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Guarding the predators

Former Maasai warriors work to protect lions in Africa

June 27, 2012

Maasai warriors in eastern Africa have set down their spears and turned their efforts to protecting lions instead of killing them.

Once seen as a rite of passage for the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people in Kenya and Tanzania, traditional lion hunting has come under increasing international pressure as animal numbers have plummeted from an estimated 400,000 lions in 1950 to fewer than 30,000 today.

A lion guardian in Kenya
Many lion guardians are past lion killers. They apply
traditional tracking skills to their new roles as
lion protectors. Photo credit Philip J. Briggs.

With a growing human population and a greater demand for land and resources in eastern Africa, the declining lion population faces an uncertain future. In addition to loss of habitat, closer proximity to human communities has resulted in retaliatory attacks for livestock deaths.

People are the lions' main threat, but many Maasai are no longer lion killers, instead gaining status as "lion guardians," thanks to an innovative program led by Nelson Institute alumna Leela Hazzah.

In 2007, as part of her master's research, Hazzah founded a program called Lion Guardians in collaboration with Living with Lions, a conservation research group based in Kenya, and local Maasai communities.

Hazzah, who earned a master's degree in the Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development program in 2007 and a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources in 2011, envisioned a program that would protect lions and increase the livelihoods of the Maasai.

Stephanie Dolrenry, a Ph.D. candidate in the Nelson Institute Environment and Resources program, serves as the program's director of biology.

"Human population is exploding, particularly across Africa," Dolrenry explains. "With more people, there's less habitat for the lions and there's more livestock. The pressure on all sides is increasing, leading to more conflict and fewer wild areas for the lions to be lions."

Since the beginning of Maasai culture, lions have been a symbol of pride and the target of traditional rituals. Killing a lion brings a Maasai warrior lifelong honor. In addition, lions are a considerable source of anxiety. They threaten the communal livelihood by killing livestock, which often leads to retaliation.

"The pressure on all
sides is increasing,
leading to more conflict
and fewer wild areas for
the lions to be lions."

Lion Guardians aims to end lion hunts and retaliatory killings by placing guardians in areas where lions are present or conflicts have been frequent.

When Hazzah and Dolrenry first began doing lion research in southwestern Kenya, they found that incorporating communities into lion monitoring would greatly increase their success.

"We came to realize that these warriors have been living with lions for centuries," Dolrenry says. "They grow up tracking and hunting them; they know them much better than we ever could."

Basing the program on cultural values and traditional knowledge about the environment, infusing it with modern scientific techniques and tying it to Maasai wellbeing has created a sustainable conservation program that the community has embraced full force.

"We have transformed past lion killers into lion guardians who are not only protecting lions but also protecting their community using tradition-based mitigation techniques," says Hazzah. "The program is rooted in Maasai cultural values, which drive the program."

It has also provided the Maasai with rare job opportunities. According to Dolrenry, warriors have always been underrepresented in the community. Maasai culture is broken into age sets, oftentimes leaving the young warriors out of decisions and opportunities. When Hazzah and Dolrenry brought the project to Maasailand, the warriors were given a chance at jobs.

"If there are lions, there are jobs for the warriors," says Dolrenry. "They were really excited when this program started because it was their job, they belonged, and they really value that."

By hiring warriors to track lions, Lion Guardians provides them a chance to stay in their community instead of having to leave to find jobs.

In addition to tracking, the newly hired lion protectors are trained in a variety of tasks, including lion monitoring, improving livestock corrals, finding lost livestock, deterring their neighbors from carrying out lion hunts, and educating their communities on the importance of conservation.

"In Maasai culture, warriors are the army and defense of the community. Traditionally, they help people find lost livestock and help people build up bomas, or livestock corrals," explains Dolrenry. "We're essentially hiring them to do what they always would have done."

When it comes to
stopping lion hunts
before they start, the
lion guardians have
an advantage.

Guardians conduct weekly surveys to measure lion density in their areas. They also track lions, using radio transmissions to locate collared animals, and they collect hair and scat for DNA analyses. Lion monitoring provides key information about the lions' social structure, reproduction, mortality rates and feeding ecology.

Together, the guardians and Dolrenry tranquilize selected lions, particularly those causing problems at bomas, photograph them, and fit them with a collar containing a GPS unit. Having individual lions collared allows the guardians and biologists to identify and monitor collared lions and any associated lions, combining traditional knowledge with up-to-date scientific methodology.

"The warriors love it. They have killed in the past for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they are fascinated by lions," says Dolrenry. "They say the best part of killing a lion is that they get to touch it, but [then] it doesn't walk away again. In this case, they name it, it gets up and walks away, but it's still their lion."

Monitoring also allows the guardians to track lions and alert herders of the possibility of livestock loss. If a lion repeatedly goes to a boma, a guardian will look for signals until the threat has passed.

"If they get a signal, they wake up the community, build fires and bang pots and pans," Dolrenry says. "It scares the lion away before it goes into the boma; it is proactive conflict mitigation."

The guardians also help herders reinforce the corrals, further protecting their livestock from large predators. When livestock do go astray, the guardians help herders search for the lost animals.

When it comes to stopping lion hunts before they start, the lion guardians have an advantage. Many of them are past lion killers, making them highly respected among the young men in their community. Because of this prestige, the guardians are usually able to dissuade their age-mates from wanting to kill lions.

The program has found other non-lethal ways to utilize the prestige formerly associated with lion killing.

Traditionally, the first Maasai warrior to kill a lion is given a lion name by his peers. The name incorporates characteristics of the warrior and the lion he killed. When warriors began protecting lions, they adapted this practice to their new roles.

Leela Hazzah of Lion Guardians with St. Andrews prize
Hazzah accepts the St Andrews
Prize. Photo: Alan Richardson

"When lion guardians started monitoring lions in their area, they began to give the animals names that describe the personality of the lion," says Hazzah. "For example 'Lomanyuk,' or 'lucky one,' because so many warriors tried to kill him but he always got away."

The personalization of a lion not only gives the guardians the same kind of respect they had when they were lion hunters. It also deters communities from killing the animal, making the lion part of their community.

"Lion guardians love these lions," Dolrenry explains. "They are so excited about birth in this population and watching the lions grow. Previously, that was unheard of. They value these lions because they're individuals; they all have a story behind them."

Since the creation of the program in 2007, no lions have been killed for retaliatory or traditional reasons where lion guardians are present. The lion population in the area is rebounding and is home to more than 60 adults and 54 cubs. The guardians have found 86 percent of lost livestock (totaling 12,285 livestock) and reinforced more than 500 bomas, 95 percent of which reported no more lion break-ins.

The program has been so successful that it received this year's St. Andrews Prize for the Environment, an environmental initiative from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the international energy company ConocoPhillips. The award includes $100,000 that will help support the program in its future endeavors.

"This money will cover the core costs of the program, which are the backbone of our organization," says Hazzah. "We will continue to develop and improve the educational, technical and communications elements of each site, ensuring that they have a customized program to fit their specific needs."

As for the future, Lion Guardians is looking to expand. Three additional sites have been chosen, including two in Tanzania and one in Maasai Mara Kenya.

"We want to make the program as sustainable as possible so we can test the model on a broader scale," says Dolrenry. "Before, the conservation voice wasn't there; there were no traditional members standing up for conservation to save lions. Now there is, and it brings benefits to the communities."