It has been all over the news recently – every headline painting a grim future for wild lions, a future where they could potentially disappear completely. According to a recent study, lion populations in West, Central and East Africa are likely to drop by 50% in the next twenty years. But the continuing cub boom and growing lion population in the community lands that surround Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, paint a different and more hopeful picture. Over the last decade, scientists and researchers have documented a tripling in the lion population density and a greater than 90% reduction in retaliatory killing of lions. In short, a conservation success story.
Key to this success story is the active involvement of local communities who derive socio-economic benefits by leading conservation efforts to protect lions. Local Maasai warriors have partnered with scientists Leela Hazzah and Stephanie Dolrenry to form the conservation organization Lion Guardians that, together with the anti-poaching organization Big Life, have made a significant contribution to saving lions in the area.
Roughly a decade ago a group of Maasai warriors expressed to Leela and Stephanie who were working to conserve lions in the region that they (the warriors) were best placed to protect lions. They had the knowledge and ability to track lions, but they were also the one’s actually killing them.
Leela and Stephanie were unclear whether this concept would work – the warriors had never been to school or held paying jobs. To build their capacity to monitor lions and mitigate conflicts with communities they would need to be taught to read and write. Most importantly, the warriors’ perceptions needed to shift; the warriors had to see themselves as guardians of the lion and no longer as its enemy.
Historically, the Maasai and the lion share a complicated relationship, one that is peppered with mutual respect and dislike in almost equal measure. Lions are both a source of anxiety, because they kill livestock, and a source of pride, as they symbolize strength and courage, so much so, that the first warrior to spear a lion is given a “lion name”. It was like this for Miterienanka (lion name meaning “one who is always first”). His family is particularly skilled at killing lions, with his father having killed seven and Miteriananka, himself having killed eight before he became a Guardian. It was after he had killed his last lion that he was arrested and jailed. Sitting in a dark cell unable to protect his precious cows, Mitierienanka realized that killing lions in retaliation was actually hurting his family; especially when his father had to sell two precious cows to get him released. When he walked out of jail, Leela approached him to work for Lion Guardians, a then fledgling operation.
Today, he is a Regional Coordinator who oversees a team of Guardians in one of the program’s core areas, Eselenkei Group Ranch, in addition to monitoring lions and stopping his fellow warriors from going on hunts. “The Lion Guardians program has brought peace between the Maasai and the lions,” he says.
Over the years, many other warriors have proven themselves capable of making this shift and transforming their traditional adversarial relationship with lions to one that is mutually beneficial. The Guardians work in critical lion habitats to conserve lions by engaging communities in conservation and integrating traditional ecological knowledge with modern science.
While it is abundantly clear that the fate of the lion across its rangelands hangs in a very delicate balance, we also know there is a glimmer of hope for the survival of the lion in many areas, beyond fencing them and managing them intensively. The Maasai of southern Kenya have shown us that coexistence is possible; all we have to do is follow their lead and share the knowledge they have shared with us.
From the furor over Cecil’s death to the recent news headlines about lion population declines, 2015 has been year of awakening to the plight of the lion. None of us can or want to imagine a world without these majestic and courageous creatures. Let’s use this awareness, together with the hope and knowledge that success is possible, to turn the tide and lead the way forward to sustainable and measurable impacts in lion conservation.
Salisha Chandra is the communications manager for Lion Guardians.