for National Geographic News
April 10, 2007
Conservation efforts on a ranch in southern Kenya have led to an "extremely encouraging" rebound in the lion population there, an African predator expert said.
The positive trend is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal situation for lions in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, said Laurence Frank, a wildlife biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Less than a year ago, Frank reported that Maasai warriors appeared poised to obliterate southern Kenya's lion population.
The big cats are speared as part of a manhood ritual and poisoned to prevent livestock predation, he explained.
In 2006 a total of 32 lions in the region were killed.
But a compensation program, combined with a newfound passion for conservation, has allowed the lion population on one communally owned ranch to increase from 15 to 25, or about 67 percent, in the midst of the surrounding slaughter.
"We've made remarkable progress in a short time," said Frank, who directs the Living With Lions project in Kenya.
"The lions seem to be doing better where we and our partners are working."
(Frank's research has been funded in part by the National Geographic Conservation Trust. The Conservation Trust and National Geographic News are both divisions of the National Geographic Society.)
Compensation and Pride
The project seeks to reverse the dramatic decline in lion populations outside the African country's national parks and game reserves. It works closely with several groups in southern Kenya.
The Mbirikani Predator Compensation Fund and Maasailand Preservation Trust are headed by Tom Hill, a New York philanthropist, and Richard Bonham, who runs Ol Donyo Wuas tourist lodge on the communally owned Mbirikani Group Ranch.
The privately funded compensation fund reimburses Maasai herdsmen when lions and other predators kill their livestock. The compensation removes the financial burden and emotional tension such a loss creates, fund operators say.
But to receive full compensation, herdsmen must keep watch over their grazing livestock during the day and guard them in lion-proof thorn bush enclosures called bomas at night. If they don't, they are paid less for the loss.
Frank said this compensation program is the most important factor in the rebound of the lion population on the group ranch, which covers 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers).
The trust, together with Frank's group, has also started a program that gives young, mostly uneducated Maasai warriors an opportunity to work in conservation as lion guardians, or Simba Scouts.
Leela Hazzah, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who studies Maasai attitudes toward carnivores, conceived the guardian program and runs it with Séamus Maclennan, a project biologist.
The guardians track the lions and tell their neighbors when a lion is in the vicinity, prompting locals to graze their livestock elsewhere.
The guardians are also community educators who help their people improve livestock care and understand the potential economic benefits of conservation.
"That is an extremely valuable service that they're playing in their community," Frank said. "This gives them prestige."
The program is governed by the lion population's size. Currently there are enough lions for 7 paid guardians and 20 volunteer positions.
As the lion population grows, more jobs will be added. If a lion is killed or poisoned, a job disappears.
What's more, Frank noted, the young men have enthusiastically thrown themselves into the job and are already making a major impact.
"All the young men on the group ranch have sworn they'll never kill another lion, which is totally remarkable. The whole point of being a young man until now has been to kill a lion," he said.
Frank is further encouraged that this conservation success is now being replicated on another nearby ranch.
The Kuku Group Ranch is operated by Luca Belpietro and Antonella Bonomi's Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which is affiliated with Campi ya Kanzi Lodge.
The addition of the ranch expands the compensation and conservation initiatives by about 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers). Frank hopes to include additional ranches in the coming years.
"What we're doing on these two places now is basically pilot efforts to see what works," Frank said.
"It looks like on Mbirikani we've hit on a winning formula of involving the local young men in conservation and helping pay people for livestock killed by lions and other predators," he added.
But despite the success of these local pilot projects, the overall situation in southern Kenya "is still pretty dismal for lions," Frank noted.
"There have been some tremendous developments, but we'll want to see these developments bear fruit for a couple of years before I'm ready to say we've licked the situation," he said.
If successful, Frank hopes to expand the efforts throughout Kenya's rangelands.
Sarel van der Merwe is chair of the World Conservation Union-affiliated African Lion Working Group based in South Africa.
He said that Frank and his colleagues have had "remarkable successes" in addressing the conflict between humans and lions, and he encouraged the researchers to widen their efforts.
"Isolated little management plans will not result in a stop to the killing and resultant decrease in lion numbers over the African continent," van der Merwe said via email.
"Comprehensive conservation strategies and managed cohabitation are the key words for successful lion population conservation continent-wide."