A participatory approach to conservation
Less than sixty years ago there were an estimated 400,000 - 500,000 lions ranging widely across the African continent. Today, fewer than 30,000 remain and are found in only a fraction of their former range. Even in Kenya, a country well known and visited for its wildlife and protected areas, after decades of efforts aimed at conserving lions, the lion population is declining at an alarming rate. As of 2010, fewer than 1,970 lions remained, leading one lion expert to predict that lions could be extinct in Kenya by 2020 if immediate effective action is not taken. The main reason for lions’ decline is conflict with humans, specifically with pastoralists who kill lions that have attacked their livestock, and with young Maasai warriors who kill lions in a ritualistic practice to demonstrate their bravery.
Wildlife conservation efforts in Africa have traditionally focused on elephants, rhinos and apes, with far less attention placed on lions and other carnivores. And many of those that focused on carnivores have too often failed to adequately involve local people or to acknowledge their cultural values and, consequently, have been ineffective. In 2007, with the nation’s lion population collapsing, the founders of the Lion Guardians program recognized that a new approach to conservation was needed. They proposed a solution that, if successful, would both preserve the cultural traditions of the Maasai and ensure the survival of the lion.
The Lion Guardians approach involves recruiting young non-literate Maasai warriors to become actively engaged in protecting lions rather than killing them. Enrolment in the Lion Guardians program becomes a life-changing experience for these young Maasai who have had no formal education. Taught to read, write and communicate in Swahili and trained in wildlife management and conflict mitigation techniques, the Lion Guardians monitor lion movements, warn pastoralists when lions are in the area, recover lost livestock, reinforce protective fencing and intervene to stop lion hunting parties. Collectively these efforts lead to a reduction in the loss of livestock, which in turn enhances the livelihoods of the local people and builds tolerance for lions and other carnivores. Most notably, these conflict mitigation efforts are founded on century-old traditional techniques and thus are easily understood and accepted by the community.
Currently, more than 30 warriors are employed as Lion Guardians covering more than 3,500km of the Amboseli ecosystem in southern Kenya, a key wildlife corridor between Kenya and Tanzania’s dwindling lion populations. Since the program’s inception, no lions have been killed in response to livestock depredation or as a manhood rite of passage while the Lion Guardians have been operating. Currently, for the first time in more than a decade, as a sign of the increased stability of the lion population, each adult lioness in Lion Guardian areas has cubs. The Amboseli lion population is stabilizing, and if this new generation makes it to adulthood, will be increasing, making this important ecosystem one of the few areas in Africa where lion numbers are on the rise.
Large carnivores will only survive in Africa if they contribute to, rather than detract from, people’s livelihoods. Since its inception, the Lion Guardians approach has demonstrated its merit as a successful, effective and sustainable environmental conservation model. Due to the success of the Lion Guardians program, local communities in other regions across Kenya and Tanzania have requested that Lion Guardians initiate programs in their areas to help remedy their increasingly difficult coexistence with lions and other carnivores. We have also been approached by a tiger conservation program in India to test the Lion Guardians model there. The recognition that accompanies being awarded the St Andrews Prize would facilitate scaling-up the Lion Guardian program into new areas where both imperilled carnivores and indigenous communities would greatly benefit from its expansion.
Lions have become my cows; I milk them to provide for my family, and I love them as if they were cows.Mokoi Lekanayai Lion Guardian
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