Three-lions-gazing-upwards
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Living in harmony with lions

Peaceful human-lion coexistence is crucial for the survival of these threatened big cats…
by 29th Mar 2019

Peaceful human-lion coexistence is crucial for the survival of these threatened big cats…

One grey and particularly wet evening last June, we were on our way to what we thought was a bush sleepout in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Instead, we arrived unexpectedly at a traditional Maasai village. As we pulled up to the kraal (a collection of African huts enclosed by a rustic fence made of sticks), we were greeted warmly by the haunting chants of the fearsome warriors, fully kitted out in their iconic Maasai attire.

“Karibu sana (welcome) to our home,” they flashed big smiles as we climbed out of our safari vehicles, all looking visibly confused. The big reveal was that this was to be our sleepout. Many of the mud huts had been vacated and ever so proudly prepped for our arrival and there was an air of pride as our new Maasai friends welcomed us into their homes and traditional way of life.

Our experience merits an entire story to itself, but suffice it to say that this was a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list moment that I’ll never forget. It was as exciting, educational and eye opening, as it was uncomfortable and uncertain. All night, around a blazing fire, we ate, drank, mingled, danced and laughed with the Maasai. We learned first-hand how they live in harmony with the wildlife. As the sun set, we watched a large herd of zebra grazing just beyond the fence line and at night, as we slept in the rustic mud and stick huts, we heard the distant cries of hyena.

Perhaps most importantly, we witnessed just how important livestock are to the Maasai people. The amount of cows and goats that each household possesses is a determination of Maasai wealth and status. Each day, young male herders from each family take the prized cows and goats out into the Mara to graze and drink, and at night, they return to the homestead. The livestock sleep in and around the huts, not outside the fence, but rather in the very heart of the homestead where they are considered ‘safe’ from nearby predators (namely the lion) seeking an easy meal.

A species under threat

The sobering reality is that Africa’s lion population has halved in the last 25 years. According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the continent’s lions are currently classified as ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered’ and the implications of this are dire. As an ‘umbrella’ species, a thriving lion population is a direct indicator of the health and ecological wellbeing of an ecosystem. Without these apex predators, the ecosystem suffers from an unhealthy imbalance.

Lions across Africa are currently threatened by habitat loss, illegal poaching/wildlife trade, as well as human-lion conflict. These big cats require expansive, well-balanced landscapes to ensure their long-term survival, however rising demands from increasing human populations are encroaching on this space, and ultimately, their survival.

Heading across the border from where we were in Kenya and into neighbouring Tanzania, the world-famous Ngorongoro Crater and surrounding conservation area is celebrated for being one of Africa’s longest-standing experiments in multiple land use, whereby pastoral communities actually live in and amongst the conserved land and protected wildlife of a national park. Here, the Maasai people coexist, for the most part, in harmony with the wildlife, including lions. This coexistence, however, is greatly challenged by the ever presence of opportunistic predators that prey on their valuable livestock.

The good news is that lions are a resilient species. They still stand a chance, but the time to act is now. There are an estimated 20 000 wild lions roaming the earth and this number can increase if large tracts of land are created where lion populations can recover and local communities can flourish alongside them. Thankfully, to help combat this human/predator conflict in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) specifically, the KopeLion Project was developed by Swedish conservationist and biologist, Ingela Jansson.

Mama Simba

Affectionately known in the NCA by her Maasai nickname, ‘Mama Simba’ (simba being the Swahili word for lion), Ingela’s journey from young, impressionable backpacker to well-respected lion researcher is a story of determination. At the age of 20, Ingela travelled to Africa and the journey changed the way she saw the world.

Inspired to work with wildlife, Ingela returned to Sweden with what she refers to as a “naïve dream to become a biologist and find a job on the wild savanna in Africa.” She pursued a degree in biology, researching brown bear ecology and, armed with a degree but no actual referrals in Africa, she returned in search of her dream.

It was now 2005 and Ingela joined a friend for the East Africa leg of his Cape to Cape cycling tour, all the while searching for a job, but coming up empty handed. Eventually putting the cycling on hold, Ingela was offered a job with the Serengeti Lion Project, which was established in 1966 and is one of the world’s longest standing research projects on one animal population. Her new role as research assistant would involve the long-term monitoring of the lions in the area. Her dream had finally come true.

A life with lions

After three years assisting with lion research in the Serengeti and NCA, Ingela craved a more hands-on approach to lion conservation and decided to base herself in the NCA. Inspired by the vision and impact of the Lion Guardians in Kenya, Ingela launched KopeLion.

To give some background, the highly successful Lion Guardian model was developed in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, which at the time, was experiencing a plummeting lion population due to human conflict. Lions were preying on the Maasai livestock and, in turn, the Maasai warriors were killing the lions, mainly to protect their bovine livelihoods, but also as an age-old cultural ritual that demonstrates bravery and elevates young Maasai boys into manhood.

Applying this proven model to her own work in Tanzania, Ingela’s vision for KopeLion was born. KopeLion aims to promote successful and locally-driven coexistence in conservation. By communicating directly with the Maasai people, Ingela and her team discovered that the warriors didn’t actually intend to rid the area of lions, rather they just wanted to protect that which is most valuable to them, their cows and goats.

