A lion's death is a common occurrence on the Serengeti plains, in northern Tanzania, where life is perilous even for the greatest of predators.
The deaths of four lions (two confirmed, two probable) and one Maasai warrior constitute a more notable smash of misfortunes, reflecting tension between ancient cultural practice and conservation in the borderlands of Serengeti National Park.
And when three of those lions have featured as star characters in National Geographic, we take note with special concern.
The news arrived last week by email from Daniel Rosengren, field observer for the Serengeti Lion Project, a long-term study run by Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota. On April 6, making his rounds to monitor lion prides, Rosengren detected a mortality signal (no movement) from the collar of one female, known as MH35.
He found her, dead of spear wounds, and the transmitter lying nearby. No Maasai livestock were in the area, and from that and other evidence, Rosengren deduced it had been a ritual killing, not an act of protection or retaliation by herders.
Rite of Passage
Young Maasai morani (warriors) still sometimes hunt lions as a rite of passage, a voucher of courage and competence, although Maasai elders in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), along the park's eastern border, reportedly discourage it.
Six days later, in the same area, Rosengren heard another mortality signal, this time from the collar of a female called VUM, of the Vumbi pride. "She was one of my favorite lions," he told National Geographic by phone. "She was a really good hunter. She always took the initiative."
Using his directional antenna, he tracked VUM's transmitter into a water hole, where it had been discarded for concealment, and found the thing with his feet. Then he followed the smell of death upwind, almost 200 yards, and there was VUM's carcass in a bush, intact but for spear holes and the absence of a few claws, taken as trophies from her hind feet.
Twenty feet away lay a dead Maasai morani with a spear wound through his skull. (The name of the dead man has not been released.) In the chaos of armed men surrounding the desperate lioness, he evidently had been caught in the line of fire. Maasai tradition doesn't entail burial for fallen warriors, and the scavenging vultures and hyenas hadn't yet arrived.
Two other members of the Vumbi pride, Rosengren suspects, have also recently been killed. Confirming the death of any non-collared lion is difficult, amid the wide spaces of the Serengeti, and their bodies may never be found.
Can Good Come From This Tragedy?
These losses are catastrophic for the Vumbis—and bad for the Serengeti lion population in general—unless somehow the deaths help catalyze changes in management policy.
It might happen. On Saturday, April 26, Craig Packer and Ingela Jansson, a Swedish member of Packer's project who works on lion-human conflict, met with the conservator of the NCA, Freddy Manongi. They discussed the possibility of a "performance payment system," as used in Jansson's native Sweden to mitigate conflict between the Sami people, the reindeer they keep as livestock, and the wolverines and lynx that sometimes prey upon those reindeer.
The concept involves government payments but not of the usual sort: not in compensation for lost livestock but as reward, on a case-by-case basis, to those herders who tolerate the presence of predators.
"It's very sensible," Packer said after the meeting. "You're rewarding for conservation, rather than paying compensation for lost livestock." If applied in the NCA, with a few modifications to suit local conditions, such a system would bring direct financial benefit to local Maasai for each lion they tolerate within their grazing lands.
Manongi will soon meet with traditional Maasai leaders to discuss, among other things, the performance payment system. "It's an opportunity for us to explain this kind of scheme," he said by phone. The elders must be consulted. Deliberations will be cautious. But if their hot-blooded young men are paid as lion-tracking scouts, warning grazers to avoid this cat or that one, defusing lion conflicts before they happen (as has been done by the Lion Guardians program, in nearby Kenya), then living lions could serve as an even better voucher of courage and competence than dead ones.
"We will perhaps try a pilot scheme," Manongi said.
C-Boy Alive and Strong
One other piece of good news emerged with the bad. Readers of National Geographic may remember a magnificent, black-maned male, known as C-Boy, protagonist of our 2013 story. Rosengren hadn't seen him for several months, and amid the spate of lion killings, that too caused worry.
But then a couple of days after VUM showed up dead, Jansson returned to the area in her Land Rover, with two young Maasai. They spotted C-Boy, robust as ever, mating with a female. "Massive mane, big chunks of dreadlock. He's in good shape," by Jansson's report.
The two young men had never before had an opportunity to admire a great lion, at close range, from the safety of a vehicle. They were inspired.