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Lion Conservation: Does it Come Down to Cows?

By Shivani Bhalla with Paul Thomson I write this story from my tent in Samburu. I am looking out, watching the dry landscape in front of me. I see two warthogs coming to graze in the only place they can find some grass – outside our tents. I see the dik diks and squirrels searching...

By Shivani Bhalla with Paul Thomson

I write this story from my tent in Samburu. I am looking out, watching the dry landscape in front of me. I see two warthogs coming to graze in the only place they can find some grass – outside our tents. I see the dik diks and squirrels searching for water under the buckets where we wash our hands. I watch starlings and hornbills drinking from our dog Kura’s water dish. This is becoming the new normal here in the Ewaso Lions Camp.

I hear livestock in the distance and see herders come down into the Pukur lugga to dig waterholes for their livestock and to bathe themselves. Everyone is searching for water.

Lions in the Dry Season

These are difficult times for most wildlife species in this part of northern Kenya, but not all; lions and other carnivores thrive during this dry season. During these times, lions ambush prey concentrated along the river, hunt weak animals more easily, and even feed on carcasses.

Over the past few months we’ve witnessed the lions’ success. They have hunted frequently, bringing down Grevy’s zebra, oryx, warthogs, and even an aardvark. For Nanai and Nabulu, the two resident females in Samburu, hunting is particularly critical, since they are currently raising their five young cubs. Fortunately, they seem to be doing a great job – the cubs are healthy and growing and we indulge in watching this beautiful family prosper in Samburu.

Samburu’s lions have thrived this dry season. Well-fed cubs play in a dry river. (Photograph by Ewaso Lions)

The African wild dogs and leopards in this area are also doing well in the dry season. It used to be that we only saw wild dogs every few months. Now, our team spots the two resident wild dog packs every couple of weeks. Despite their elusive nature, leopards are probably the carnivore species we encounter most frequently. Encouragingly, the leopards here also have small cubs, including one born just a few days ago. Although cheetah numbers are low in Samburu, we are also lucky to have one female and her two cubs in the area at present and, despite being surrounded by lions, she is doing a great job of raising her cubs.

The Drought Days

People tell me that I must be happy that the lions and other carnivores are doing well. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing quite like watching the lionesses and their cubs play, hunt, and lay lazily in the Salvadora bushes or along the Ewaso Nyiro River.  But at the back of my mind, I can’t help thinking back to 2009 and what happened that year in Samburu.

That was the year when the region was hit by an extreme drought. For 10 months, the mighty Ewaso Nyiro River dried up completely. Most of the herbivores we monitor in the Conservation Area in Westgate Community Conservancy died. Waterbuck were the first to succumb to the drought, followed by impala and warthog. I vividly remember watching a young warthog trying to walk up a hill, struggling desperately, and finally collapsing.

Photo of a waterbuck carcass in a dry river.
In times of drought, the landscape is littered with carcasses like this waterbuck in a dry river. (Photograph by Ewaso Lions)

I felt so helpless. We found carcasses of waterbuck, cattle, and buffalo all over – we smelled death wherever we drove. I realized just how bad it was when we saw a crocodile die in the dry riverbed; it was trying to wait out the dry spell, but didn’t make it.

During this time, there was no water or pasture for people’s livestock either. Cows entered the National Reserves to access water, but very few made it out again – they would die along the way, adding to the carcasses that littered the parks.

I remember spending so much time trying to pull cows up to their feet. One incident is etched in my memory. A cow near Ngare Mara got stuck in the mud and had no energy to stand up. Lekuraiyo, my assistant at the time, told me to grab hold of its head whilst he pulled on the cow’s tail. We pulled and pulled, trying to get the cow to stand up and be on its way. But, despite our best efforts, we didn’t manage; it was so frustrating. Although the cow eventually stood, it wasn’t long before it collapsed again.

Lekuraiyo told me there was no hope; we both felt utterly helpless.

We carried water for the local people, dug waterholes in the dry Ewaso Nyiro every day. By day, these waterholes were frequented by livestock, whilst at night, wildlife converged – from lions to zebra and genet cats to wild dogs – around the holes. In the end, it was too long a dry spell and, eventually, we stopped seeing the herbivores altogether.

We went through many days similar to this. Every day we pulled cows. Every day we dug water holes.

Photo of Shivani digging a waterhole.
Shivani digs through the sandy riverbed to create a waterhole that will be used by wildlife and people’s livestock. (Photograph by Ewaso Lions)

The 2009 drought was a desperate time for people, their livestock, and many wildlife species. But the lions did well, feeding on dying and dead animals, siring and raising cubs, slowly increasing their numbers.

Now it is September and it is the peak of the dry season. The winds have arrived and the dust blows everywhere. I am worried that if the rains don’t arrive in time and in sufficient quantities, we will have a repeat of 2009.

Life in Balance

So here I am again, conflicted: carnivores thrive in these dry times, but the people, livestock, and herbivores struggle. As a lion conservationist, which comes first for me? Do I get upset at the cows encroaching into the lion’s territory, or do I accept that this is a time when people have no choice?

Yes, I am a lion conservationist, but the most important word is conservationist. I worry about the warthogs around our camp and the numerous zebra foals that look lethargic and weak in the dry grasslands. How can I be happy for the carnivores when I see families struggling to feed their children, livestock without grass to graze, and water sources dry as dust?

Picture of a herder with goats and elephants in the background.
A Samburu man herds his goats as elephants pass by behind him, exemplifying the coexistence of people and wildlife in this part of Kenya. (Photograph by Ewaso Lions)

Fortunately, we had some rain a few days ago. It is amazing to see how quickly small grass shoots have emerged and how little water puddles have provided water for thirsty animals. Rains were localized, however, and not all areas received rain. This led to drastic changes in the movements of animals and people. Hundreds of elephants and Grevy’s zebra vacated from Samburu and headed out. People have also started migrating. But migration also brings more conflict. The lions have killed a cow and a camel over the past week as people are migrating with their herds during the night. It is a tense time for our team and the local herders protecting their livestock.

Yesterday, we watched seven Samburu warriors, three small boys, and several dogs herd over two hundred cows through a conservancy – heading for green pasture. They walked with their spears and water containers; cows carried sacks where the warriors would sleep; dogs carried their own water buckets around their necks. I watched young calves born during this dry spell keep up with the rest and wondered how they would reach their destination. But the warriors assured me – they would make it.

Watching the resilience of the animals and people gives us hope. They are part of this landscape and adapt to the changes around them. I see storm clouds in the distance, the river is still flowing, and the landscape constantly responding. Maybe it’s not about one or the other – lions or people – but a complex web that sets the stage for life in Samburu.

Shivani Bhalla is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She is founder and executive director of Ewaso Lions, a conservation organization that uses scientific research and community outreach to promote coexistence between people and lions who share habitats. Her work is funded in part by the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. Read an interview with her: Q&A: Shivani Bhalla Helps People and Lions Coexist (National Geographic, June 2014)

To read more about life as a lion conservationist in Kenya, visit the Ewaso Lions blog.

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Meet the Author

Ewaso Lions
Shivani is the founder of Ewaso Lions, Ewaso Lions, a conservation project that conserves Kenya’s lions and other large carnivores by promoting coexistence between people and wildlife. Ewaso Lions uses sound science, education, and capacity building to foster support for conservation and help guide the long-term conservation management of lions in protected areas and on private lands. Shivani is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and grantee of the Big Cats Initiative.