25 Mar

How Long Will the Lions Roar?


By Anthony Ham – The Age

When Kamunu Saitoti heard that Nosieki the lioness had been killed, he wept. Saitoti is a young Maasai warrior (murran) in southern Kenya, and for centuries his people have killed lions, doing so to prove their bravery and their readiness to protect their communities. Killing lions is a rite of passage, a cornerstone of Maasai identity. It is also one of Africa's oldest battles. The other reason why the Maasai kill lions - is more prosaic: an eye for an eye. This, too, is one of the immutable laws of the African wild whenever predators and human beings come into conflict. It is also precisely why Nosieki had been poisoned - a Maasai cow had been killed by a predator and the Maasai wanted revenge.

There was a time when Saitoti would have led the hunt for a cattle-killing lion. He was, after all, one of the most famous lion killers in southern Kenya. He had killed five lions, among them Nosieki's mother. But this wasn't how the story was supposed to end. For almost five years Saitoti had been Nosieki's protector. How this came to be so, Nosieki's tragic death notwithstanding, is one of Africa's more hopeful tales. Lions are in danger of becoming extinct. A century ago, there were close to 1 million lions in Africa and there are now fewer than 30,000. Indeed, one recent estimate suggests that as few as 15,000 may survive. Even this lower figure may sound like a lot of lions - there are around 4000 tigers and fewer than 700 eastern mountain gorillas.

But according to the leading cat conservation organisation Panthera, only six lion populations in Africa - all in east and southern Africa - are viable in the long term. All other populations, small islands in a sea of humanity, may simply be too small and too isolated to survive for long. In Kenya, barely 2000 lions remain, although Dr Laurence Frank, Kenya's foremost lion expert, says this oft-cited figure ''could be over-optimistic by a factor of two''. More than that, perhaps three-quarters of Kenya's lions live in human-dominated lands beyond the boundaries of protected areas.

The story of Saitoti and Nosieki played out in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, close to Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. In the Amboseli ecosystem, only 10 per cent of which lies within the park with the rest made up of communally owned Maasai lands, the population figures are Kenya in microcosm: approximately 75 lions live alongside 35,000 Maasai and close to 2 million head of livestock.

Mokoi, one of the Lion Guardians involved in a search and rescue from 2012, carrying a lost calf back to its owner. Read the full story here.

For all the revenge and right-of-passage killings, the Maasai and the lions that live among them have traditionally lived in relative harmony; lions killed few head of cattle and lion hunts had little overall impact on lion numbers. But Kenya's human population was one of the fastest growing on earth during the second half of the 20th century. By the 1990s, forced into ever-closer proximity with the Maasai, the lions of Amboseli had become habitual stock raiders and the Maasai began to slaughter the lions in record numbers; by 1993, local warriors had wiped out the lions inside Amboseli National Park. Beyond the park, 90 lions were killed in the five years to 2005. In 2006, 42 lions were speared or poisoned to death. One of those was Nosieki's mother.

''I was tracking my lost cows in the bush and I came across lion tracks,'' Saitoti says as we sit in the dust of Amboseli. ''Immediately I knew the lions must have eaten my cows. I was very upset and wanted to kill the lion to prove to everyone that it ate my cow. Although I know I shouldn't since I was released from jail only three months before, I was angry. I followed the lion tracks until I saw a group of females … they looked fat! I hid behind a tree and once they went to sleep I speared one of them and watched it die. I took my blade and cut open the stomach to prove that my cow was indeed eaten. I was shocked. There was nothing in her stomach. I felt both angry and sad. From that moment on, I knew I could not kill another lion. It was a waste.''

It was also in 2006 that Dr Leela Hazzah, a young Egyptian-American conservation biologist, arrived on the scene. After a year spent living among the Maasai she emerged with a plan to save the lions of Amboseli: she gave Maasai warriors who once killed lions responsibility for saving them. The first five Lion Guardians, as she called them, began work in early 2007, with each former warrior responsible for around 100 square kilometres. Six years later, 40 Lion Guardians now patrol 4200 square kilometres. Lion Guardians track lion movements and warn herders which areas to avoid; they also reinforce Maasai bomas (livestock corrals) and bring home herders and livestock lost in the bush.

Read the full article to learn more about the Panthera-supported Lion Guardians Program and what Panthera's President, Dr. Luke Hunter, had to say about the program as a lion conservation model.