Protecting African Lions: Hunters Turned Guardians

The second of a two-part series

Lioness on the Maasai Reserve i i

hide captionA lioness on the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya.

Alex Chadwick/Conservation Sound
Lioness on the Maasai Reserve

A lioness on the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya.

Alex Chadwick/Conservation Sound
Soloman Lehondo i i

hide captionSoloman Lehondo, aka Sinepune the Lion Killer, at Mbirikani Maasai Ranch in southern Kenya.

Alex Chadwick/Conservation Sound
Soloman Lehondo

Soloman Lehondo, aka Sinepune the Lion Killer, at Mbirikani Maasai Ranch in southern Kenya.

Alex Chadwick/Conservation Sound

More In The Series

Lion on the Maasai Reserve i i

hide captionExperts think there were 200,000 wild lions 20 years ago — the number is fewer than 30,000 now.

Alex Chadwick/Conservation Sound
Lion on the Maasai Reserve

Experts think there were 200,000 wild lions 20 years ago — the number is fewer than 30,000 now.

Alex Chadwick/Conservation Sound
Seamus McLennan i i

hide captionSeamus McLennan runs the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project on the vast Mbirikani Maasai Ranch.

Alex Chadwick/Conservation Sound
Seamus McLennan

Seamus McLennan runs the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project on the vast Mbirikani Maasai Ranch.

Alex Chadwick/Conservation Sound

In Africa, the age-old conflict between predators and humans is quickly turning out very badly for lions. The greater availability of modern poisons and pesticides makes it much easier for livestock herders to simply kill lions than to constantly be on guard against them.

Based in Kenya, the Living With Lions conservation organization seeks to find ways to preserve wild lions beyond the few game parks large enough to sustain an isolated population.

One Living With Lions program, the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project in southern Kenya, is based on the vast, communally owned Mbirikani Group Ranch of the Maasai people. The Maasai are seminomadic herders who tend cattle, sheep and goats over more than 500 square miles of mostly open rangeland. They follow ancient practices, with family groups living in scattered communities of dung huts clustered around thorn bush corrals. Among their traditions: Young warriors called murran attain manhood after hunting and killing a lion with a spear.

A Dwindling Population

Once there were many lions in the Mbirikani region. Now there are probably no more than 10.

After living among the Mbirikani Maasai for more than a year, a Living With Lions researcher, Leela Hazzah, conceived a plan to turn lion hunters into lion protectors. She led an effort to create a team of lion guardians — Maasai murran whose job it is to protect the creatures they once stalked.

Nine lion guardians now work with Maasai families throughout Mbirikani. Each guardian is in the murran class — young men still in their 20s. Some are past lion hunters. They are all expert trackers who can follow a trail sign on foot all day without water. Now they are also learning radio telemetry to locate collared lions.

Some are just learning to read and write (the lion guardians have to keep data and fill out monthly reports). The guardians make a small monthly wage, and each is equipped with a cell phone to call in reports and ask for help when needed.

The guardians investigate livestock killings and can arrange compensation for local herders who have lost a cow or a goat to a predator. They help search for livestock that wander off from the main herd, and probably most importantly, they are there to intercede if they hear that a lion hunt is getting under way.

The guardian program is only two years old, and there has not yet been any real growth in the local lion population, but the guardians have prevented a number of hunts that might have killed some of the few remaining Mbirikani Group Ranch lions. And in those two years, not a single lion has been speared there. In the last six months, two other Maasai programs have asked to add lion guardian programs of their own.

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