On 28th of June in the afternoon a group of newly initiated Masai moran, or warriors, went on a hunt to kill a lion that had apparently killed a sheep on a ranch. In the attack three warriors were critically injured and the lion killed. This incident comes hot on the heels of the killing of 6 lions in Kitengela next to Nairobi National Park on June 20th. This incident is tragic on several fronts. First, it happened on the privately run community ranch called Kuku, where researchers and conservationists have been working hard to protect lions for many years. The lion, was wearing a radio collar as he was the subject of research. This male was the head of a pride of 12 others. His loss is a devastating blow to the country’s dwindling lion population because when pride males are killed, other males will take over, killing all the cubs and chasing off or killing other all the other males in the process.
I was at the neighbouring ranch, Mbirikani for a traditional Masai wedding last weekend. Anthony Kasanga, a former lion guardian was tying the knot. Young warriors attended his ceremony and danced for 3 days in a row. The new initiates, aged between 14 – 20 were dressed in traditional red robes, had beautifully braided hair, and had adorned themselves in beaded jewelry. Their faces were painted with red ochre to make them appear fierce. This was no ordinary disco. The dancing of moran, or warriors involves putting the initiates into a trance, they chanting and leaping high into the air in a competition for glory. Girls surround the warriors to assess their prowess. It’s no secret that the highest jumper is considered the most attractive. But nothing is more appealing to the girls than a demonstration of courage – and killing a lion is the ultimate proof.
We interviewed 5 elders in the community to learn about how things were in the past and to explore what has changed as part of a folklife project called Africa’s Wildest Stories (which you can listen to here). Every single man spoke of his hunting accomplishments. One bragged that he had killed 50 black rhino in his youth. Another described how the warriors used to return from lion hunts with the skins and heads which would be raised in the village on poles like flags. This was a message to all visitors about the courage of that group of warriors. The sight was not just a boast but a challenge to any other warriors to try and do better.
Though much has changed since those days, the courage of the Maasai is still legendary. To attain the courage needed to take on killing a lion with only a spear is no small feat. The warriors chant and dance, and invoke the spirits to protect them. This puts them in a dream like trance in which they become fearless. For new initiates like those inovlved in the hunt two days ago, it does not always work, and now three teenagers lie in critical condition in a hospital.
I live in the city of Nairobi and on the edge of Nairobi National Park whose greatest attraction is the 40 plus lions. Nowhere else in the world does a capital city have a park with wild lions on within the city boundary. This is what makes Nairobi Park special. But the tiny 117 square kilometer park depends on a large ecosystem through which wildlife disperses each rainy season. On December 28th last year 3 of the park lions left the park following the zebra and wildebeest. They killed livestock and were themselves killed in retaliation. After a series of meetings with the authorities, the community agreed not to kill any more if compensation was paid for the dead livestock. Then barely 6 months later 6 more lions were killed in a savage attack. They were trapped in a stockade and the community killed two adult females and surprisingly 4 cubs. If they hadn’t escaped, two males would have been killed too. There is no honor in killing a weakened enemy and to many Maasai , the killing of the cubs was cowardly and unnecessary. But then this was no ordinary hunt, a tipping point had been reached. The Maasai community say that they are fed up with being expected to incur the costs of the losses of livestock to lions. To these urban Maasai, lions are simply vermin.
WildlifeDirect working with the Friends of Nairobi Park and the local community have been monitoring and mapping all of the lion predation incidents around Nairobi since October 2011 under a grant from the National Geographics Big Cats Initiative. The killings of the 6 lions was no surprise to us. In fact in our observation the community had shown enormous restraint considering that over 140 head of livestock worth thousands of dollars had been killed in the previous 9 months. But most Kenyans are outraged because Kenya’s remaining population of only 1,970 lions is sliding quickly towards oblivion. The implications for the tourism based economy are enormous, lions are the number 1 attraction for tourists to the country. Expanding the tourism industry under Kenya’s ambitious Vision 2030 requires them.
Why is it so hard to manage only 1,970 lions? Most of Kenya’s wildlife occurs outside of the protected areas in landscapes increasingly dominated by people. The situation is extreme around Nairobi Park where lion predation incidents have been rising rapidly. Lions are constrained in a tiny park area because of an increasing human populations in the dispersal area south of the park. The lions have been getting away with killing livestock which is easier and safer than chasing down a zebra or buffalo. Of course this has emboldened them and increasingly they are attacking livestock in daylight and are even taking their cubs into homesteads.
Efforts to resolve the human-lion problem have involved local NGO and KWS drive efforts to build lion proof stockades, compensation for livestock losses, financial rewards for protecting lions, sharing of revenues from tourism and education of warriors and the curious invention of lion lights by a 13 year old Maasai boy Richard Turere which we reported here. But there are two reasons why the killings of lions continue. First there is the culture of lion killing by the Maasai. Lion hunting is still appealing for warriors as those who kill lions will be championed as brave warriors. It is completely against the law of course, but so far, no one has been arrested for any of these incidents. In fact the Minister for Forestry and Wildlife has publically exonerated the lion killers and a local member of parliament has urged the Masai to kill all “stray” lions. Kenyans are demanding that the new wildlife legislation which has been languishing in draft form since 2008 be urgently passed. In it are provisions for carrots and sticks. The Wildlife Bill will guarantee compensation against loss or damage of property at cost. It also includes severe penalties for poaching, and dealing in wildlife. But any law is only as good as how it is implemented. So long as the Kenyan leadership continues to lack political will – lion killers will continue to escape and more lions will die. The government authority responsible for wildlife conservation, the Kenya Wildlife Service, is increasingly finding its self between a rock and a hard place as the situation continues to worsen. Not only are the current laws out dated, but the central government has not invested adequately in conservation outside of the protected areas where 75 percent of Kenya’s wildlife resides. Given the importance of lions to the economy, what Kenya must do is develop a national plan for managing lions in the wild at an ecosystem level. Thankfully, being the hub of conservation and research in eastern Africa, there is no shortage of experts and interest in helping the government to solve these problems. If Kenya can’t get it right, then there is little hope for Africa’s threatened cats. In any case, Kenya does not have a choice, lions are the national symbol of the country, and a Kenya without lions is unimaginable.
As I sit here typing I can hear two lions roaring. It’s a mating ritual. It is a wonderful earthy sound that reminds me of how lucky we are in the city of Nairobi. But I can’t help feeling that unless we solve the lion conflict situation, the lions of Nairobi will not survive for much longer.
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