Why are humans so fascinated with Kenya’s lions?
On the one hand, perhaps they remind us of larger versions of the domestic cats that we love at home. You know, the ones who ignore us until they need something and who make such fascinating subjects for amateur video projects? And like those domestic cats, the lions have fluffy fur, their own behavioral quirks and, according to Scientific American, they also snuggle. Very cute.
On the other hand, Kenya lions are also the apex predator. They eat meat…11 pounds per day on the average. And when hungry for their dinner, they are capable chasing it down at a 50 mile per hour sprint. The carnivorous King of the Jungle, if you will. Except they don’t live in jungles. So even though we kind of want to snuggle with them, we also fear and respect them because we understand they they occupy a higher spot on the food chain than we do.
And yet, despite our admiring, nervous respect of the species, lion populations throughout Africa, including in the Samburu region of Kenya, have suffered from declining populations.
How Are Kenya Lions Threatened?
According to this depressing National Geographic statistic, the lion population is less than 5% of what is was in the 1940’s. In late 2015, the US Fish & Wildlife Service gave African lions protected status under the Endangered Species Act. This status prevents, among other things, trophy hunters from bringing their “prizes” back into the US. This will hopefully cut down on the illegal import of trophy kills typified by that idiot dentist who took down Cecil the Lion.
But it is also true that lions and humans need to figure out how to peacefully coexist on their own home turf. The lions in Kenya aren’t walled off in national parks, they have to share their habitat with humans.
The human residents of central Kenya rely on a pastoral livelihood which is very dependent upon livestock for both cash and subsistence. Developed pasture-land reduces the natural habitat for both the lion and the lion’s natural wild prey-base. And with that reduction of prey-base comes an increased risk that the lions will go after the domestic livestock. Hence, the human/wildlife conflict.
So what’s to be done about it?
Enter Shivani Bhalla and the Ewaso Lions Project
Shivani Bhalla is the Founder and Executive Director of Ewaso Lions. Shivani always wanted to study the wild animals in the Samburu region of central Kenya. She started out working with Save the Elephants, studying elephant populations in the Samburu, But she soon shifted to studying the wild cats in the area. Little was being done at the time to study the Kenya lions and Shivani was motivated to get a baseline on the population in the Samburu area.
Well, when I say “Samburu” it’s shorthand for a larger area in central Kenya that encompasses the Samburu National Reserve, private agricultural lands and community conservancies. I make this distinction because it calls attention to the fact that the lions go where they go. They don’t carry a passport and aren’t particularly concerned with borders. But humans do concern themselves with borders. So lions moving freely in the landscape might find a rather wide degree of welcome depending upon where they wander.
So back to Shivani…the more she studied the lions, the more unanswered questions she found. Are they being killed by people? How are the national park’s lions being affected by humans? And more importantly, what happens to the lions when the leave the boundaries of the national part and enter community lands? Shivani founded Ewaso Lions in order to answer those questions and find community-based solutions to the problem of human/lion conflict.
Fast forward ten years and Ewaso Lions now employs 37 people full time. But more importantly, they engage the local community members as well as the nearby safari lodges to participate in population studies and conservation programs.
Ewaso Lions’ Conservation Programs
Mitigating Lion/Human conflict
One of the ways that Ewaso Lions helps reduce human/lion conflict is by training and engaging with young men. The Warrior program engages young Samburu warriors to keep an eye on the local lion populations. They are equipped with tracking equipment and trained in basic literacy so that they can report their findings. While the Warriors are out in the bush, they track and record movements of the resident lions.
But they aren’t just collecting data. The Warriors are on hand in the local communities to help mitigate conflict arising from lion predation on livestock. They teach best practices to the local farmers, encouraging them to use predator-proof fencing for their livestock pens. And the Warriors spread conservation education to the farming community.
Ewaso Lions also understands and values the critical role that women play in these communities so they have developed the Mama Simba program. Traditionally, women have been excluded from conservation activities in Kenya. But Ewaso Lions is working to engage the local community women in a number of conservation activities. The Mama Simbas get education on how to reinforce their livestock fencing, garbage mitigation strategies, and they are trained in spotting and reporting on local wildlife activities.
Educating the next generation of Kenyan Lion conservationists
Not unlike the Cotton-Top Tamarin project in Colombia and the African Painted Dog conservation project in Zimbabwe, Ewaso Lions believes in kids. Most kids in northern Africa have had only negative experiences with wildlife. The Ewaso Lion’s kids camp offers an opportunity for the kids to make a positive connection with wildlife. The kids come to the multi-day camp and receive wildlife education, safari trips and educational games. Ewaso Lions offers these programs at their own project site. But they are also partnering with neighboring communities to sponsor the kids’ camps as well. This sort of scale is critical with conservation programs because a well-informed child can bring a great deal of energetic persuasion home with them. And a LOT of well-informed children can change the world.
One such participant, “Junior” loved the camp so much that he sort of never left. Even though he’s only thirteen and technically too young to be a Warrior, he invites himself out on field expeditions with the Warriors. An you can often find him hanging out in the Ewaso Lions Camp after school. That kid is the next Kenyan Lion Champion, and it all started with his kids camp.
Keeping an eye on the Kenya lions.
There are a lot of safari providers in Kenya. Of course they are always spotting for wildlife so that they can give their guests a great experience. Ewaso Lions leverages this commercial motivation for conservation purposes. Ewaso Lions has tagged 50 lions which they use for population tracking. They work with 20 safari lodges in the area to keep an eye out for these lions as part of the Lion Watch program.
The safari providers are the eyes and ears in the national parks and reserves and they report lion activity back to Ewaso. But more than that, these lodges are committed to providing a more conservation-minded education to their clients. They help their guests get to know the Kenya lions personally, which also helps to bring awareness to the factors that are putting the lions as risk.
Conservation Minded Travel to the Samburu
I’ve asked Shivani to offer some tips for how best to experience central Kenya. Here is her advice:
- You get what you pay for: These Kenyan safaris ain’t cheap. Well, some of them are cheap. But Shivani says that in Kenya, you get what you pay for. The more expensive providers are often more likely to be supportive of conservation initiatives…and community employment.
- How to keep the money local: Ask your lodge how many local community members they employ and how their business serves the local community.
- Choose a lodge that is in Lion Watch: There are 6 lodges in the Samburu, Kalama and West Gate Conservency areas that are in the program. Research your lodges and ask specifically if they are in the Ewaso Lion Watch program. You can find a list of the trained guides here.
- DIY vs. a Guided trip: Driving yourself from Nairobi to the Samburu would require 12 hours on hard pack dirt roads and limited street signs. Just don’t. Go with a package tour and fly in.
Here are some blogs and resources that will help you plan your trip to the Samburu
- Safari Junkie guides to Kenya
- 6 Things to do in Samburu and 3-day Safari in Samburu from Jumia Travel
- Samburu guide from Imagine Travel
- Kenya travel resources from Global ETA Library
- Lonely Planet Guide to Kenya
How to Support Ewaso Lions
- Donate to Ewaso Lions
- Ewaso Lions wants to expand their kids camp program. For $2,000, you can send 30 kids to camp
- $150 helps send one kid to camp
- $500 will buy a tracking collar for a lion
- $50 helps to help pay for a Warrior’s salary
- Help spread the word about Ewaso Lions
- Educate yourself about lions by visiting your local zoo
- Ewaso Lions is supported by the Columbus Ohio, San Diego California, Houston Texas zoo as well as Sea World and other animal conservation organizations. Visit any of them or your own local zoo and learn more about lions and other large African wild cats.
Your Parting Shot
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