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Lions, Elephants Speared Near Kenya Wildlife Park

Nick Wadhams in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
March 18, 2008
 
At least three lions and up to four elephants have been killed on the fringes of Kenya's popular Amboseli National Park in recent weeks, conservationists say, part of an increasingly tense competition between the area's people and wildlife.

The conservation group Lion Guardians says two lions were speared to death on March 9 and another was killed last month. That brings the total to at least ten lions killed in the last eight months and 162 killed near Amboseli since 2001.

And on Monday the conservation group WildlifeDirect, which had highlighted the lion killings, announced that 14 elephants had been speared around Amboseli and that at least four had died. Spearing is a method most commonly used by the Maasai tribesmen who live in the area.

Kenyan officials haven't confirmed the elephant deaths. But they and local conservationists have offered several reasons for the lion attacks—including revenge for a livestock killing, a dispute between local communities, traditional Maasai manhood rites, and even Maasai trophy hunting.

"They say that two of the people's cows had been killed by the lions," said Patrick Omondi, head of species conservation and management at the Kenya Wildlife Service.

"But when we got to the lions, we have all the skin and teeth ... missing, which suggests that apart from the predation on livestock, there could be a drive to sell lion trophies."

Long-Simmering Crisis

The killings are the latest sign of what conservation groups say has become a nearly intractable crisis all across Kenya.

Kenya's farmers, many of them poor, have long resented elephants, lions, and other animals that are popular with tourists but that threaten livestock and crops. Lions, for instance, hunt over vast ranges that often extend onto human farms.

Many other citizens have also grown bitter after being told to protect wildlife—and facing possible criminal prosecution for killing animals—but rarely seeing any benefit from the money that tourists pour into the economy.

"I'm convinced that the attitude of the people outside protected areas who actually live near and harbor wildlife is so negative that they simply don't care about this wildlife," said Ali Kaka, director of the East African Wildlife Society.

"There is no sense of ownership or feeling that this is really a heritage that is mine and I need to protect it."

That conflict has only gotten worse as the human population grows and new wildlife and land-use policies languish in political limbo.

An estimate from the 1970s suggests the country had 10,000 lions, but less than 3,000 now remain.

While Kenyan wildlife officials acknowledge that both numbers are based in part on guesswork, they say there is a clear trend—Kenya is losing its lions.

(Related: "Lion Killings Spur Fears of Regional Extinction in Kenya" [May 22, 2006].)

Anthony Kasanga, assistant director of Lion Guardians, said locals understand the significance that conservation groups and tourists place on lions, and killing them is an easy way to draw attention to their grievances.

"People say, We are being asked to conserve these animals but we're not getting anything for it," Kasanga said. "So they feel, Let's go kill the lions. People wonder why they should conserve if they don't get anything for it."

Reasons to Kill

The Amboseli ecosystem in particular, with its abundant elephants and lions, is one of Kenya's top tourist draws.

But that popularity—and the hundreds of thousands of dollars that enter the regional economy each year—have also fanned tensions with the Maasai people, many of whom struggle to survive alongside the luxury lodges near the park.

While many Maasai support the tourist economy, some are upset about plans to build several new lodges along the east side of the park. They argue that the owners of the new lodges reneged on promises to allow them to keep grazing their cattle on the land.

Cynthia Moss, director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, says that Maasai men likely carried out many of the lion spearings, since slaying a lion is still a traditional rite of passage into manhood for the Maasai.

The elephants, on the other hand, were probably speared out of retaliation for crop destruction.

"I think this has been a particularly bad spate—this 14 elephants in the last two months—and we still haven't quite gotten to the bottom of it," said Moss, some of whose work has been funded by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.

"Amboseli is just so complex to manage," she added.

The complexity has only deepened because of President Mwai Kibaki's decision to issue a decree in 2005 to transfer ownership of Amboseli over from the Kenya Wildlife Service to regional authorities.

The order was seen as a sweetheart deal meant to woo support during a campaign for changes to the country's constitution that ultimately failed.

The transfer has since been stalled by numerous lawsuits but may have made local officials impatient for money they believe should be theirs, Kasanga said.

The area's human population is also exploding, putting further pressure on the ecosystem around the park, which spans about 3,000 square miles (7,800 square kilometers). The park itself is comparatively tiny at 150 square miles (390 square kilometers).

In the dry season, humans and wildlife compete even more intensely than usual for dwindling grass and water.

What Wildlife Policy?

Kenyans, aware of the depth and complexity of these issues, have been working to overhaul the country's decades-old wildlife policy.

A change in land-use policy to reflect the population boom is also in the works.

But the updated policy, expected in the middle of 2007, was delayed. Then the country was wracked by a political crisis sparked by the December 2007 election, drawing the attention of the country's leaders elsewhere.

Political analysts also say that the conflict was rooted in a demand for greater distribution of resources and competition over land.

Parliament must enact changes to the wildlife policy, but it will be occupied for months with the constitutional changes that will be required to cement a political compromise reached last month to end the post-election chaos, which killed at least a thousand people.

Another result of the political shakeup is that the country does not have a minister for tourism and wildlife. That post will likely be filled only when the government under President Mwai Kibaki agrees how to share power with the opposition, led by Raila Odinga.

"I suspect that there are more urgent issues to be debated by parliament now," said James Isiche, who runs the Kenya office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and was on the national steering committee that helped put together a draft wildlife policy.

"Not that this is not important, but there is a lot of national healing that has to go on first as the country recovers from the crisis."

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