National Geographic On Assignment
Editor's note: Peter Standring, a correspondent/producer for National Geographic On Assignment, spent three weeks in and around Nairobi, Kenya, to investigate who has been killing Kenya's lions, and why. Watch his report on Wednesday, February 11 at 7 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT on the U.S. National Geographic Channel.
It had been another long, frustrating day at Nairobi National Park in Kenya. The sun was setting in a fiery red glow behind the dark profile of the Ngong Hills; the light reflected warmly off the flat-topped acacia trees, bringing them to life. Beyond, the skyscrapers of downtown Nairobi flickered and sparkled. Yet we were glum. We had been in the park since dawn, driving along its maze of dirt roads, craning our necks and straining our eyes, searching for lions. Exhausted and fed up with our lack of success, we finally put down our binoculars and video camera.
In a place famous for lions, we couldn't snatch even the briefest glimpse of a big cat. Sadly, it is becoming ever more challenging to see lions in this park. Why?
They are being wiped out by their human neighbors.
In the past four years, more than 40 lions from the park have been killed. Not by accident, mind you, but intentionally slain. During a six-week period last spring, no fewer than ten lions were killed. In a macabre twist, they were also mutilated. Their heads were chopped off, along with their paws and tails. Their teeth and claws were removed, perhaps claimed as trophies. Who would commit such gruesome crimes? Why would anyone show such wanton disregard for these majestic beasts? I've come to Kenya to find out.
I recruit the assistance of Jim Cavanaugh, a retired American veterinarian still living in Nairobi. Cavanaugh has been watching the parks lions for more than a decade. He loves the big cats, knows them all by name, and ventures into the park every day to check on them.
Lions In Peril
Visiting the parkestablished in 1946, and covering 40 square miles (103 square kilometers)it's easy to see why the lions are in trouble. Its proximity to people and urban centersthe park entrance is just a ten-minute ride from my hotel in downtown Nairobihas put Kenya's first park under pressure, and has placed its prized lions in peril.
According to Cavanaugh, the lion population here has been "decimated," with numbers at an all time low. Ideally, the park would support as many as 40 lions. But today, there may be fewer than a dozen. "When there's no prey animals in the park," he reported, "the lions are forced to go out of the park. Either that or they stay here and they starve."
But for lions, pursuing prey outside the park is a dicey proposition. And the reserve's borders, which are fenced on all but the southern side, may only serve to exacerbate the problem. On the east, west, and north perimeter the animals are kept in, and would-be human predators are kept out.
But along the meandering southern boundary there are no fences. Animals can come and go as they please.
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