A week has passed since lions of the Marsh Pride were poisoned in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. The perpetrators are currently in custody, awaiting trial and sentencing, and they will hopefully serve as examples to others who would break the law. Are these reactive measures enough, though, to protect lions and other wildlife in the region’s future?
(Above: AKTF Anti-Poaching Team member dissuading Maasai ‘morans’ who have lost a cow from retaliating against lions.)
Currently there are loud local voices calling out for the release of the Marsh Pride poisoners, claiming that any Maasai has the right to retaliate if his herd is threatened. It is of course understandable, since cows are central to Maasai culture and the foundation of their traditional livelihoods, that local herders will be upset when losing their livestock to predators. However, poisoning, spearing, or shooting lions is not the answer. Killing big cats is not only illegal – both inside and outside of protected areas – but it also threatens to ruin the livelihoods of countless other people, not just the handful of herders that lost cows. Specifically, thousands of Maasai rely on jobs created by the tourism industry, and they and their families benefit from the schools, health clinics, wells, roads, and other services that revenue from a healthy Mara Ecosystem makes possible. Lions are a main attraction in Maasai Mara, and their disappearance could spell disaster for the entire local economy if tourists take their safaris elsewhere.
In the same vein, it should be noted that boycotting Kenya (as some outsiders have called for) in response to the Marsh Pride tragedy is as wrongheaded as killing lions in retaliation for livestock loss. In fact, nothing could put the animals and landscapes of Maasai Mara in more immediate danger. Without the park entrance fees that visitors pay and the rents levied from safari lodges – grossing billions of dollars each year – there would be no money to pay for the management approaches that actually do work in protecting the Mara Ecosystem.
(Above: The AKTF Anti-Poaching Team and Mara Conservancy Rangers patrol for poachers and illegal herders in the Mara Triangle.)
For an example of excellent management in the region, look no further than the Mara Triangle Conservancy, managed by the Mara Conservancy. There, at the tip of the Serengeti Ecosystem, staggering numbers of elephants, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, hippos – and of course lions – populate the rolling hills of long grasses and iconic acacia trees; it’s the kind of scenery one expects from a classic East African safari. The Mara Conservancy has been so successful at preserving this spectacular landscape for one reason in particular: law enforcement.
(Above: The AKTF Anti-Poaching Team and Mara Conservancy Rangers regularly confiscate cows and arrest illegal herders inside the Mara Triangle.)
The Mara Conservancy, in collaboration with the Anne K. Taylor Fund (AKTF) and General Service Units, constantly patrols the Mara Triangle to preserve its pristine condition. Teams of rangers, scouts, and law enforcement officers comb the Mara Triangle and its boundaries for poachers and their wildlife traps, as well as for illegally grazing livestock; they regularly arrest herders attempting to sneak their herds into the park and confiscate their cows, which are then held until the owner pays a fine. Inside the Triangle, Mara Conservancy rangers are so dedicated to creating a sanctuary for animals free of human harassment that they even strictly enforce limits on the number of tourist vehicles that can congregate near wildlife. Similarly, luxury safari accommodations are carefully hidden in the small forests that dot the Mara Triangle, and the development of more lodges has been regulated so that the vast plains remain free of visible human development.
In addition to actively patrolling inside of protected areas, AKTF and Mara Conservancy cooperate to indirectly protect the Mara Triangle by maintaining positive relationships with the communities that surround it. We build and support local schools; guide herders through the bureaucracy of livestock compensation requests; and, in partnership with National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative and Eden Wildlife Trust, provide predator-proof bomas (livestock enclosures) to herders, which can reduce instances of conflict between humans and predators as much as 96%. The positive relationships we maintain with the Maasai community have also resulted in our ability to obtain insider information from concerned locals about threats to wildlife. In 2015, the AKTF anti-poaching team and Mara Conservancy rangers were able to respond to and avert 100% of the alerts we received about impending lion hunts.
Unfortunately, some attacks on lions occur before the community can warn local law enforcement agencies, as was the case in the Marsh Pride tragedy. Though the perpetrators poisoned those lions out of angry and selfish motives — and were likely the pawns of more powerful local cattle barons — it would be unfair to let a few outliers give the entire Maasai people a bad name. In fact, three different chiefs across the Mara have vocally taken the position that “the criminals must face the law.” Additionally, there are many passionate local Maasai conservationists who are proactively protecting their ecosystem through their own organizations, recognizing that the land and animals of Maasai Mara belong not just to them, but to all the people of Kenya as well. Hopefully in the future, entire local communities will be able mobilize themselves as unified wholes to aid in the preservation of this amazing ecosystem.
(Above: AKTF and the Mara Conservancy on patrol.)
The results of a dedication to proactive law enforcement, management, and procuring community support are immediately apparent when you step foot in the pristine Mara Triangle. The ability for the Mara Conservancy, though, to pay and train rangers to patrol the park, to fuel vehicles to chase poachers and illegal herders, to build proper roads that avoid degrading the land, or to accomplish any of the other actions that keep the Mara Triangle in such beautiful condition are intricately tied to tourism money. Beyond just prosecuting those who are caught poisoning lions, the survival of the Mara Ecosystem and the Maasai people relies on tourists continuing to visit Maasai Mara, and the land management agencies in the region actually reinvesting that revenue back into community development, especially law enforcement. If either side of this equation disappears, the other will follow, and the wild animals of Maasai Mara will suffer.