Kenya: Colourful lions for Nairobi's streets to fight extinction
By The East African (Kenya) - 05.25.2009
Nairobi (Kenya) - Lions are about to be let loose in Nairobi. Fifty of them are to stalk the streets of the city centre and the major suburbs — prowling the highways and byways, lurking outside shops and lying in wait in the malls. But these lions are unlikely to be dangerous, unless of course a child falls off one when playing on its back.
All of them are to be made of resin and each will be brightly painted by artists — colourful street sculpture aimed at raising awareness of the fate awaiting the king of the beasts.
And that fate is extinction. Twenty years ago there were 200,00 lions in Africa. Now there are only from 25,000 to 30,000 on the entire continent, of which only an estimated 2,100 are in Kenya.
Their decline has many causes, prominent among them being their slaughter by herdsmen anxious to protect their cattle. And it was cattle that gave the charity Born Free the idea of placing full size painted sculptures of lions throughout Nairobi.
They will follow, appropriately enough, in the hoofprints of the full size resin cows that grazed the streets of London, Manchester and Zurich in a popular campaign of the 1990s. And the elephants that trumpeted their way through Norwich in the UK, drawing pubic attention to their falling numbers. And the sheep that flocked the squares of Liverpool.
Yes, painted animals are the new pin badges that support a favourite cause — and now Nairobi is taking its place on the world stage alongside these other major cities.
Lions charity Born Free was started by actress Virginia McKenna, who played Joy Adamson in the film about Elsa the lioness, raised with her husband George as part of their family at Meru National Park. The part of George was taken by actor Bill Travers, who will help to launch the campaign to be called, rather wittily, Pride of Kenya, in Nairobi on June 17. And Virginia McKenna will come to Kenya on November 4 to help auction off the lions to raise more money for her charity.
Sites for the lions have not yet been finalised but the City Council is said to be "very responsive," as enthusiastic about this idea as it was about the plan by artist Maryann Muthoni to paint the city's litter bins. Places where Born Free hopes to place their lions — each one securely bolted down onto a concrete plinth — include the Aga Khan Walk, Mama Ngina Street, Freedom Corner, and shopping malls including the Sarit Centre.
Each lion will be in the same standing pose; the fun will be in making each one different — and that is down to the individual skill of the artists the sponsors choose.
The original model for the lions is only three inches high. It was made by Briton Chris Wilkinson whose company Wild in Art specialises in organising events to promote wildlife and in using animals in education and conservation projects. Wilkinson, 63, has worked with the World Wildlife Fund as well as Born Free and his next project will be similar to Pride of Kenya, but aimed at saving polar bears. A television designer, he has worked with Robbie Coltrane on Cracker about a criminal psychiatrist, and with the late Jeremy Brett in the acclaimed series of Sherlock Holmes stories.
After making the model lion he gave it to Kenyan artist Gakunju Kaigwa, who has scaled it up to lifesize, using a polystyrene block finished with plaster. Kaigwa, 51 — perhaps best known for his sculpture of a diving woman in the Westlands mall — then made several moulds from the lion and, as you read this, is casting the 50 full-size lions in resin. They should be ready next week.
The artists will have only one restriction in decorating or painting their lion… no company logo, name or slogans will be allowed, no matter how big the sponsor. Whether such a restriction will deter potential supporters remains to be seen but it will be interesting to note how they get around it — company colours, perhaps? The deep red of KQ or the acid green of Safaricom? Born Free is hoping each lion will find a sponsor at Ksh200,000 each.
Alice Owen, the Kenya manager of Born Free commented: "Lions are at the top of the Big Five and if we continue to lose our lions at the rate of five per cent per year, we are not only losing our heritage but also dealing a body blow to our tourist industry, which employs 19 per cent of Kenyans."
But Kaigwa put it differently: "I was shocked when I found out there were only 2,100 lions left in Kenya. It's crucial people are made aware of that. It's our problem. We have to own it. Lions don't belong to tourists, they belong to us. It's up to all of us to do something to save them."
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org