Found on a community-owned ranch near a major national park, a bloody bucket streaked with purple stains suggests the animals were killed with a controversial pesticide that's become a conservationist's nightmare.
It's believed Maasai men, who live on the ranch and are traditionally nomadic herders, are responsible for the lion and hyena deaths. At least one Maasai herder has been arrested in connection with the crimes, according to Paula Kahumbu, head of the Nairobi, Kenya-based conservation group WildlifeDirect.
In southern Kenya months of drought have heightened long-standing tensions between wild predators and Maasai people.
As arid conditions make food and water harder to obtain, livestock become ever more valuable to both their owners—and to neighboring predators.
The poisoning occurred on April 2 at the Olgulului Group Ranch near Amboseli National Park, Kahumbu said.
Kahumbu received the news from the Kenya Wildlife Service, which had been alerted by a resident of the ranch, where lions were said to have killed two cows several days earlier.
The luridly stained bucket, she said, probably contained the laced bait. The type of bait, though is unknown, as no trace of it remained.
(WildlifeDirect receives some funding from the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)
Kahumbu said test results had not yet arrived but that she believes the pesticide Furadan was used in the poisonings. Sold by Philadelphia-based FMC Corporation, Furadan is a trade name for carbofuran, a highly toxic, odorless pesticide, which comes in purple granules.
Though FMC maintains that Furadan is safe if used properly, the company stopped selling the substance in Kenya and neighboring Uganda and Tanzania after numerous reports emerged in 2008 that herders were using the pesticide to kill lions and other large predators.
In Kenya the company quickly launched a buyback program. But two years later, conservationists say Furadan lingers on some store shelves.
"Although you can't find Furadan in the main shops, I don't think they withdrew it from some of the main outlying areas," Kahumbu said. "We know that some dealers are selling it by the spoonful."
Conservationists are pressing the Kenyan government to ban Furadan, because they don't believe the government has the resources to regulate its use. Many farmers see the pesticide as a way to kill birds, rats, dogs, and large predators.
"The issue is really whether a country has the capacity to educate its people to handle this safely," said Oliver Nasirwa, the Kenya-waterbirds officer for Wetlands International. "That's the problem for Kenya and most developing countries."
It seems to be a problem in developed countries too. In 2006 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the pesticide after ruling that Furadan posed an unreasonable risk to the environment, particularly birds. Carbofuran is also banned throughout Europe.
"Communities Are Pissed Off"
Olgulului Group Ranch has been part of an experimental program by which local Maasai herders are reimbursed if lions or other predators kill livestock such as cattle, for which the payment can equal about U.S. $200 a head. (Related: Maasailand lions fund.)
That program has struggled during the drought as Maasai herders in the area grew more intolerant of livestock losses, even with the compensation program in place.
"Apparently the communities are pissed off," WildlifeDirect's Kahumbu said.
"They're not getting what they think is the real value through the compensation scheme," which she noted is technically a "consolation" program. "The full value of the lost animal is not replaced, but a token amount is given to say, Sorry for your loss."
Compensation projects generally have community support and are still among the few viable options for protecting wildlife from aggrieved livestock owners, Kahumbu said.
"Compensation schemes have worked in the past but are extremely
vulnerable to fail under extreme situations, like the drought, when just
one individual can rile up an angry mob and undermine years of work," she said.