reputation as warriors kept the herds safe from other humans. The result, Kenya’s wildlife heritage is a wonder of the modern world.
But Kenya’s lions, a huge tourist attraction, are being decimated. From tens of thousands, only around 2,000 survive.
Lion researcher Amy Howard told Reuters Africa Journal that Maasai are now being recruited as Lion Guardians: “The problems are that these lions are coming into bomas, they’re attacking livestock, goats and cows and the communities are getting angry about this. In the past they used to go out on hunting parties and try and kill the lions in revenge and also as a rite of passage for the warriors.
“So what we are doing is we are employing warriors here to conserve the lions. They go out and track them and tell their communities where they are so they know not to herd there. So we’re tying to reduce the amount of conflict that we’re getting between the livestock and lions.”
Lion Guardians use an electronic device that will help them track a dozen or so lions that they and the researchers have been able to collar.
The Guardians often walk huge distances to pinpoint the exact location of the collared lions. But while the tracking device helps them locate collared lions, uncollared lions still require traditional tracking skills.
The Lion Guardians work alongside other conservation efforts in the area. The Maasailand Preservation Trust oversees a programme that compensates herders when they lose livestock to lions, hyenas and other predators.
But not everyone is happy, as cattle owner Solomon Lotobulua explains: “We are told to simply watch when lions attack our animals, that we would be compensated. The agreement we reached was that for one cow attacked we would be paid $200. But now we’re only paid $160. So we are saying that unless things change, by the end of the year, we will chase away the lion projects.”
The Maasai are in a difficult position, caught between the need to conserve Kenya’s wildlife and a historical animosity towards anything that might kill their cattle. But as Lion Guardians they are helping their community reclaim a place at the centre of Kenya’s conservation efforts.