Kenya Lion Killings Spur Extinction Alarm, Innovations

Nick Wadhams in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
June 12, 2008
Conservationists issued an appeal today to protect lions surrounding Kenya's Amboseli National Park, saying the big cats are declining at an alarming pace and may even be extinct in the region within a few years.

At least one group estimates that fewer than a hundred lions remain in the Amboseli area, down drastically from the 1980s.

The lions are often victims of Maasai tribespeople who kill the big cats out of fear for their cattle. Land subdivisions and a population boom in the region have also harmed the lions' habitat. (Watch video.)

"When I first came here in '85, you would see lion tracks every time you went on a road … ," said Richard Bonham, who owns a tourist lodge near Amboseli and runs the Maasailand Preservation Trust conservation group.

"Then we went two years without seeing a lion. We started actively looking for them and we still couldn't find them."

The National Geographic Society—which owns National Geographic News—announced today it will provide a U.S. $150,000 emergency grant to Bonham's preservation trust to fund a program that compensates Maasai for livestock lost to lion attacks.

"The situation has reached a critical level," Terry Garcia, executive vice president of Mission Programs at National Geographic, said in a statement.

"Unless something is done immediately, there will be no more lions in this part of Kenya, which would be a tragedy."

(See photos of the lions in Maasailand.)

Deep Bitterness

The Amboseli experience has been echoed across Africa, where lions are being killed at an unsustainable rate, experts say.

(Related: "Revenge Killings: African Farmers Massacre Lions" [February 10, 2004].)

Lions once numbered 500,000, which at the time made them one of the most populous mammals on the planet. Now they're barely hanging on, with estimates ranging between 16,000 and 100,000 in the wild.

The compensation programs are aimed at changing the attitudes of the traditionally nomadic, cattle-herding Maasai toward lions.

In most of Kenya the Maasai make little money from the tourists who come to see lions. In some cases, the tourist trade has instilled deep bitterness.

"They are only interested in seeing wildlife roam around," said Yusuf Ole Petenya, secretary of the Shompole Community Trust outside the Masai Mara National Reserve west of Amboseli.

"They don't care whether some poor guy in the village is killed or his cow is eaten by a lion."

Following an age-old tradition, some young Maasai warriors still kill the lions as part of a manhood rite, experts say, though poisoning appears to be more common today.

Conservationists such as Bonham believe that the Maasai will only stop killing lions when they feel they can profit from the animals.

In Kenya, as in much of Africa, lions are owned by the government, and the government rarely compensates people for attacks by lions.

Kenyan law requires that pastoralists be paid for losses inflicted by lions, but it is rare for the government to deliver on this promise.

Instead, conservationists, many of whom operate tourist lodges, have taken up the responsibility for compensation themselves, setting up a series of trusts.

Craig Packer is a University of Minnesota ecology professor who specializes in lions.

"The Maasai are more self-conscious of poverty than they used to be. So there's a sense that, Well these lions belong to the government; the government is ripping us off," he said.

"The government never protects people adequately against dangerous animals, but [the people are being] told not to harm the animals. … They feel the government thinks the animal is more important."

No Effect?

Compensation programs, however, have their critics.

Laurence Frank directs the group Living With Lions, which does research around Amboseli. Frank has also received funding from the National Geographic Society.

For one, there's no guarantee that the funds will be there forever, Frank said.

And in some cases, compensation has only further bred resentment—and resulted in the killings of more lions—because it is offered in some places and not others, he said.

Some scientists say that compensation also encourages bad animal husbandry, he added.

For instance, rather than building sturdy fences to keep their animals safe at night, pastoralists know if they leave an old cow out, they'll get compensation if it is killed by a predator.

"The guys who run compensation are convinced it's the only answer," Frank said.

"Unless we can extend it to a very wide scale and really slow people down in their lion killing, it's not going to have much effect," he said.

"If someone wants to draw attention to their grievance, they're going to kill wildlife. If someone wants compensation where there isn't compensation, they will kill wildlife."

Early Success

So far lion compensation in general has fared poorly in part because it may be offered around one area—usually a small region where there is an upscale tourist lodge that brings in revenue, University of Minnesota's Packer said.

That does little good for the lions, whose range extends over hundreds of miles, he said.

But at Amboseli, Frank and Maasailand Preservation Trust's Bonham agree that early signs suggest compensation is working.

Bonham and colleagues have now managed to install compensation programs on more than 600,000 acres (243,000 hectares) of the region.

In the past two years, of 40 lions killed in the region, only 3 were on Mbirikani and Kuku ranches, which are covered by the programs.

(Related: "Lions Making a Comeback on Kenya Ranches" [April 10, 2007].)

To Luca Belpietro, who runs a lodge on Kuku ranch, the drop in killings is proof of compensation's success.

He says lion populations have grown on Kuku, from 15 about a year and a half ago to 29.

"Does the compensation scheme work? Absolutely yes, I have no doubts about it," Belpietro said.

Empowering Maasai

Any effort to protect the lions also has to take into account the Maasai's desire to modernize.

Many of the indigenous people want their children to be educated. They also want good schools and hospitals, television sets, DVD players, mobile phones, and cars.

Under Bonham, the ranch at Mbirkani has begun a program called Lion Guardians, in which young Maasai men who would have killed lions are paid to track the predators by radio collar.

These lion guardians can warn cattle herders away from areas where lions are roaming.

Most of all, the guardians know that if a lion dies, there will be nothing for them to track—and hence no job.

Most encouraging, Bonham said, is a nearby ranch called Ogulului, which has recently launched a compensation scheme similar to Bonham's.

The program there was established by the Maasai themselves.

"I don't see how anybody can begin to argue against [compensation], because if you stop the killing the lions are going to come back. I think we have proven that we can stop the killing," Bonham said.

"Lions are just a small part of it. What I care about is keeping the ecosystem intact and keeping wildlife on the land."

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