By implementing the successful Lion Guardian model, KopeLion seeks to inspire and enable local action, using both science and traditional knowledge, for the management and ongoing monitoring of sustainable human-lion coexistence in the NCA’s multiple-use landscape. The warriors revealed that they both admire and fear these powerful big cats, and they also expressed a need for employment, income and education. KopeLion was therefore designed to meet both needs, by providing long-term employment for the Maasai in the NCA by converting the lion hunters into dedicated lion protectors employed by KopeLion.

Corridor of tolerance

To ensure long-term viability and improved genetics of the NCA lion population, KopeLion expanded their team and area of work to act as a ‘corridor of tolerance’ between the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Well known and respected warriors from the nearby villages were carefully selected and employed to act as ‘Ilchokuti’ (meaning guardian in the local Maa language). These 18 Ilchokuti are responsible for protecting any lions that enter their dedicated zones (50 to 100 km2 each) and ensuring that the predators can roam with greater safety from human conflicts and intervention between the Serengeti and the Crater.

Of course there was heavy scepticism among the Maasai when this programme was first introduced. “It was a real eye opener,” Mama Simba explains, “I had zero experience working with communities. All of my experience had been working directly with wildlife and I was totally unprepared for the challenges of working with people. Due to a troubled past between the communities, authorities and outsiders, it took many years for us to build up trust and develop lasting relationships with the Maasai communities, whose buy-in was crucial to the success of the project.” She admits, “One of the most encouraging discoveries was that it was incredibly easy to shift the mind-set from killing to protecting; protecting a lion is far more difficult, and ultimately braver, than simply killing it.”

A voice for the voiceless

Handpicked for their intimate knowledge of the landscape, their enthusiasm for lions, the trust and respect they have earned within their community, as well as their commitment and trustworthiness, the role of an Ilchokuti is no mean feat. They are responsible for mitigating all human-predator conflict on the ground and helping to monitor and protect lions in the area. First to leave the kraal each morning, they scour the area for any signs (spoor, scat, audio or visual) of a predator in the area. If a lion has in fact entered the Ilchokuti’s zone, he must immediately warn the herders and follow up on the tracks to identify exactly where the lion is. The Ilchokuti then positions himself between the lion and the livestock to ensure the safety of both.

As one experienced Ilchokuti, describes, “If there are any predations or conflicts in the area, the Ilchokuti is responsible for managing the dispute. The group is usually excited and angry because the lion has taken the most valuable thing in their culture, so if it becomes difficult for the Ilchokuti to manage the people, he will call for backup from the Ilchokuti in neighbouring zones, as well as the KopeLion team.” The Ilchokuti also help treat wounded livestock, mend and reinforce kraal fences, search for missing livestock, and help return grazing herds to the kraal should a herder become sick while out in the plains.

The success of this project relies ultimately on the ongoing partnership, collaboration and trust among the communities living in the NCA. Both the Maasai and the lions live off this land, so harmony among them is vital. However, conservation is not achievable unless the local people have a stake in it and can reap some of the rewards. The NCA therefore channels tourism funds into these communities to supply much-needed water, medical/veterinary assistance, schools, infrastructure, etc. and, in turn, the Maasai understand and acknowledge that, without the healthy presence of the mighty African lion, tourism would no longer thrive in their beloved homeland.

How our guests make a difference

&Beyond has a longstanding partnership with Ingela and the KopeLion project to help ensure that the Crater lion population will survive for future generations to admire. This partnership for coexistence in conservation is enabled simply by guests visiting &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. Their travel spend helps to provide much-needed financial support and in-kind services, such as vehicle repair, to KopeLion, and in return, KopeLion is working to ensure the long-term viability of the Crater lion population.

Guests also have the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with Ingela and her researchers/Ilchokuti to gain a deeper understanding of their day-to-day operations. This involves checking up on the camera traps, remote tracking of the lions, and learning how to identify individual lions. And perhaps most importantly, they can observe first-hand how the Maasai and predators are living in harmony, just as we did back in June. Read more about the experience here.

Did you know?

To help further protect and bolster Africa’s threatened lion populations, &Beyond also recently joined forces with Singita, Wilderness Safaris and the Conservation Travel Foundation by Ultimate Safaris to launch our Lionscape Coalition. Together, we aim to support lion conservation projects through the renowned Lion Recovery Fund, as well as to promote awareness for the protection of lions and foster much-needed support and donations.

We have aligned our combined efforts towards the protection of lions in the areas in which we each already operate and have a direct influence over (almost 7.5 million hectares in 10 African countries). Our objective is to improve the management of lion habitats across Africa and increase the amount of funding for lion conservation. Half of each member’s annual contribution goes to projects in countries where we already operate and the other half goes to lion conservation projects where tourism is not well developed and where lions receive far less protection. Our goal is to double the number of lions in Africa, thereby reversing the negative effects of the past quarter century. Together, we can help leave our world a better place and save the lion from extinction.

See what lies beyond...

Visit &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and meet Mama Simba in person.