Revenge Killings: African Farmers Massacre Lions

Peter Standring
National Geographic On Assignment
February 10, 2004
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 park—established 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 centers—the park entrance is just a ten-minute ride from my hotel in downtown Nairobi—has 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.

"They [lions] end up running into people, fences, cattle, and sheep," Cavanaugh explained. "And if they run into these domestic animals they'll kill them and eat them. And if they do, the people will kill the cats."

Traditionally there has always been a natural movement of animals in and out of the park across the southern border. There were sizeable migrations involving large herds of wildebeest, zebra, and other herbivores, that travelled vast distances in search of water and fresh grazing, providing plenty of prey for hungry lions.

"Thieves and Killers"

But during the last three years there has been no migration into the park. Some blame recent weather patterns, like prolonged droughts, and intense floods brought on by El Nino-induced rains. Others point to rampant development in the area just south of the park, particularly in a community known as Kitengela.

Kitengela is a chaotic place, filled with rows of cramped shops and squat concrete buildings. It's teeming with people of all ethnicities, who buzz in and out of tin-roofed homes, ramshackle roadside bars, and modern factories. There are also small family farms here, each bisected by miles of wire fence.

Even in ideal weather conditions it's difficult to see how wild herds could migrate through this area and arrive safely in the park. So, faced with starvation, Nairobi's lions have left the park with increasing frequency, and have come to Kitengela attacking great numbers of cattle and other livestock.

"You cannot see a lion coming. You can only hear it when it's already inside your boma [an enclosure for cattle]," Nicholas Matiko tells me. Matiko, a tall, stout, Masai farmer, owns land in Kitengela close to the park. To him, the lions are "thieves and killers." The year before last, he said he lost five cows and eight sheep to marauding lions. His neighbors, he told me, were similarly affected. Then, in early spring of last year, things evidently got worse.

"The lions had gone on the rampage," Matiko said. "Every night, a cow, sheep, goat, or donkey would die. Every night while we were asleep, the lions would break into the boma. I have personally been very much pained by the loss of my livestock. We landowners could not take it anymore."

There used to be a "compensation scheme" for farmers like Matiko who had lost livestock to wild predators. But the system was used and abused, and soon the money dried up. Now there seems to be no formal means of compensating aggrieved cattle owners. In most cases, they simply "swallow" their losses, which often run into thousands of dollars. Angry, and impatient, some of the farmers in Kitengela decided to take the law into their own hands.

Broadcast Massacres

With spears and pangas (also known as machetes) in hand, and dogs snapping at their feet, they organized "hunting parties" that trudged into the areas south of the park to look for lions. They were not seeking a particular lion that had just killed one of their animals. Instead, they would slay any lion they encountered. Their goal was to send a clear, strong message to government officials and park managers, who, in the farmers' view, had been ignoring their suffering.

On several occasions, the gangs tracked down a lion, surrounded it, speared it, and hacked it to death. Once, they called the news media and invited journalists to document the results of their grim exploits. When Kenyans turned on their televisions that evening to watch the nightly news, many were stunned and dismayed by images of the grinning farmers gleefully holding up their victims' severed paws and heads.

"The first thing that comes into your mind is: This is unreal. This must be happening someplace else. This can't be Kenya," exclaimed Winnie Kiiru, who heads the Nairobi-based Born Free Foundation, one of the country's best-known wildlife conservation organizations.

Like many in the community, Kiiru is concerned about the plight of Africa's lions, and was horrified by what she saw on the broadcast. She considers the killing and mutilation of the lions "unforgivable."

"If every Kenyan who has an issue with wildlife, went out and killed those animals that were causing them that distress," she told me, "we wouldn't have one animal left!"


In the months that have passed since the cats were butchered, no one has been arrested or charged with the killings. Of course, in most cases it is illegal to kill wildlife, but not if it's done outside the park in self-defense.

Officials with the Kenyan Wildlife Service, the government agency that manages the park, held talks with the farmers involved in the "lion hunts," and supposedly reached some sort of understanding. I spoke at length to the park's senior warden, Paul Gathithu, who assured me there would be no further killings.

I'm still not quite sure exactly what kind of arrangement he struck with the farmers, or why he's so confident. There seem to be no guarantees at all. In fact, the farmers had pledged to kill more lions (and then move on to antelope) if they continue to lose cattle. And that's what's worrying people like Cavanaugh.

"It's not government land. If the cats go out there, if they're on private property, if they're threatening cattle or people, according to Kenyan law, the people are allowed to kill them, and they do, with impunity," Cavanaugh said. "It's annihilating the lion population of Nairobi National Park, and there's only a few left."

It's a fact that is painfully obvious. We spent three full days looking for big cats in the park, but came up empty-handed. The day after we finally left the park, I got word from a local conservationist that the last remaining male lion, "Red," had been found outside the park. He was injured and starving. Vets were planning to tranquilize him, bring him to the park's wildlife rehabilitation center, and nurse him back to health.

Sadly, he is not the only lion here that needs to be rescued. If the situation remains unchanged, more human-wildlife conflict will be inevitable. And ultimately, the great beasts that prowl the park may just slip away entirely, much like the huge red sun dipping silently below the hills, bringing darkness to this troubled place.

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