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