Bigcat huntin­gin Kenya

With num­bers in Kenya drop­ping, Shivani Bhalla is get­ting lo­cal war­riors on board to save the big cat.

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T he speck­led ash swirled spo­rad­i­cally in the African evening air, catch­ing care­lessly on the leaf­less thorn trees, their spindly spines cast­ing hos­tile shad­ows along the lone, rusty-red track. Be­tween the barbed sa­van­nah brush a Sam­buru war­rior sat, a look of in­com­pre­hen­sion on his dark and clouded face.

Le­toiye’s gaze was fixed on the fin­ished fire at his feet, its mound of black­ened cin­ders prom­i­nent against the ter­ra­cotta Kenyan ground in which lay the charred and black­ened, burnt out bones of a lion’s head.

Loirish, the spir­ited eight-year-old lion whose move­ments and habits Le­toiye had been track­ing for only a few weeks, had been be­headed, most prob­a­bly he thought to de­stroy the con­ser­va­tion­ist col­lar he had care­fully placed around the large cat’s un­ruly, golden mane. Loirish’s killers were un­doubt­edly aware they were be­ing tracked and that would lead the con­ser­va­tion­ists to them sooner.

Le­toiye sighed de­spon­dently; his en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist ef­forts had been in vain, for Loirish had sim­ply be­come an­other vic­tim of Kenya’s spi­ralling hu­man-an­i­mal con­flict prob­lem.

Ewaso Lions, the con­ser­va­tion group for which Le­toiye works, was soon to learn that the col­lared lion had at­tacked the live­stock of a lo­cal com­mu­nity. In re­venge for dec­i­mat­ing their liveli­hood, the vil­lagers sought out the lion, shoot­ing it dead with an AK47.

It’s an all too com­mon prob­lem in his­tor­i­cally lion-led habi­tats that are

fall­ing slowly but surely to en­croach­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tions. And in the man-ver­sus-big-cats war, teeth and claws are no match for guns.

Hu­man-an­i­mal con­flict is a leading threat to lion pop­u­la­tions across Africa. As coun­tries such as Kenya grow both in pop­u­lace and in­fra­struc­ture, the pres­sure on wildlife has fol­lowed suit. Pushed into smaller ar­eas with less space in which to in­habit and hunt, lions have been forced to co­ex­ist un­nat­u­rally along­side man with nat­u­rally neg­a­tive reper­cus­sions.

“A rea­son lions are dis­ap­pear­ing so quickly is pre­dom­i­nantly be­cause they are run­ning out of space,” ex­plains Shivani Bhalla, the founder of Ewaso Lions, a Sam­buru (north­cen­tral Kenya)-based or­gan­i­sa­tion Shivani, who as a third-gen­er­a­tion Kenyan has grown up with big cats. “Less space means less ac­cess to wild prey be­cause as the land dis­ap­pears, so do the herbivores and then the lions strug­gle to find food.

“This, of course, causes a lot of re­sent­ment among the lo­cal people whose liveli­hoods de­pend on their live­stock. They re­tal­i­ate and kill the lions ei­ther by poi­son­ing, spear­ing or as is com­mon in north­ern Kenya, shoot­ing.”

S

‘Ar­eas lions used to roam within have dis­ap­peared; that’s a lot to do with our pop­u­la­tion growth’

at­tempt­ing to save Kenya’s big cats. “The ar­eas that they used to oc­cupy and roam within have dis­ap­peared; that’s a lot to do with our pop­u­la­tion growth, which is high and is putting un­told pres­sure on our crops and re­serves. Lions are truly suf­fer­ing from habi­tat loss.”

Sta­tis­tics from the Kenyan govern­ment re­veal that around 100 lions are killed ev­ery year by hu­mans whose live­stock have fallen prey to the big cats. As man ag­gres­sively moves into ar­eas tra­di­tion­ally re­served for wildlife, less space has re­sulted in more fre­quent con­tact be­tween the two. The grow­ing ten­dency by man to har­vest wildlife has left less nat­u­ral prey for lions.

