Lions Vs. Farmers: Peace Possible?

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 16, 2003
Africa's wild lion population is in trouble. Scientists do not know how many there were a few decades ago, but today's estimate of fewer than 23,000 on the entire continent is much less than previously thought.

"What is clear is that they are in very serious trouble now," said Laurence Frank, a wildlife specialist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Lions and other large predators like hyenas and leopards are killed by livestock owners who have no patience for the carnivores' appetite for cows, sheep, and goats. Better access to guns and poisons in recent years has increased people's ability to kill wildlife. One by one, the predators are disappearing.

Conservationists are largely unaware of the problem, said Frank, because inside parks lions appear plentiful. But lions need a lot of area for their survival and pay no attention to park boundaries. When lions go outside their protected domain, they become a nuisance to farmers.

"In historic times large carnivores worldwide have been killed off because they eat livestock, not because their habitat has disappeared," said Frank.

With the support of the National Geographic Society Conservation Trust and the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, Frank and a team of wildlife specialists are headed to Kenya's Masailand to get a precise measure of the current lion population and attempt to broker a peace between the predators and livestock owners.

Over the past five years as part of the Laikipia Predator Project in northern Kenya, Frank has studied the conflict between large predators and livestock. He aims to apply concepts developed there to turn around the collapsing lion population in the Masai steppe of Kenya, in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Craig Packer, a biologist at the University of Minnesota who specializes in lions, said that Frank's objectives in Africa are noble and needed in order to recover a lion population that is much smaller than people had assumed just a few years ago.

"I've not a clue if it will work, but I think someone should try it," he said. "Laurence has been working on it for some time. He's got as good a chance as anyone to make it work."

Population Study

Frank describes the people in Kenya's Masailand as traditional pastoralists, who graze cattle, sheep, and goats for their own subsistence on 1,139 square miles (2,950 square kilometers) of group ranch land adjacent to the Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.

The grassland also serves as wet-season habitat for many animals, including large predators such as lions and hyenas. In recent years the Masai have increased their persecution of the predators, leaving the lion population potentially vulnerable to extinction.

Frank and his colleagues will spend the next three years monitoring the lion population, trying to discern where they go, where they come from, who eats the most livestock, and how many are left.

"We are really trying to get a handle on how many lions are in the area," said Frank. "We do know there has been tremendous mortality."

The researchers will combine aerial radio tracking, global positioning system (GPS) technology, and genetic data to study the lions. Game scouts will collect information on livestock losses and predator killings.

The information should tell the researchers where the lions live, how they move in relation to prey, and which lions do most of the livestock killing. Armed with such data, the researchers hope to broker a peace with the herders.

Compensation Program

Game scouts will be trained to encourage the herdsmen to use good anti-predator livestock management, such as the construction of strong bomas, which are traditional enclosures for livestock to overnight in, much like a corral. Other practices include keeping well-fed dogs to warn of predators and using experienced men rather than children to do the daytime herding.

Those who follow these good management practices and still lose livestock to lions will be compensated under a system that Frank describes as having "a lot of strings attached to it" in order to avoid the corruption and abuse that has surrounded other compensation programs in the past.

"People will be held to high standards of livestock husbandry," he said. "If they are not attempting to discourage predators, they won't be compensated."

Under the system, for the first year livestock owners will be compensated the full value of their livestock when taken from well-managed bomas. Strays left outside the boma at night will only be compensated at 30 percent value. Boma requirements increase after a year and no compensation will be rewarded for livestock left outside.

"Ultimately what you want to do is increase responsibility by the cattle owners," said Packer, who added that compensation programs are always very tricky ventures where the line between encouraging personal responsibility among the farmers must be balanced with fair compensation when livestock is taken by a predator.

Editor's Note: The Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project is one of two projects funded through a joint conservation initiative of National Geographic and Busch Entertainment Corporation to address urgent conservation concerns. The initiative was announced July 16. The second project, the development of a device boaters could use to help them avoid collision with manatees, is featured in a separate report published by National Geographic News. A list of recent stories about research supported by the National Geographic Society may be found at the bottom of this page.

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