Lion population on the rise as morans take up ‘Maasai Olympics,’ become wildlife guardians

Saturday March 29 2014

By JOHN MBARIA

It was evident from the long chats I had with the morans in the Amboseli areas that killing a lion remains an attractive goal. Some expressed displeasure that older people — who had themselves killed lions — wanted the younger morans to stop the killings even in the face of livestock predation.

“I became a moran at a time when our elders had set rules against lion killing; I feel bad each time a lion kills a cow,” said Lelian Lodidio.

He is one of the morans employed by Lion Guardians, to monitor predator movements, mitigate conflict and prevent lion hunts in Eselenkei Group Ranch. He acknowledged that his job allows him to retain his long braids and the traditional regalia.

The presence of NGOs — one that runs a compensation scheme and another that employs morans as lion protectors — and a scholarships project for local children have exerted positive pressure against lion hunts. Added to this has been the rising awareness on the illegality of killing lions.

To demonstrate how far these factors have influenced behaviour, Big Life Foundation’s researchers did a survey last year in which they sampled 248 households in the Mbirikani Group Ranch. They found that 163 of the households had stopped killing lions because they were sure of being compensated, while 74 feared arrest.

In addition, there has been a deliberate attempt to redirect morans’ attention from lion hunts to other ventures. Big Life Trust has started a moran education initiative that engages them in sports such as throwing spears and rungus (clubs), jumping, running and athletics.

The games started in 2008, and have expanded into the “Maasai Olympics” with David Rudisha, World 800 metres champion, as the patron.

Morans who win in different categories are awarded cows, goats and sheep. The winner of the 5,000 metres in 2012 was sponsored to participate in last year’s New York Marathon. The next “olympics” are planned for December 13.

In February 2012, eight elders visited Tanzania-based Chief Oloibon to request him to issue a decree banning the killing of lions by morans.

The Oloibon accepted the request and issued a curse on any moran who would kill a lion. This inspired the making of the film There will always be Lions, which won accolades for bearing the best conservation message in 2012. The film teaches warriors that their lives are dependent on wildlife, water, trees and other natural resources.

Radical move

“Taking the lion hunt from the Maasai people’s culture was a radical move as it outlawed a practice that had been in existence for more than 500 years,” says Tom Hill, a trustee of Big Life Foundation.

His organisation merged with Maasailand Preservation Trust in 2010, and initiated the Predator Compensation Programme 11 years ago at Mbirikani Group Ranch.

Hill said the compensation scheme originated from the local people who are expected to cover 30 per cent of the annual compensation kitty.

“Everything in conservation is funded by donors; the scheme is an inexpensive venture that costs $10 per person per year,” he added.

NGOs in Tanzania

Big Life Foundation and Lion Guardians are now operating in Tanzania.

Lion Guardians started seven years ago with the aim of smoothing the co-existence of the local people and the lions. The organisation expanded to two sites in Tanzania — one adjacent to Ruaha National Park in partnership with the Ruaha Predator Project, and the other north of Tarangire National Park where it is in partnership with the Tarangire Lion Project covering three group ranches there.

Lion Guardians has employed 52 scouts (whom it calls “lion guardians”) who are involved in the protection of carnivores over more than 4,400 square kilometres.

The two organisations claim that they prevented 45 lion hunts in 2013. They attribute this success to the collaboration between themselves and the local people, as well as the communication methods they employ.

Besides having a network of informants within the community, the organisations have employed game scouts who are equipped with mobile phones and radio systems.

“Whenever a hunt is on, we get information on the specific area where it is taking place, the reason for the hunt, the size of the hunting party, the direction where it is headed, which lions they are after, how close they are to the lion and how serious their intent is,” said Philip J Briggs, a biologist with Lion Guardians.

Lion Guardians has recruited warriors who had killed lions when they were younger. The warriors are deployed to talk the hunters out of their pursuit. “But if the hunt is deemed severe, the Kenya Wildlife Service rangers are summoned to assist and remind the warriors that the consequences of killing a lion are not only a local matter, but could land them in jail with huge fines to pay,” Briggs says.

Lion Guardian has collared some of the lions for easily monitoring of their movements. It also trains morans in basic literacy skills, and on the use of modern gadgets used in tracking the carnivores. The new skills add to their traditional tracking knowledge.

“It is very important to us that the science programme is run in conjunction with the guardians. This helps us to understand predation and which prides or individual lions are responsible,” says Richard Bonham, one of the Founders of Big Life Foundation.

Bonham adds that monitoring the lions has shown that the population is growing and recovering from the days when they were on the verge of local extinction.

But whether such efforts will guarantee the survival of the lions in the future is uncertain. The ecosystem is facing pressure from a human population increase, climate change resulting in frequency and severity of droughts, and destruction of habitats to pave way for agricultural production and human settlements.

“It is going to be an extreme struggle,” says Hill, who fears that the pressures on the local population of lions and other wildlife “could wipe everything out.”

However, Hill is optimistic that deliberate conservation measures can minimise the negative effects and postpone the eventual demise of wildlife there.