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Photo of a Samburu warrior watching the sun set on the horizon.

Samburu warriors help reduce conflict between lions and herders.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBIN MOORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Photo of Shivani Bhalla speaking with a Samburu warrior.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY SHIVANI BHALLA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EMERGING EXPLORER AND GRANTEE

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published June 11, 2014

Shivani Bhalla believes the way to save Kenya's declining lion population is to work with communities and to diffuse tensions between herders and predators.

Bhalla has just been named to National Geographic's newest class of Emerging Explorers in recognition of her conservation work in her native Kenya. The conservation biologist is the founder and executive director of Ewaso Lions, a Kenya-based nonprofit that promotes coexistence between people and lions. She has also received support from National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.

There are fewer than 2,000 lions left in Kenya, and they face many threats, including loss of habitat, disruption of their prey, and retaliatory killings by herders. Bhalla and her allies work in the Samburu region of northern Kenya, where lions often come in contact with people. (See "The Serengeti Lion.")

Why have Kenya's lions been declining?

They're running out of space. As [human] population grows there is a lot more pressure put on [lions]. They are having trouble finding wild prey so they go after livestock more often. So local people of course get very angry when they lose their cattle to lions, and some go out and shoot, spear, or poison lions. (See "Living With Lions.")

Aren't lions legally protected in Kenya?

Yes, they are legally protected, but it's hard to enforce and it's difficult for officials to be everywhere. When someone has literally lost everything to lions it's very hard to convince them not to kill lions.

So how do you convince people not to kill lions?

I have a great team of elders, warriors, and women from the community who deal with it every day. When livestock is killed by lions they respond immediately.

The first thing they do is calm the people down and give them a chance to explain what happened. Usually lions kill livestock that have been lost. Then they talk about the importance of lions.

In our areas rhinos were wiped out in the 1980s and the elders remember that and talk about it. They say they don't want their lions to disappear because their kids have never seen a rhino. Then they talk about how to better protect livestock and how reducing conflict will save lions.

Photo of a lion standing on a riverbank.
Samburu National Reserve provides important lion habitat, though the cats’ numbers have been declining in Kenya.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL NICHOLS, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

The people of the Samburu are nomadic; does that make it harder for them to protect their animals from lions?

Yes, especially at night. If you are moving from place to place you often don't have time to make a good predator-proof boma, or enclosure, and that also makes it easier for livestock to stray out. So we work with them on spending more time on their bomas. We also tell them not to take livestock to areas where there are known predators.

We encourage them to send out older children or warriors, especially, to watch the animals. Warriors aren't scared of anything, they will chase off lions. But young children are, understandably, afraid of lions.

A couple months ago we saw 15 cows being herded by a boy who couldn't have been more than seven. He had a little dog with him. We saw four lions were stalking the cows. So we intervened and drove between the cows and the lions. One of our warriors jumped out and herded the cattle away and another warrior chased the lions away.

What has been the response of the Warrior Watch program, which you launched in January 2010?

It's been really positive. We've grown the number of warriors working in the program to 17. An evaluation study we did recently showed that the community's tolerance to lions has really increased and the warriors feel much more socially empowered in their community.

In addition to helping reduce conflicts between people and lions the warriors collect a lot of data. They have GPS units and they record lots of observations. We're getting hundreds of data points.

When I first suggested the program I asked the warriors what they would like in return for helping save lions. They said they wanted to learn to read and write because they hadn't had the opportunity before. So we started a school on Sunday for them. Now they can all read and write.

Last August we started a new program for women called Momma Simba, which means mother of lions. The women were saying, "Where's our education?" So we started a Saturday school for them. They picked up reading and writing much quicker.

Now we do conservation training with them. We take them on safaris and into the park [Samburu National Reserve]. We did a big pickup of litter with 220 women.

How important has it been to get the children involved through your Lion Kids Camp?

