The chief sat in the shade on a plastic chair that his wives had brought from inside. He was dressed to go out, with his wooden accoutrements– the herding stick and club that every Maasai man usually carries – were laid across his knees. His truck’s engine was running on the other side of our worksite, but the chief was making no move to leave, his business in the communities surrounding Maasai Mara temporarily forgotten.
I sat with him, trying to force small talk or at least to make him to smile. A couple of times, I got him to glance over at me, grudgingly and out of politeness I think, but he certainly did not smile. The chief is a serious man. And he was more interested in watching the work unfolding in front of us than in indulging my broken Swahili.
Out in the sunlight, the Anne K. Taylor Fund (AKTF) Boma Team was starting to tighten the first line of high-tensile fencing wire around the new boma we were building for the stoic chief. We were debuting a new design, one using metal corner posts and mechanically stretched wire, and, as the Project Manager, I was anxious to do it well.
Since 2008, AKTF has been fortifying traditional livestock enclosures (bomas) around Maasai Mara using chain-link fencing hung on wooden palisades. The idea was – and still is, as with all NatGeo’s Build A Boma projects – to help change the way herders protect their livestock. Instead of having the Maasai exterminate predators on the landscape, AKTF is working to create predator-proof spaces within the landscape in which the Maasai herds can safely live.
However, the thorny sticks and logs that comprise the wooden skeletons of those traditional bomas eventually become brittle, cracked, and eaten by termites. Leopards take advantage of those deteriorating structures by nimbly scaling inward-leaning posts, while lions like to wait beyond a fence and scare the cows into stampeding out through is weakened walls. Historically, obsolescence didn’t bother the nomadic Maasai, since they would usually be shifting out of the area before the fences became too weak; they’d build new ones wherever they moved. At least in the areas in which AKTF operates, such transience is no longer the modus operandi.
Because of the maintenance issues with wooden bomas, and even more because of the high rate of deforestation around the Mara, we at AKTF have been exploring affordable boma designs that use less material than traditional bomas and require little maintenance. In doing that, we have found that we can actually also increase our bomas’ strength.
The new design looks like this: steel corners manufactured locally and set in concrete; high tensile wire mechanically stretched between those; a sturdy door secured in a steel frame; and chain-link mesh wrapped around it all. It will be strong enough to keep cows from stampeding out, raised tall enough to deter hungry predators climbing in, and buried deep enough to keep them from digging under. These are standard fence-building techniques used around the world, but as far as we know the principles have never been applied to herding in Maasai Mara. It’s a design for permanent structures that are much closer to the ideal: truly predator-proof bomas.
In the days prior to our launch at the chief’s, the Boma Team had been practicing the separate elements of the new boma design: mixing the right ratios of cement, sand, and rock to make concrete strong enough to anchor the corner posts under tension; welding supports to the corners in the right places and at the proper angles; and straining wire against those corners. But that day on the site was the first time we were putting it all together. And doing so under the stern eye of the chief, I was antsy to see how the crew would perform. Minor inefficiencies were to be expected as we figured out the best order of operations, but there were also some major things that could go wrong.
If the concrete had not fully set, the immense tension we were applying against the steel corner posts could crack their footings; in our practice sessions we actually did that several times before we figured out which local materials work best to mix in with cement to make stable concrete. Or, if the dirt-to-decomposing-manure ratio is too low on the site, even properly set concrete can pull out when under tension.
Assuming the concrete bases were fine, the steel posts themselves might flex and bend if put under too much pressure. The corners are tripods with crossbeams welded between the legs to give them enough rigidity to support all the wire we intend to hang on them. But if we’d miscalculated the angle or placement of the supports, the main corner could flex as the weight and strain of the fence pulls them inwards. The posts would remain strong, but the fence itself could loosen and sag and the doorframe could warp and jam.
Trying to ease some of the nervousness I felt as I watched the crew deliberately check the concrete between their cautious pulls on the wire-tensioning tool, I attempted to explain to the chief all those things that could go wrong and why.
“If that happens, it probably means these men are just too strong,” I said, with weak enthusiasm, still trying for that smile from the chief.
Slowly, he turned to look at me, eyes impassive, and then turned away again. He clearly did not want to dwell on what things might befall his investment. He had paid for half of the materials and provided the sand and rocks for the concrete, while the rest of the materials and labor are donated by AKTF through grants from NatGeo’s Big Cat Initiative and Eden Wildlife Trust. Sharing the costs like that allows landowners to afford protection that they might not otherwise be able to; and because the remaining cost for the landowner is not insignificant, it assures AKTF that the owners will feel attached to their new boma and will maintain it accordingly.
As the day progressed, my anxiety melted into elation. Our Boma Team laid one row of wire after another around the steel corners, each with the perfect amount of tension to provide taut strength to the fence, but not so much that it loosened the other wires on the post. And the posts stood straight and firm in their concrete footings, no cracking or sliding. Before the chief’s eyes and mine rose exactly what he had paid for, exactly what AKTF had promised: a predator-proof boma with staying power.
Once the chain-link mesh was pulled tight around the structure, fastened with binding wire, and buried a foot into the ground, I realized that we had done it. Or rather, we had just begun it: thanks to support from the Big Cat Initiative, we would be able to build a lot more bomas like the chief’s, protecting thousands of animals from predators, and keeping the predators themselves safe from the consequences of attacking livestock.
As the crew loaded gear back into our truck, the chief stood up, shook my hand, and said simply, finally, “Good.”