Thursday, August 31, 2006

Kenya's Masai tribe, lions locked in battle

By Rob Crilly, Special for USA TODAY
Posted 8/30/2006 10:06 PM ET

MERUESHI, Kenya — A handful of sun-bleached white bones and the powerful stench of rotting flesh are all that remain of three lions.
Partimo Ole Mereru Shoop pushes back the acacia bushes that cover the savanna around his simple farm. "There, just there," he says in the language of his Masai tribe, pointing to flattened grass where the poisoned lions died.

Their remains were found last month. They are the latest victims in a bloody cull of lions across Masailand, a swath of southern Kenya claimed by both the cats and one of Africa's most recognized tribes.

As more Kenyans move to once-wild areas, tensions have grown between the cat and human populations, threatening the survival of lions in this part of Kenya, the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project says.

The conservation project and the University of California have recorded 111 killings of lions in this area since 2001. They warn that the predator could become extinct in Kenya's most important tourist destinations unless the Masai can learn to live alongside the big cats.

The killings not only reduce the lion population, they threaten Kenya's tourism industry, the leading source of the country's foreign currency. In 2005, tourism brought in revenue of $670 million, compared with $537 million in 2004, Tourism Minister Morris Dzoro said earlier this year. He said 78% of visitors to Kenya are wildlife or safari tourists.

Livestock losses

Shoop has little sentiment for the fearsome beasts. Lions roaming at night prowl within yards of his boma— a traditional Masai settlement surrounded by a thorn-bush fence.

Last year, lions snatched one of his cows just yards from the simple mud hut where he lives. In April, they took a cow and donkey from inside his cattle enclosure.

The livestock losses cost Shoop more than 20,000 shillings (about $280), a substantial amount here. The European Development Fund says 56% of Kenya's population lives on less than $1 a day. Shoop had to rely on friends and family to pay school fees for his children.

"It made me want to poison (the lions) and get rid of them all," he says. He quickly adds that he did not kill the lions that died on his land. Whoever poisoned them did the community a valuable service, he says.

Nine years ago, the tall, thin 44-year-old father of 10 encountered a lion as it tried to slip into his cattle enclosure. He fought off the animal but ended up in a hospital after a severe mauling.

"It's not good to kill the lions, but we never get compensation (for livestock losses), so what alternative is there?" he asks.

This corner of Kenya is famous for its prides of lions. Thousands of tourists visit Amboseli and Tsavo national parks and the Masai Mara reserves, where lions have been numerous enough that sightings are almost guaranteed.

The Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project monitors cats in a 3,800-square-mile area around the parks. Seamus Maclennan, a researcher with the project, warns that the killings have pushed this lion population to near extinction.

This year, 23 big cats have been killed. Maclennan says that means the slaughter is being accelerated. "I think there is a very real possibility that they'll get wiped out within the next decade," he says at the tented camp where he is based.

His report estimates the number of lions on the continent has decreased from more than a million in the 19th century to fewer than 28,000 today.

Maclennan has radio-collared eight lions to track their movements and see whether there might be a way humans and lions can live in proximity to each other. He says three of the collared lions have been killed by Masai in the past two years.

Livestock losses are only one factor that motivates the Masai to kill lions, Maclennan says. Slaughtering a lion remains a rite of passage for Masai warriors, who test their prowess with spears.

Warrior culture

The tribesmen's reputation as warriors is one of the features that make the nomadic Masai of east Africa one of the continent's best-known tribes. Photos of Masai decked out in beads and wearing the distinctive red shuka, or cloak, are common on postcards and in coffee-table books in this part of the world.

While killing lions is illegal, such crimes often go unpunished, Maclennan says. "Young warriors who engage in traditional lion killing do not face significant consequences because of lax law enforcement and judicial corruption," says a recent report by the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project. "Unless that changes in the immediate future, Kenya will lose its most important tourist attraction."

Arguments about the economic importance of the country's lion population hold little water with Elijah Kakarao, chief of about 5,000 Masai who live in Merueshi, a dusty area of scrub next to the dirt road that carries tourists to the Amboseli reserve.

He says he has tried to explain to his people that the lions are vital to tourism, which could help fund clinics and schools for the Masai communities close to the parks.

"People who visit, their money goes to the government and we don't see the revenue, and that makes (the Masai) upset," he says sipping milky tea brewed by Shoop's wife in the shade of an acacia tree. "We don't see the benefits, but we have to live with the consequences."

Kakarao says that if tourists want to see lions here, the locals should be compensated by the government for their livestock losses.

"People injured or killed by lions are not even compensated. So what are the chances for people who have just lost livestock?" he says. He waves a scrap of faded paper that lists nine outstanding compensation claims.

Wildlife bill pending

The Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife did not respond to requests for an interview on the issue of compensation for lion killings. It is drafting a wildlife bill that would overhaul compensation payments and formalize the methods in which communities can take advantage of the wildlife on their land, possibly by legalizing hunting.

A lack of cash has delayed payments to Masai for their losses, but the bottleneck is starting to ease, says Gichuki Kabukuru, a spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service, the body charged with protecting wild animals.

He dismisses the warnings about the destruction of the lion population, blaming "biased" research. He says most studies tend to look only at areas where humans and animals have clashed, rather than also considering regions where there has been relative harmony.

The Wildlife Service will be increasing patrols in this area, Kabukuru says. "We are doing all we can, but we have a lack of staff. We cannot police every corner."

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