For me it's the most important because kids are the future leaders and future wildlife conservationists, so it's critical to instill interest in wildlife from a very young age. Many of the kids we work with from the Samburu and Turkana have never seen the positive side of having wildlife. But then they see a lion for the first time and that changes everything. I remember the first time I saw a lion, and I'll never forget that. That's why I do what I do.

What will it take to protect Kenya's lion population long term?

A lot more awareness. People need to understand that lions are in trouble. Also a lot more cohesion—people need to work together more. Conservationists, communities, the tourism industry. Let's face it, people are coming to Kenya to see lions, so it's very important to get the tourism industry more involved.

We also need better land-use planning. We need clearly marked settlement locations, we need to stop blocking wildlife corridors, and we need to prevent overgrazing.

What lessons from your work might be applicable to other parts of the world or with other species?

We've been successful by getting local people to protect the lions: It's not me going out to deal with conflict, it's my team. My assistant Jeneria is an incredible young warrior. He goes out to talk to other warriors. The Samburu women we work with talk directly to other women, and that's what makes a difference.

The mistake [conservationists] make is not working through the grassroots.

Do you still believe people and lions can coexist?

Yes. People get to know the lions, they talk about them like they're people. Most of our lions are named by the community. When I see someone on the street they ask me, "How is Magalani? Has she hunted?"

We unfortunately lost a lion last week; she got bitten by a snake. She was called Nabo. I've been getting an incredible number of texts about her. People are talking about her like they've lost a family member.

Does people's newfound interest in lions spill over to other species?

Absolutely. Everyone's getting to know about all the wildlife. We don't just talk about lions; we talk about all the carnivores. In fact hyenas and leopards cause most of the problems.

What are your biggest challenges?

Things change every day in Samburu. It's hard to predict. Security is sometimes an issue.

And there's a lot of development. A new highway is being put in and a lot of animals have been killed on it, including a lion.

What role can tourism play in protecting wildlife?

Samburu is a great place to visit. It's on the main tourist map. We've engaged the tourism industry and have trained 20 guards in the park to know lions. So when they're out in the park with their guests they can say, "This is Nabalo, she's four and has two cubs. She mainly hunts warthog." They can give the conservation message.

The program is called Lion Watch, and it also encourages tourists to upload their photos and get involved. There's a smartphone app we designed so people can collect data.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

Get involved with Big Cats.

29 comments
Vanessa Russell
Vanessa Russell

Excellent project and may it continue. It took me back to my visit to Samburu, and Kenya won my heart. Without the lions and wildlife it would be a sad place

Alice Slade
Alice Slade

Very informative article. Thank you for sharing about the strong community that formed to help preserve the lions. May the people of the Earth be appreciative.

malu block
malu block

congratulations on a wonderful Project. Every being deserves respect, and certainly deserves to live. Thank you for protecting these amazing and beautiful creatures.


Lucia Reid
Lucia Reid

Thank God for people who understand the value of animals. What a sad world it would be without these wonderful creatures.  


We should be in awe of lions, bears and other wildlife who survive the most horrendous situations without any of the luxuries we (people) take for granted.  In the next unbearable heat wave, tropical storm, or frigid night take a moment to think of these creatures who have no way of seeking relief. They struggle every day to find food, water and a way to stay away from people! What would you do in their situation? If your family was starving? When they destroy your total habit and there is no food or water available?  


Every country should designate conservation areas that NEVER can be developed.  These living creatures desperately need this land for survival. 


Please speak out, make a continuous effort to help in any way you can. Thank you. 

Mike Davis
Mike Davis

Its always down to education, and the children are the way forward, thank god for people like Shivani.

I watched a program just yesterday on the Vultures of Africa and their massive decline and its mainly down to eating poisoned carcasses that are put out to kill lions, the knock on affect is devastating for wildlife that in the long term will affect humans, Vultures clear up for a reason and without them doing that disease will be the only winner.    