“Un­for­tu­nately, easy prey tends to be live­stock,” says 36-year-old uch meth­ods are wip­ing out lion pop­u­la­tions fast. The big cats once roamed freely across large swathes of Africa, but re­cent stud­ies sug­gest that lion pop­u­la­tions may have de­creased nearly 90 per cent in one decade, leav­ing just 20,000 re­main­ing in a hand­ful of coun­tries. Last year the Kenya Wildlife Ser­vice es­ti­mated that ap­prox­i­mately only 2,000 lions re­main in their coun­try, most of which now live in pro­tected Na­tional Parks. Those that live in the wild, how­ever, are dy­ing at a dis­turb­ing rate, and hu­manan­i­mal con­flict, in ar­eas where live­stock is lost to lions, is mostly of­ten to blame.

Shivani and her team have been work­ing hard since set­ting up Ewaso Lions in 2001 to re­duce that con­flict. Work that was recog­nised this May when Ewaso Lions was awarded the pres­ti­gious Whit­ley Award – of­ten re­ferred to as the Green Os­cars – in recog­ni­tion of re­mark­able con­ser­va­tion ef­forts to pro­mote hu­man-lion co-ex­is­tence in North­ern Kenya.

“Win­ning theWhit­ley Award al­lows my project, Ewaso Lions, to en­gage more Sam­buru war­riors in con­ser­va­tion,” she says. “I ded­i­cate it to my team in Sam­buru – a group of spe­cial young war­riors who risk their lives to save lions. They are the real wildlife he­roes and it is a great priv­i­lege for me to work with them.”

The war­riors she talks of be­long to their most suc­cess­ful pro­gramme

to date, War­rior Watch, a project to which Le­toiye be­longs and en­ables the Sam­buru Mo­rans, semi-no­madic pas­toral­ists who herd cat­tle but also keep sheep, goats and camels, to front con­ser­va­tion­ist ef­forts in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. De­spite their vast knowl­edge of the land and its wild an­i­mal dwellers, the Mo­rans have un­til re­cently re­mained one of the most ne­glected groups in the area’s con­ser­va­tion man­age­ment.

“Within their com­mu­ni­ties they are re­spon­si­ble for the pro­tec­tion and se­cu­rity of their vil­lages, their live­stock and their people,” Shivani ex­plains. “They are the ones who spend all their time in the bush and see wildlife on a day-to-day ba­sis so they can of­fer an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the land­scape. Their role is to be wildlife am­bas­sadors, to speak with people across the re­gion about how to re­duce con­flict and in­form them [the vil­lage] elders who are the key de­ci­sion mak­ers. We have trained and spo­ken with the eight elders in this area and they are great am­bas­sadors when it comes to con­ser­va­tion is­sues.”

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‘Sam­buru Mo­rans be­lieve if you hear lions roar at night, then you won’t ever suf­fer drought’

on the im­por­tance of keep­ing lions.”

The pro­gramme is the first in north­ern Kenya to ac­tively in­volve lo­cal war­riors in lo­cal con­ser­va­tion ef­forts and its ul­ti­mate ob­jec­tive is to pro­mote hu­man-preda­tor co­ex­is­tence, to re­duce con­flict and in­crease aware­ness of the im­por­tance of wildlife in the lo­cal area.

“Ini­tially it be­gan with just five war­riors but now we have 17 work­ing across two com­mu­nity con­ser­van­cies,” Shivani says. “Our plan is to con­tinue ex­pand­ing un­til we have a net­work across the re­gion. We also work with efore Ewaso Lions in­tro­duced War­rior Watch, a pro­gramme that since its in­cep­tion in 2010 has saved 30 lions, it was fairly com­mon for lo­cals to hunt and kill lions that strayed into the vil­lages and made away with live­stock. But Shivani and her team feel con­fi­dent that the pro­gramme has changed at­ti­tudes, a highly im­por­tant as­pect of con­ser­va­tion in a coun­try that will prob­a­bly see lions ex­tinct within 20 years if rad­i­cal ef­forts are not taken.

“Un­for­tu­nately the sit­u­a­tion for lions in Kenya is pretty se­ri­ous,” she says. “The cur­rent es­ti­mate for num­bers of lions in the coun­try is only 2,000 and the Kenya Wildlife Ser­vice es­ti­mates that we are los­ing about 100 of them a year.

“This is ob­vi­ously a great con­cern for the govern­ment, for con­ser­va­tion and for tourism. Lions are a main tourist at­trac­tion in Kenya and tourism is very im­por­tant for the coun­try’s econ­omy so re­ally this is a big con­cern for ev­ery­one.”

