Protecting African Lions: Hunters Turned Guardians In the Mbirikaini region of Kenya, the lion population is dangerously low. So researchers with Living With Lions have started a lion guardian program that empowers locals to manage the population and resolve disputes over the animals.
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Protecting African Lions: Hunters Turned Guardians

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Protecting African Lions: Hunters Turned Guardians

Protecting African Lions: Hunters Turned Guardians

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. Check out this dramatic statistic. A population that has declined by 90 percent. I'm talking about African lions. Today, scientists estimate that no more than 30,000 of them remain. Reporter Alex Chadwick traveled to Kenya. He has more on the effort to save the king of the wild beasts.

(Soundbite of a roaring lion)

ALEX CHADWICK: Maybe it is the wild that's really going extinct. Lions are simply the best expression of wildness. Wild lions could be gone in Kenya in 20 years. They'd still be in game parks and reserves. That's not what wild means.

Mr. SEAMUS MCLENNAN (Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project): Lions are not animals that belong in a zoo. They're not even animals that belong inside a national park necessarily.

CHADWICK: Seamus McLennan runs the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project, part of "Living with Lions." We link to them at

Mr. MCLENNAN: Animals that people have lived with for centuries.

CHADWICK: For five years, Seamus has lived at a small camp in a dry region of southern Kenya on the edge of a Maasai group ranch called Mbirikani. He studies lions, how they live and die.

Mr. MCLENNAN: Every lion death that I have recorded has been due to people. In other words, I have observed no natural deaths of lions. Every single dead lion is because of people.

(Soundbite of singing)

CHADWICK: That lions exist here at all is due to the traditional practices of the Maasai people. They celebrate lions in song and dance, and sometimes they kill them.

(Soundbite of singing)

CHADWICK: This Maasai area is about 500 square miles. They live on it almost exactly as their ancestors did many generations ago. The entire vast area is lightly forested, undeveloped, unfenced range for grazing cattle and goats. It's home to wild game too, everything from antelope to elephants - and lions.

(Soundbite of singing)

CHADWICK: The Maasai are nomadic. They own almost nothing. They measure wealth and status in livestock. And they kill predators because that's what herdsmen do. It's been a ritual of manhood for Maasai warriors to hunt lions with spears.

(Soundbite of singing)

CHADWICK: That is changing among these Maasai with young men like Antony Kasanga (ph) who can shift between maybe the 16th century and the 21st.

Mr. ANTONY KASANGA (Lion Guardian): Well, I did after my school. I went tending cows for two full years.

CHADWICK: Antony went through high school. His father sold cows to pay for it. He learned excellent English and then returned to the ancestral life.

Mr. KASANGA: Every day waking up, going after cows, herding cows. Every day for two years until I got employed.

CHADWICK: He got a job as a lion guardian. This is a program set up by the conservationists a few years ago. They raise money to hire young Maasai men to track the probably eight or 10 lions in this area. The guardians protect the lions, even those that sometimes take a cow or a goat. Crucially, the conservationists have started a program to pay for livestock killed by lions. So, when the guardians hear about an incident, they get to the herders as soon as they can.

Mr. KASANGA: And then the guardians tell them, look here, if you kill a lion, I lose my job, the whole community suffers.

CHADWICK: The guardians don't make much, but each gets the universal status device, a cell phone. And they work together, nine guardians spread over the huge ranch. These jobs matter. The wildlife brings in some tourism. Officials get most of the money, but it helps. One worrying development: someone at a local market offered outsiders lion parts, claws and teeth. The guardians are looking into it. Again, Seamus McLennan of the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project.

Mr. MCLENNAN: The fact that we have lived with wildlife for centuries doesn't really make it any easier. It just means that we know how to do it.

CHADWICK: Do you form some kind of emotional bond with a lion the way...

Mr. MCLENNAN: I do. It's probably not very wise, given the kind of work that I do, which is conflict resolution.

CHADWICK: Because when the conflicts are resolved, they're resolved by the death of the lion.

Mr. MCLENNAN: Yes, correct. I can't always blame them for taking the actions that they do in killing lions and other large carnivores. But on a personal level it does bother me that my study animals are killed.

CHADWICK: Why haven't the Maasai killed all the lions? They could.

Mr. MCLENNAN: You're right. They could very easily. I think it's partly because it's illegal to kill wildlife in Kenya for the most part. My impression is that there is an underlying respect for life and ecology in Maasai culture. Yeah, every now and then I'll meet an old man and I'll ask him, sir, why - why would you want lions around? He'll say, well, you know, lions were created by God just like me.

Mr. SOLOMAN LEHONDO (Cattleherder): (Foreign language spoken)

CHADWICK: I meet a man like that in a cafe in the only town in the entire region.

Mr. LEHONDO: (Foreign language spoken)

CHADWICK: Soloman Lehondo is in his 50s, he's in Western clothes and a baseball cap today. Most of his traditional beads are absent. There's a large unadorned hole in one earlobe.

Mr. LEHONDO: (Foreign language spoken)

CHADWICK: He herds 10 cows and 10 goats, very modest by Maasai standards but this is not modest. Soloman has another name, Sinepune.

Say that again.

Mr. KASANGA: Sinepune. That's a lion name so if he killed a lion - so when he killed a lion he got a lion name.

CHADWICK: The lion guardian, Antony, is with me to interpret.

Mr. LEHONDO: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. KASANGA: So he's saying when he was a boy there was a lot of lions compared to now, and then people started killing them. They were just killing them, nothing of value.

CHADWICK: Soloman zips his tea. There's not much money anymore in herding cows and goats. It's very dry. Conditions are difficult. The outsiders who come, fascinated by lions, they may make a difference. Maybe lions are worth more than cows, and Soloman offers a little witticism. Now, the Maasai eat lion meat and drink lion milk.

Mr. KASANGA: Lions now sleep well. They suckle their cubs well, because nobody is going to bother them because lion guardians around.

CHADWICK: Things are changing. Antony, the polymath Maasai interpreter, actually can track lions in the wild by day and blog about it by night. The guardians have a Web site. The project means to tell the world about lions, and they really do update almost daily. We have a link at

(Soundbite of people talking)

CHADWICK: If the change will be enough to save the lions, no one can say. And what about the Maasai and their fate, people like the herder, Soloman? Sure, things change, but this culture values tradition. Soloman, Sinepune, the lion killer, sips at his tea again and watches a space far beyond me, behind the confines of this small cafe.

Mr. LEHONDO: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. KASANGA: So, when he sits down and remembers the lion he killed, he feels so painful.

Mr. LEHONDO: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. KASANGA: So, sometimes when he sleeps and remembers, he just sits up from bed and start thinking.

Mr. LEHONDO: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. KASANGA: Hurts, just hurts to remember that.

Mr. LEHONDO: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. KASANGA: So, because right now a lion is like your own child.

CHADWICK: Antony Kasanga, former cow herder, just accepted into a program at Oxford, is assistant director of the Lion Guardians of the Maasai Mbirikani Ranch in Southern Kenya. The Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project has now been asked to open more guardian programs on other Maasai land. For NPR News, this is Alex Chadwick reporting.

(Soundbite of singing)

BRAND: And Alex had help with that report from the National Geographic Society. More to come...

(Soundbite of lion growling)

BRAND: Whoo! After this.

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