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Kenya’s Famous Marsh Pride Lions Poisoned

More famous lions have just been pointlessly killed in Africa, this time in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. The details of the tragedy have been wonderfully documented by Jonathan Scott and National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch, but here are the basics: the lions of the Marsh Pride, stars of BBC’s Big Cat Diary since 1996, allegedly...

More famous lions have just been pointlessly killed in Africa, this time in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. The details of the tragedy have been wonderfully documented by Jonathan Scott and National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch, but here are the basics: the lions of the Marsh Pride, stars of BBC’s Big Cat Diary since 1996, allegedly attacked a local herder’s cows; the cattle owners took revenge by lacing a carcass with poison and leaving if for the lions to find later. This was Sunday. One lioness named Bibi has succumbed (above), and a second well-loved lioness named Siena is missing and presumed dead; several others are improving under the supervision of Dr. Limo from Kenya Wildlife Service and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Killing lions is illegal, but poisoning is especially heinous, as it cascades havoc down the food chain; for example, at least six black-and-white-backed vultures are dead from feeding on the toxic carcasses.

Dead white backed Vulture 1

(Above: Black-and-white backed vultures are also dying from the poisoned attack on the Marsh Pride)

There is a readily given reason, of course, that people kill lions like this. The loss of cattle is a significant threat to local herders’ livelihoods, and one of the quickest ways to ensure cattle’s survival is to eliminate predators from the landscape. However, this is an incomplete justification given the legal, cultural, and economic factors contributing to human-wildlife conflict in Maasai Mara, all of which must be considered in the dialogue surrounding the Marsh Pride tragedy.

Why are lions killing cows in the first place? It seems like a fairly straightforward question, with a simple answer: because cows are prey for lions. Certainly this is true. But what of the millions of other ungulate prey species that lions have been eating for almost a million years? Drive along the border of Maasai Mara National Reserve at sunset and you will have the answer. There, young men emerge from temporary shelters just meters from the park boundary, stretching and yawning, about to begin their “day” of illegally herding livestock into the Reserve. Under the cover of darkness, these men usher tens of thousands of cows across the fenceless line that nominally protects an expanse of rolling hills covered in long grasses – the same kind of habitat that once existed throughout the entire Mara before overgrazing herds nibbled all vegetation to the dirt. Many parts of the Reserve are now just dry, bare earth. With nothing remaining for them to eat, the masses of zebra, wildebeest, eland, and others leave the Mara to look elsewhere for food, and the resident lions turn to hunting cows.

Marsh sub male has been darted with anti inflamatory and Atropine

(Above: KWS and David Sheldrick Wildlife veterinarians dart and treat a poisoned sub-adult male from the Marsh Pride.)

Herders didn’t always encroach on the Reserve. The lands buffering the protected area used to be just as lush and so full of charismatic wildlife that the Maasai created a patchwork of local conservancies to bring in even more tourism money from game drives and safari lodges. They traded restricted grazing rights on these lands for significant stipends, schools, clinics, wells, and other community development projects, not to mention the jobs that increased tourism brings. When added to the revenue from Maasai Mara National Reserve, this community-based conservation is a model for a stable, sustainable local economy that reduces reliance on cows. But there is a hitch: with all of the rent money received from the conservancies, local herders proceed to buy more cows. Simply put, they increase their herds as their pasture dwindles.

On this backdrop, conflict with lions is inevitable, and a lot of work goes into mitigating the resulting friction. Organizations like the Anne K. Taylor Fund in partnership with National Geographic and local herders have been installing predator-proof bomas around Maasai Mara to keep lions away from livestock, especially at night. These fortifications are at least 95% successful at averting human-wildlife conflict, but only when used properly: that is, these fences can protect cows, but clearly not when the animals are taken from them and led into the heart of lion territory every night.

As another human-wildlife conflict mitigation strategy, some local conservancies and organizations offer compensation to livestock owners who have lost animals to predators. The idea is to dissuade herders from taking the law into their own hands and bending it for their immediate, individual benefit. But there are currently issues with this approach as well. Applications for compensation may get stuck in the bureaucratic process for longer than an owner is willing to wait, or the owner may not be eligible for compensation if cattle are lost while trespassing on protected lands or while under the inadequate supervision of a young child, which is typical. The herders that poisoned the Marsh Pride did so because their cows were eaten inside the Reserve, which does not compensate predation in any case and which would have instead prosecuted them for trespassing if they had reported their losses.

In places like Zimbabwe, the legality of lion killing is grey: for example, earlier this year the famous Cecil was illegally lured out of a protected area and shot on a legal permit. However, in Kenya, killing lions is categorically outlawed, and carries with it a hefty fine and jail sentence. The herders suspected of poisoning the Marsh Pride are currently being prosecuted in Narok, the Mara’s capital, and the world is looking on to see if the Maasai will actually punish their own. Hopefully, the verdict will also consider whether these herders were acting on behalf of their own property, or whether they were in fact the pawns of more powerful cattle barons who can just hire more hands to carry out their future incursions into the Reserve.

While it is crucial that justice is served for those who broke the law and poisoned the Marsh Pride lions, much of the outrage already voiced over the tragedy also calls for more proactive enforcement of the extant laws. Primarily, people are asking why cows are not being consistently kept out of the Reserve, and why the revenue from the Reserve – the incentive that makes conservation in the Mara worthwhile to the Maasai – is not properly trickling down to the community members. There are not yet any satisfactory answers to these questions. If this tragedy and the ensuing trial do not galvanize significant action beyond punishing the direct perpetrators, it will be an opportunity missed, and the Marsh Pride will have been sacrificed for very little.

Marsh Male Red at Bila shaka

(Above: Marsh male Red at Bila Shaka in Maasai Mara National Reserve)

The word ‘corruption’ is often thrown around in Kenya as a nebulous culprit in situations like this, and ‘working together’ is often touted as a similarly vague remedy. To make it more specific, though: real change is going to happen when everyone from high level politicians redistributing revenue, to officers mandated to enforce laws without exception, to local herders deciding whether or not to sneak into the Reserve, consistently consider the good of the community over their own immediate, personal gains. Because, if the Mara ecosystem loses its lions or disintegrates entirely, the tourism economy that provides jobs, schools, health centers, wells, and other services for the local people will crumble as well. Do we really have to wait until the Reserve is finally as degraded as the surrounding areas to appreciate how valuable it is, and how much people need its lions?

(Photo credit: Patrick N. Reynolds)

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