The African lion is cur­rently listed as “Vul­ner­a­ble” and “Lo­cally En­dan­gered” on the IUCN’s (In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture) Red List of En­dan­gered Species, which means they are at “high risk of extinction in the wild” and there­fore are a high pri­or­ity species for wildlife con­ser­va­tion.

It is thought that to­day there are fewer than 30,000 liv­ing in the wild across Africa, down from hun­dreds of thou­sands only 100 years ago – and that’s a shift that can only have a neg­a­tive im­pact on the coun­try’s bio­di­ver­sity.

“Keep­ing lions is so im­por­tant for the health of the eco-sys­tem,” Shivani ex­plains, “and Sam­buru Mo­rans re­ally do be­lieve that if you have lions in your area and you hear them roar at night then you won’t ever suf­fer drought be­cause your en­vi­ron­ment is healthy.”

And tra­di­tional be­liefs such as those are in tune with sci­en­tific facts. As a top car­ni­vore, lions play

a key role pre­serv­ing bio­di­ver­sity through the reg­u­la­tion of species by prey­ing upon herbivores, thereby help­ing to con­trol plant com­mu­ni­ties and thus keep the en­vi­ron­ment in check.

“We have cre­ated sev­eral pro­grammes to send out this mes­sage,” says Shivani. “One of my favourites is ed­u­cat­ing the lo­cal chil­dren. Sadly the case in Kenya is so many people from all over the world come to see our wildlife yet the people liv­ing around these parks and re­serves tend to only see the neg­a­tive side of wildlife. They see a chee­tah eat­ing their goat, they see an ele­phant chas­ing some­one, they see the re­mains of a cow af­ter a lion has preyed on it.”

S hift­ing this per­cep­tion is tan­ta­mount to its ef­forts and Ewaso Lions now of­fers a Lions Kids Camp for chil­dren in the com­mu­ni­ties (as Shivani says, “to teach the con­ser­va­tion­ist of to­mor­row”), a Lion watch pro­gramme with lo­cal guides ed­u­cated in all as­pects of lion con­ser­va­tion, and an En­gag­ingWomen pro­gramme, Mama Simba. The lat­ter sees fe­males ed­u­cated and aided in live­stock trade, bead­work, and food businesses while help­ing to re­in­force their live­stock en­clo­sures and trail wildlife de­ter­rents in vil­lages where live­stock loss to car­ni­vores is high.

“Work­ing with women is our new­est pro­gramme,” Shivani says. “They wanted to be in­volved like the war­riors so we started train­ing them on how to avoid con­flict in the vil­lages and we have of­fered them con­ser­va­tion train­ing. We are re­ally work­ing with ev­ery­one, chil­dren, women, elders and war­riors in our ef­forts to try to en­cour­age them to live with lions.”

But liv­ing with lions does not mean ac­cus­tom­ing them to hu­man con­tact and she high­lights the im­por­tance of main­tain­ing a dis­tance be­tween the two.

“When lions have been raised by hu­mans or had any hu­man con­tact it is very dif­fi­cult to re­lease them back into the wild,” she says. “To have any suc­cess of lion re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion they need to have lit­tle hu­man con­tact so that they re­main scared of people. Nowa­days un­for­tu­nately lions need to have that fear to en­sure their sur­vival.

“It’s get­ting too late to do any­thing other than fo­cus on the con­ser­va­tion of lions be­cause other­wise the re­al­ity is we are go­ing to lose them. People want to see a lion walk­ing through the bush not be­ing hand raised and fed through a cage. We need to keep them in the wild where they be­long – not be­ing cud­dled in some­one’s arms.”

The dwin­dling num­bers of lions got Shivani mov­ing

MAK­ING A DIF­FER­ENCE Shivani of­fers train­ing to lo­cal people in con­ser­va­tion ef­forts

MAK­ING A DIF­FER­ENCE Ed­u­ca­tion is key to sav­ing the lions, says Shivani

Ewaso Lions staff are help­ing to save the big cats

It’s a priv­i­lege to be work­ing with the Sam­buru war­riors, says Shivani

Shivani re­ceives the Whit­ley award from Princess Anne

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