By JOE KIARIE
As three Maasai morans mauled by lions in Loitoktok last Thursday fight for dear life, some of their colleagues in the Amboseli ecosystem could be shaking their heads in utter incredulity. By executing one of the lions that had killed a cow in the Kuku Group Ranch, the morans added one more statistic to familiar scenes that have seen the lion population in Africa drop from over 200, 000 to about 30, 000 today.
But across the plains in the Amboseli and some other parts of the country, the lions are strangely savouring a new lease of life courtesy of their traditional nemesis – the morans. This has been made possible by diverse tradition-inspired programmes aimed at saving the lion population.
Among them is the Lion Guardians Project that covers parts of the Amboseli. Since its inception in 2007, the programme’s innovative knit of traditional knowledge with modern scientific techniques has helped protect lions by using the morans to conserve rather than kill.
This wildlife-conservation concept that was initiated by biologist Leela Hazzah, is stunning in its simplicity. It basically involves having well-respected morans, called the lion guardians, to monitor lions and other carnivores, aid local communities by informing herders when to avoid areas where lions are spotted. It also helps improve livestock enclosures (bomas) and helping herders find lost livestock that strays into the bush. They also report suspected poachers to the authorities and provide education about the importance of lions and their conservation.
Skilled field biologists
Interestingly, the guardians have been trained into skilled field biologists and the subsequent bond between them and professional scientists have helped effectively monitor and protect lions in over 1, 500 square miles of wilderness.
On the ground, each of the lion guardians across the vast ecosystem plays an essential role in monitoring carnivores. They conduct weekly surveys for density of predators and their prey, monitor lions in their areas using GPS units and telemetry receivers, and assist in lion hair and scat collection for DNA analysis. Most of the lions are fitted with VHF collars that transmit a radio signal that can be picked up with a hand-held receiver connected to a directional antenna. This helps track their exact movement. In case a radio-collared lion recurrently visits bomas at night, the lion guardians use radio telemetry as a tool to caution fellow villagers of the looming conflict.
Each of the morans also has a cell phone used to report any sightings of lions or illegal undertakings. The guardians have given all the lions in the area Maasai names. This personalising of each lion has significantly amplified lion awareness.
Ostensibly, some of the guardians have notorious records when it comes to lion hunting. Top of the list is Mr Olubi Lairumbe, who killed seven lions before becoming a guardian. Among his victims was a female that was pregnant with five cubs, an incident he still regrets. Others include Mr Masarie Ologela, who had killed two lions by the time he joined the programme as well as Kapande Narok, who had been to numerous lion hunts before eventually downing a male lion.
With the guardians being natives of the communities in which they work, and being older morans who have killed lions in the past, they are highly revered by their communities and this allows them to effortlessly calm tense situations every time irate warriors seek vengeance for their dead livestock. In total, there are 30 lion guardians, each of whom covers about 100sqkms. Apparently, no lion killings have been recorded in over five years in areas where the guardians operate. But during the same period, a total of 63 lions have been speared or poisoned to death in neighbouring areas of the ecosystem where the trained morans are yet to be deployed. When it comes to keeping lions off the bomas (thornbush corrals), the morans usually work together with the boma owners and the local community to reinforce them to prevent nocturnal predator invasions.
Last year, the lion guardians reinforced a total of 244 bomas with a 99 percent success rate in locking out lions. The training of the morans in tracking lost livestock that would often be killed by predators if not found, has also been effective. In 2010 and last year, they helped find 12,285 head of lost livestock out of a total of 14,805 reported to them. This marked an 86 per cent recovery rate, saving the community an estimated Sh9million worth of assets.
The programme started in the Mbirikani Group Ranch in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem but has since been extended to the Eselenkei and Olgulului ranches in the same ecosystem with tens of guardians involved. With the programme having thrived in the Amboseli, Hazzah, 32, now plans to extend it to human-carnivore conflict hotspots in the Masai Mara game reserve and parts of Nairobi. Across the border in Tanzania, targeted areas include the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, West Kilimanjaro as well as the area around Ruaha National Park. Equally successful programmes have been established across various ecosystems by Living With Lions, the mother organisation that paved way for the Lion Guardians and other programmes.
Maintaining good bomas
Living With Lions started in Laikipia in 1997 before expanding to the Amboseli region in 2004 and the Mara region in 2008. Dr Laurence Frank, the organisation’s director, says early research showed that ancient traditional methods used by the Maasai, Samburu, Turkana and other pastoralists actually work well to protect livestock from lions and hyenas.
“However, as the predators were killed off in some areas and cattle theft was suppressed by Government, people started becoming lax about maintaining good bomas and started sending children rather than morans out to watch the livestock during the day. Proper cattle protection became even less important when people started poisoning predators on a wide scale,” he states.
Frank says it is for this reason that they decided to implement these traditional protection methods where lions and hyenas still exist. The director says the Lion Guardian programme is popular locally and has expanded four times as communities learned of it and requested it in their own areas.
“The programme is very effective at helping people avoid losing livestock to predators, as well as providing jobs for young men who have had no education. The lion guardians have also been central to our efforts to learn more about the lions of the Amboseli region, as they are exceptional field biologist,” he notes.
Frank adds the main problem behind human-wildlife conflict in Kenya is that local communities surrounding parks have little financial incentive to maintain wildlife, as most people are not able to earn money from wild animals. “I feel that Kenya requires a basic restructuring of tourism income so that local communities are able to gain real benefits from wildlife,” he advises. But with lion killing still rampant in many areas, he says the approach of encouraging traditional methods should be applied almost anywhere where there is wildlife. “KWS may also need to start actively managing the lion population in Nairobi National Park, and pastoralists living near the park should be encouraged and perhaps assisted to build good strong bomas, of the sort that have been developed in Laikipia and the Mara region,’ he states.
Other programmes that have helped save carnivores include the Mara Predator Project, the Laikipia Predator Project, the Amboseli Predator Project, the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project, Panthera, and the Born Free Foundation. Kenya Wildlife Service Corporate Communications Manager, Paul Udoto, says these projects are vital in lion conservation.
“Lions often attack livestock and need a lot of understanding from the local communities if they are to survive. These organisations have really helped in the community outreach aspect. The projects are the future of lions in Kenya,” he notes. The manager says the groups, which work in partnership with KWS, have been providing critical input in policy formulation and implementation and are a key component in lion conservation.