Why morans are no longer killing lions

Saturday March 29 2014

Lion guardians direct cattle away from danger.  Photo/John Mbaria

Lion guardians direct cattle away from danger. Photo/John Mbaria 

By JOHN MBARIA

The young man narrowed his eyes. He looked into the horizon, taking his time before responding to my question. Since we started talking some 30 minutes ago, he would occasionally give me a stern look, as if unsure as to why I kept asking all these questions.

He was wearing traditional Maasai moran clothing. His hair was braided all the way to his shoulders. He had smeared part of his forehead with red ochre that matched his bright red attire.

Although he was only slightly built, the muscles on his hands and legs stood out probably due to the many kilometres he covered each day carrying heavy weapons to protect the same animals his forebears killed to prove their manhood.

As we talked, Lelian Lodidio, 23, plunged his spear into the ground. He clung tightly to his walking cane as if he did not trust me. His sword was in its sheath, a cord tightly wrapped it around his waist. Occasionally, he would flash half a smile.

He was a no-nonsense young man, staring straight into my eyes as he gave out succinct answers to my questions. It was as if Lodidio was reading from a traditional script that required him to exude an aura of toughness, unpretentious arrogance and veiled contempt for anyone showing weakness.

We were sitting deep in the bush; both of us holding onto the “arms” that are dear to our lives: Mine — a pen, camera and notebook — were useless in the bush; they made me extremely vulnerable in case of an attack. Unlike me, Lodidio was ready for any eventuality.

He told me he became a moran when “the rules had changed somewhat.” Instead of organising a lion hunt, he is now employed by the non-governmental organisation Lion Guardians, to monitor lion movements, recover lost livestock and stop fellow morans from engaging in lion hunts.

We were in Oltepei area of Eselenkei Group Ranch in Kajiado County. The community ranch hosts thousands of livestock and their own wildlife. It is one of five such ranches that serve as wildlife dispersal areas and migratory corridors linking Amboseli National Park to Chyulu National Park and the Tsavo Conservation Area in southern Kenya.

During the rainy season, herbivores like elephants, buffaloes, gerenuks, gnus, zebra and dikdiks migrate to the ranches leaving Amboseli with little or no game.

Although most lions live in the ranches, some join other carnivores —leopards, hyenas, jackals and wild dogs — and follow the herbivores into the ranches. As they do so, many end up developing a taste for livestock meat and consequently raid livestock taken out to graze as well as those in bomas. This leads to human-wildlife conflict.

Whenever an attack takes place, the morans — in charge of the security of the local people — feel duty bound to kill the carnivores.

“Whenever an attack takes place, the morans do not need anybody’s prompting; they take to the bush and will not rest until they have killed the offending carnivores,” says Ole Sambu, an official at Big Life Foundation, the organisation that runs a compensation scheme for livestock killed by the carnivores, under the Predator Compensation Fund.

As I toured three of the ranches — Mbirikani, Eselenkei and Olgulului — I realised that the animal tracking prowess of the morans is legendary.

The morans took me through the techniques of tracking lions. Whenever we came across lion footprints, they would stop to announce the time the lion had made the tracks, the direction it had walked in, and whether it was a female or a male.

They could even tell the lion’s age, and whether it had been running fast, trotting or just walking in a leisurely manner. Using such tactics, we tracked one of the “troublesome” lions, called Uyayai, to where he had hidden.

I noticed that the morans were not keeping track of every footstep the lion made; they were experienced enough to follow in its general path and would only stop to ensure that we were still going in the right direction.

Before we got to where Uyayai was hiding, one of the older morans, Olumbi Lairumbe, had pinpointed where the lion had lain down. To prove it he showed us some of the hair shed by the lion as it relaxed.

It is sad that such knowledge is dying out. However, the morans employed by Lion Guardians have a chance of preserving part of their traditional knowledge as the organisation encourages them to use their traditional ecological knowledge of tracking.

Indeed the entire lifestyle of morans is under tremendous pressure. Through the ages, Maasai morans and lions have maintained a unique duel. A lion hunt is an extremely dangerous adventure.

The morans are aware that their culture is the epitome of manhood. But this has never meant recklessness. They are restrained by tradition from playing dirty or being unfair.

Each moran is required to be a team player; he must demonstrate skill, tact, courage and discipline. And although team spirit is important, individual acts of bravery are recognised and rewarded.

Every time a moran and lion meet, a bloody contest ensues often resulting in death. For the morans, killing a lion means accolades; the man who first struck the animal was awarded for being brave enough to go as close as possible before spearing the beast.

He would get a “lion name,” which would mean replacing one of his original names with another in the Maa language that suggests he is a lion killer; a hero who never shirks from danger. He would attract young women who would outdo each other as they sung his praises during traditional dances.

The gallant moran would retain this reputation throughout his life. Traditionally, warriors were expected to throw away the lion mane when they became junior elders after the “meat ceremony” in which the warrior would slaughter a sheep and grease the lion’s mane with a mixture of sheep oil and ochre before throwing it away to honour it and avoid bad spirits.

As a rule, morans are not allowed to hunt a famished lion or one that is injured, poisoned or snared. In many of the clan cultures, hunting a lioness is prohibited because the Maasai believe that the females of every species are the bearers of life. A lioness was only hunted if it posed a threat to human life or livestock.

With time, the cultural practice has resulted in a steady decrease in the population of the carnivores, whose survival was also threatened by a host of other pressures like poaching, loss of habitat due to land use changes, human population increase, poisoning of lions as well as loss of their food base owing to the widespread killing of big and small herbivores for the pot or for bush meat trade.

“Something had to be done” says Samar Ntalamia, the programmes manager at Big Life Foundation. The organisation pays local people a consolation fee whenever their livestock are killed by lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas jackals or wild dogs; those whose cows died from predation getting Ksh20,000 ($232) for each animal.

Data collected by the organisation’s researchers shows that as many as 31 lions were killed in Mbirikani Group Ranch between 2002 and 2003; in Olgulului, 30 were killed in 2006. Between 2005 and 2012, lions had killed 2,018 cows, 188 donkeys and 8,683 sheep and goats at the ranch.

However, lions are not the main culprits in attacks on livestock. Data from Big Life shows that hyenas killed more than half of the livestock between 2005 and 2012, while cheetahs, jackals killed 25 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

Lions appeared to have only killed just 5 per cent of the livestock in that period.

When I asked some of the morans why they kill the lions, they said that they find chasing hyenas frustrating because they “are such cowards” that do not fight.

“But lions are different, you chase them for some time, then they get angry and turn around ready to fight,” said one of the morans, who added that this gave them “a golden opportunity” to prove their manhood.