A Watkins
A Watkins

Wonderfully informative article. Thank you for all your efforts to protect wildlife.

John Lanier
John Lanier

Why does there have to be conflict between lions and people??,,, Lions are going to come up on the losing side everytime..,, this planet will loose in the long run,,

RAM RAJ
RAM RAJ

Lions must be saved. They are the important part of our ecosystem life.

Margo Bekkering
Margo Bekkering

I know it has been an age-old cultural tradition of the Maasaai to hunt and kill a lion as part of the coming of age rite of passage for men.  Is it not the same for the Samburu?  If yes, this issue has greater implications than mere competition for habitat space

Topazshell Norman
Topazshell Norman

Have never heard of this location, Samburu. I think it's fascinating how the communities are being taught about the lions. Really enjoyed reading about the boy with the dog and cattle. He didn't know the lions were following him. You saved him by using the vehicle to separate he and the cattle from the lions. He might have been killed. I like how the lions are given names.I think it's harder to kill an animal with a name.

Vinoth Ajv
Vinoth Ajv

Wow!! That's really a great work...

Jay Rove
Jay Rove

WELL WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN IS THE HERDERS NEED TO BE KILLED...MAYBE SOME KIND OF BOUNTY ON THEM ? I'LL PUT IN 100.00

David McMullen
David McMullen

I am so glad and very happy for the work you and the warriors are doing!! These cats need our help! Because when there gone, there gone. Humans are disgusting me! We treat these and many other animals around the world like garbage, We are a throw-away society.

Deborah Hall
Deborah Hall

I personally think human population control is what is needed. That way the loins can have the habitat that they need that includes the prey animals that they need. Plus the prey animals need habitat also. Humans are destroying the beauty of earth that it should

be. Humans have procreated enough we have enough people on earth so population control is what is needed. What if they took our habitat and food source away and made us go extinct?


Rudolph Furtado
Rudolph Furtado

Excellent. I was born in Mombasa and  later migrated to India in 1968. I distinctly remember visiting the Nairobi National park as a 7 year old boy in 1967 and seeing cheetahs from our van. Didn't get to see the lions. Today in 2014 i have toured 26% of the globe and have visited numerous  zoo's around the world and National parks in India.In India the tiger faces the same problem as does the lion in Kenya, a lack of forest cover due to rapid human development. Shivani.Bhalla  has done a great service of creating awareness of lion conservation in Kenya. The Asiatic lion exists only in India in the Gir Forests of the State of Gujarat and is a model for wild life conservation for a species nearly driven to extinction.Unless the local villagers living in the buffer zones of forest area are taken into confidence by wild-life authorities  for wild-life conservation its difficult to prevent poaching and forest destruction.

Irena Setchell
Irena Setchell

Wonderful story of conservation. Let's hope it works as I would love for me and my children (and their children) to see lions in the wild.

Chung-Wen Lin
Chung-Wen Lin

There is a similar story happening in Taiwan. It's related to "Leopard cat". According to the research, there are less than 500 Leopard cats in Taiwan now. But today, they are facing strait living crisis major from the road development and also the animal trap. Wish they can live as long as human being. 

Elly Mwesiga
Elly Mwesiga

Thanks for the good work towards conservation of Wildlife in Kenya

Asha Ramakrishnan
Asha Ramakrishnan

congratulations on the great and inspiring work, the world needs lot more people like you!


Tanya Sharpe
Tanya Sharpe

This makes me very happy to see people caring and making people of the awareness of these wonderful creatures that have been put here, I wish in all my life I could experience what so many do, all i can do is keep signing petitions and making the best of it's future for our next generations to come. Truly would love to always be surrounded by nature than anything else in this world!!!

kim tuccillo
kim tuccillo

@Pyracantha Shapero Wow! Thanks Shapero! We are all so grateful for your vocabulary lesson.
 Or is that greatful? Hmmm?

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