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From Goat Herding to Lion Conservation: The Story of a Samburu Warrior. Part 1

Meet Jeneria Lekilelei, a young Samburu warrior who comes from the Sasaab area in Westgate Community Conservancy, Samburu, Kenya. Jeneria started working with Ewaso Lions in 2008 as a Lion Scout and has since taken a substantial leadership role in his current position as Field Operations and Community Manager. Jeneria is a wildlife hero and...

Meet Jeneria Lekilelei, a young Samburu warrior who comes from the Sasaab area in Westgate Community Conservancy, Samburu, Kenya. Jeneria started working with Ewaso Lions in 2008 as a Lion Scout and has since taken a substantial leadership role in his current position as Field Operations and Community Manager. Jeneria is a wildlife hero and true ambassador for lions, wildlife and conservation in Kenya. In this two part series, Jeneria tells us his story.

Jeneria Lekilelei, Ewaso Lions Field Operations and Community Manager. Photo by Tony Allport.

You come from Sasaab village here in Westgate Conservancy. Can you describe what it was like growing up here as a child/young moran (warrior)?

When I was a young boy, I used to herd livestock. Conservation was so unknown to me. I didn’t care about wildlife. I grew up looking after goats, sheep and cows. I would leave the village every day to look after them and wildlife would chase me.

My family is very big, as my father had three wives. My mother had eight children, my stepmother has seven children, and my other stepmother has two children, so it is a very big family.

Has wildlife conservation always been important to you?

Wildlife used to be important to me only because we ate its meat. When I was young, my father would kill a gerenuk and we would eat. As a boy, I would kill dik diks and eat them. I didn’t know about conservation, we didn’t have conservancies, and no one was doing conservation work. Wildlife caused huge problems, killing livestock. Elephants would kill goats and humans if they came across them.

I hated lions so much before. They were not meaningful in my area and only caused problems. Lions still cause problems with livestock now, but I also realize that they give us a lot of benefits. If we have lions here, it is like having gold in this area.

When did you start to develop an interest in conservation, and did anything in particular spark this interest?

Joining the Ewaso Lions team and getting involved in conservation is what changed me. Because of my culture I hated lions because they killed my livestock, but then I changed. Before Ewaso Lions was here, there was no education in the village, which was a problem. Going on safaris to other places where there is conservation also helped me learn.

Traditionally, the role of a warrior – such as yourself – has been to protect your community and livestock from harm. Since lion predation is a significant cause of livestock loss, why have you chosen to support lion conservation in this area?

Before Ewaso Lions, when I knew nothing about lions, I would have said that I hated all predators because of the loss they caused me. With the education that I got from Ewaso Lions, I saw how people could live with predators.

I look at Samburu as part of a bigger picture now. Before, Samburu was my world and I only thought of myself. I didn’t see any benefit from lions to myself alone. Now, I think widely and about what is happening at a larger level. From a conservation point of view, because the number of lions in Kenya is so low, I have seen that there is a reason for me to protect lions. I couldn’t have taught others from my generation if I didn’t know anything about lions. Lions have created benefits for everyone. Children go to school, and many of them would be sitting at home instead. My warriors who had never been to school now know how to read and write. This is because of lions. It is also good for our project to tell people how few lions we have so that my community wants to work harder at keeping the few lions that we do have alive for cultural reasons.

What role do lions play in the Samburu culture?

It is a very important animal. We believe that if lions are present, there will be no bad droughts. When lions roar in the early morning, we think this is a sign of rain and there will be no drought. Nothing else will give us hope during a drought except a lion’s roar.

We believe we came from the same place as wildlife. Some families belong to the Elephant Family, and some families belong to the Lion Family, called “Lparasoro.” A lion roaring sounds like “L-PA-ra-soro”. Those from the lion family cannot kill lions.

It is a very important animal in our culture due to all the ceremonies we have in our lives. I also believe without lions, there would be no circumcision ceremonies for the warriors. What would happen if we didn’t have lions during our ceremonies?

Also in my culture, if livestock is killed by lions, it means good luck. We should not be stressed if we lose one to lions. The good luck means we will get more livestock in the future. If we have four cows for example, we say one is for a predator, one is for a trench, like if a cow falls in a trench and breaks the leg and dies. One is yours, one is to give to someone like a relative who may not have one. This means if either one of these happened, you should not get angry because it is part of your beliefs.

Photo of lion eye
Lions are very important in Samburu cultural practices. Photo by Ewaso Lions.

