Monday, 17 October 2011

Where have all the lions gone?

Kenyan Lion Crisis

Viewers logging on to Kenya’s Tourist Board website are presented with enthralling descriptions of a “rich diversity of wildlife” and “untamed wildernesses”. There is no mention of the fact that Kenya’s lions are roaring at the brink of extinction with less than 2000 left. Tourism represents 65% of Kenya’s GDP and the vast majority of the annual 650,000 tourists arrive specifically to safari and see lions. But Kenya’s Laikipia region, the Maasai Mara and Tsavo (totalling 18% of Kenya’s landmass) are the only regions with viable lion populations. As the Big 5 (lion, buffalo, rhino, elephant, leopard) are all cited on the IUCN Red List it’s clear the Kenyan landscape, immortalised teaming with wildlife, by Hemmingway and Blixen, no longer exists.

In 1960, when the Adamson’s were rehabilitating Elsa the lioness, Kenya’s human population was 8M, today the population is knocking 40M. Pastoralists have over-grazed vast tracts of wilderness, fragmenting and displacing wildlife and reducing the land to uninhabitable sand and bedrock. Due to the excessive butchery of elephants for ivory Kenya banned hunting in 1977. But bush meat hunting remains a significant problem and over the last 35 years Kenya has lost over 70% of its wildlife. Although big-game hunters were prevented from trophy hunting, African poachers continued unabated. Dr Laurence Frank, Director of Living with Lions (LWL) explains, “Millions of animals have been strangled in snares, wildlife has been completely eradicated from areas previously bio-diverse. Tanzania did not ban hunting and many cattle ranchers turned to profitable trophy hunting. The hunting is not well managed, but it has prevented 300, of wilderness from being destroyed. Kenya’s romantic history with famous hunting lodges means wealthy Americans and Europeans would pay fortunes to hunt Kenyan lions and that money could fund a great deal of conservation. But only in Laikipia (9,500km2) are there enough lions (230) that two could be shot in a year. There are miles of dusty, boring bush, well suited to wildlife and critical to conservation, properly managed trophy hunting here could produce enough of an income to make local populations value wildlife. But Kenya’s wildlife is now so depleted that no one would rationally recommend hunting today.”

Whereas wealthy, big game hunters are consistently motivated to fund their personal greed for trophies, the altruism required from the public to fund conservation evaporates when they become fatigued to wildlife causes. Operation Tiger began in 1978 and still the tiger population declines. Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation (BFF) explains, “Habitat fragmentation and poachers threaten the tiger but Maasai reprisal killings for loss of cattle are by far the biggest threat to Kenyan lions. As the tiger population dwindles the giving public become disillusioned with conservation that can’t stop poachers. There are only 1500 tigers left, we don’t want lions to go the same way.”

Maasai corral their cattle over night in a ring of thorns, or “boma”. Decades ago, when prey animals were plentiful the boma wasn’t designed to keep lions out, rather to keep stock in. Wild ungulates, such as zebra, are displaced when Maasai herd stock into the bush and starving 200lb lions are forced to predate cattle. The BFF and LWL are mitigating human-lion conflict by promoting new, “lion proof” bomas. The ring of thorns is still used, but external to that are six-foot wooden poles fixed around the perimeter with triple twist wire attached. The doors, hung on a wooden frame, are made from oil drums and only open outwards. The boma can be dismantled and transported and is constructed from locally available commodities. Travers again, “Both domestic and wild animals are protected this way and the new boma, costing £1000, is far cheaper to fund than compensation, so far BFF have funded five bomas.”

The LWL Lion Guardian Project, where Maasai warriors are employed as Guardians, is the inspiration of doctoral students Leela Hazzah and Stephanie Dolrenry. Guardian’s advocate for individual lions in their region and prevent Maasai reprisal killings. In regions with Guardians reprisal killings have stopped. Ten Laikipia lions have been given aerospace technology GPS collars (£2000 each) the lithium-ion batteries last 18 months and transmit using satellite phone networks. The resulting information is received by Guardians’ mobiles and mapped on the LWL website. Hourly up-dates inform on injuries, lactation, migration and other behaviours. Lions need Guardians, but, interestingly, the lions themselves are evolved guardians of the sub-Saharan landscape. Dr Claudio Sillero, conservation advisor to the BFF explains, “Without fear of predation grazing herds will feed on a riverbanks’ lush vegetation until it’s all gone, resulting in erosion, flooding and drought. Where there are lions, there is a “landscape of fear”, with nowhere to run prey are particularly vulnerable on riverbanks. In lion country ungulates never linger, they drink and leave, thus the essential slow release of water and riverbank bio-diversity is maintained. Lion’s have an essential role in Kenya’s water management, but now the continent’s greatest carnivore is vulnerable to extinction wider biodiversity is similarly threatened.”

Compensation recompensing Maasai for lion predation is erratically funded by fluctuating Western donations. There are frequent disputes in authenticating whether a dead cow, rapidly decomposing in the tropical heat, was killed by a lion or another predator. Aggrieved Maasai not paid compensation spear or poison lions, driving the species towards extinction. LWL and the BFF never advocate compensation due to these inherent problems. But other, newly formed charities such as, the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, Ed Norton’s Chairman, mistakenly still do. LWL and the BFF are optimistic when other conservation groups learn of the positive results they are achieving compensation will be replaced with improved animal husbandry and employment of Maasai as Lion Guardians.

A lion’s roar travels for five miles on the night air, but these nocturnal calls are becoming less audible. In Pride and Joy George Adamson describes the lion’s typical long throaty roar followed by shorter roars. He states the long roar is the lion rhetorically asking, “Whose land is this?” and with the shorter roars the lion answers, “Mine, mine, mine.” With less than 20,000 African lions left LWL and BFF strategies for 2011 include promotion of Guardians and lion-proof bomas across Africa to all areas of human/lion conflict. But giving the land back to the lion - that will be conservation’s ultimate challenge.
The Ol Pejeta in Laikipia offers safaris & is involved with LWL

Will Travers also recommends safari’s at: Will particularly recommends their Amboseli camp in Selenkey which he has stayed at. Again Will recommends Tortilis which is in Amboseli.
Living With Lions
Born Free Foundation

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