As a warrior you would kill lions to prove your manhood. What has changed now? Do warriors still kill lions for cultural reasons?

Because of education, we don’t kill lions like we did before. Kenya Wildlife Service now brings us skins that they already have to use during cultural ceremonies. People are now seeing the benefit of lions so they won’t kill them, and the warriors have seen that they don’t have to kill lions to show their strength.

What do you see as critical to the success of conservation efforts in this area?

Conservation works when we involve and educate the community. I believe that the major challenge for me was lack of education and not understanding the value for having wildlife. It is important to involve all the different demographic groups within the area to show them successful conservation, to show them wildlife positively, and to give them close-up wildlife experiences so they can understand and love wildlife. Many people will tolerate lions, but I believe some will actually love lions. I was a community member like them and now I love lions. Hopefully a quarter or half the population will love lions like I do.

How did you get involved with Ewaso Lions?

I was hired as a Scout in 2008. I went to work early in the morning wearing my green uniform and boots. I really disliked this work. I didn’t like wearing a uniform and felt that it kept me from succeeding in my work by pulling me out from my warrior class. I was unable to interact with my peers because they didn’t see me as a warrior, just as a Scout. I really wanted to become a field person. I didn’t know this at first, but as soon as I came to do fieldwork, I discovered this is really what I wanted to do in my life. I wanted to look for lions and sit with them all day.

Was there a key moment that made you realize that you wanted a change?

One day Shivani took me to Shaba National Reserve, where I had never been before. Seeing this new place and then finally finding lions in Shaba made me more then excited. The work was very hard: standing all day in the back of the bouncing vehicle looking in every single bush. Finally, we found the lions. It made the whole time I was standing feel like nothing. All of a sudden I was not tired. That really clicked in my mind and realized I wanted to be in the field with lions.

We also went to the Maasai Mara and saw a place where the Maasai live. Seeing a population of 100 hyenas and 30 lions in one place was a very good moment for me. I could come back and tell my community, “You guys are joking when you see one lion. Mara has 30 lions in one place”. That was very good.

Jeneria (center) got trained several years ago to use radio telemetry to track collared lions.
Jeneria (center) got trained several years ago to use radio telemetry to track collared lions. Photo by Ewaso Lions.

What does your role as Ewaso Lions Field Operations and Community Manager involve? Could you describe a typical day in the life of Jeneria?

My day-to-day role is to do lion monitoring. This is my favorite work. I locate the lions within our study area and then sit in the vehicle next to them. I like to understand their movements so we can control conflict with humans. Understanding lions’ movements can keep them from being killed by the community. I also work with my warrior team to coordinate their work based on the movements of the lions.

If there is anything to do with the community that is related to the lions it becomes another job of mine. I deal with conflict, hold meetings and much more.

Photo of warriors watching lion from Land Cruiser.
Jeneria and his field team monitoring lions in Samburu. Photo by Ewaso Lions.

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Being passionate about lions when I sit with them is very rewarding. I feel like lions are my friends or relatives. I didn’t think I would become like that. Even when I am home and not in the field I am asking about the lions on my phone. I am also very proud of Ewaso Lions, especially seeing how the warriors on our team speak in front of the community about conservation and change people’s views about lions. This is something I did not believe I could achieve.

What do you find is the most challenging aspect of your work?

Dealing with [human-lion] conflict issues is the most challenging thing ever. You have to make sure you are there at the right place at the right time, before people go after the lions and kill them. Or you have to go to a meeting and talk to very angry people who have lost many livestock to lions. People want to kill me then because of their anger. During the drought, it is also difficult to see livestock and wildlife dying. I feel the real struggles of livestock and people.

Photo of men assembling Lion Lights.
Jeneria (white shirt) helps set up Lion Lights to protect cows from lion attacks, which reduces the likelihood of retaliatory killing. Photo by Ewaso Lions.

What has been your proudest moment since you started working for Ewaso Lions in 2008?

I am very proud of myself for identifying individual lions and knowing them all. I am so proud to see how I can go to the community and they will listen to me. Before, I was a random warrior running around and no one would listen to me. Now I can change people’s attitudes towards lions. I am proud of how far I have come. I am also so proud to see how many people I have changed – people who hate lions, who now don’t hate them. Calming down a very angry person and convincing them not to kill a lion makes me happy. I am also proud how we involve all the demographic groups – from not only warriors, but also elders, mamas and kids.

Stay tuned for Part 2

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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.