EMBARGOED: For release 12:01 a.m. (ET, U.S.) Thursday, June 12, 2008
WASHINGTON—Lion populations in and around Kenya’s Amboseli National Park have dropped so low due to spearing and poisoning by local Maasai that conservationists fear the animals could become locally extinct in just a few years. Amboseli, located at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro near the Kenya/Tanzania border, is one of Kenya’s most important tourist destinations, with lions being the primary attraction for visitors.
Fewer than 100 lions are now estimated to live in Kenya’s Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem, a 2,200-square-mile area that includes Amboseli National Park and the Maasai grazing lands up to the border of Tsavo National Park. Although there are no reliable data on exact numbers of lions from earlier years, researchers agree that current numbers represent a dramatic decline in populations for this region.
In response to the crisis, the National Geographic Society has provided an emergency grant of $150,000 to the Maasailand Preservation Trust in support of the Trust’s Predator Compensation Fund (PCF), which provides compensation to local Maasai herdsmen for livestock kills by lions in and around Amboseli National Park. National Geographic has also set up a special fund to raise additional money from the public to help save the lions in this part of Kenya’s Maasailand.
“The situation has reached a critical level,” said Terry Garcia, executive vice president, Mission Programs, National Geographic Society. “Unless something is done immediately, there will be no more lions in this part of Kenya, which would be a tragedy.”
The effort to raise funds before it is too late is being led by Richard Bonham and Tom Hill, co-directors of the Maasailand Preservation Trust and longtime advocates for lions in Kenya, with the help of National Geographic Society Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert, filmmakers and conservationists who have worked in some of Africa’s most remote wildlife areas for more than 25 years.
“Tensions have always been high between Maasai tribes and the lions in this region where the economy is cattle-dependent,” said Dereck Joubert. “Maasai depend on cattle to survive. They view themselves as stewards of the cattle. When their animals are killed, their solution is to get rid of the lions. We need to be able to immediately compensate the Maasai for cattle losses in order to stop the killings.”
The PCF expands the reach of the Mbirikani Predator Compensation Fund (MPCF), which was established by the Maasailand Preservation Trust in 2003 to reimburse herdsmen of the Maasai-owned Mbirinkani Group Ranch when their cattle were killed by lions or other predators. According to MPCF operators, the program has been a success, since compensation alleviates the financial burden and removes any rational justification for retaliatory killing of predators. Education through videos, meetings and training is also provided as part of the program to ensure the compensation agreement is clearly understood by the Maasai community.
Areas without this type of compensation program in place have experienced significantly higher rates of retaliatory lion kills by the Maasai, according to Living with Lions, a Panthera/Wildlife Conservation Society project in Kenya, and the Amboseli-Tsavo Game Scouts Association.
“Between 2003 and 2007, a total of 63 lions were killed in two adjacent properties owned by the Maasai, Kuku Group Ranch and Olgulului Group Ranch,” said Laurence Frank, director of Living with Lions. “On Mbirikani Ranch, where compensation began in 2003, only four lions were killed due to predator-livestock conflict during the same period.”
Frank said that in 2006 there was a sharp spike in killings in Maasailand. “Two years later, rates are not as high, but the killings continue to be bad enough that if something is not done immediately, we will see these lions go extinct locally in just a few years.”
“A compensation program was initiated in the Kuku Group Ranch last year, and we’ve already seen results,” said Bonham. “In comparison, the rate of lion killing in Olgulului is alarming. In the last two years alone, more than 40 lions have been killed by Maasai members of the Olgulului Group Ranch in retaliation for livestock losses. Sadly, in the last two years we’ve also started to see lion claws and teeth sold on the black market to tourists.”
Lions are also the victims of ritual killings by young Maasai men. Slaughtering a lion remains a rite of passage for some Maasai warriors, who test their prowess with spears. The ritual involves cutting the tail off the slain lion and then visiting seven villages to dance with the tail in an effort to impress the women.
“Thankfully, as a result of educational programs in the region,” added Bonham, “we have started to see instances of the ritual being rejected. When the warriors arrive at a village, they are being sent away.”
“Lions also are killed to garner attention from the outside world,” said Frank. “If the Maasai have grievances that they feel have not been given the attention deserved, they will, in some cases, go on a lion- or elephant-killing spree, hoping this will make the authorities take notice and address their concerns.” This happened in the early 1990s, when Maasai completely eliminated lions from Amboseli National Park. In that instance, the animals were able to come back over time with the help of lion populations from neighboring areas.
“If we allow lion populations to drop too low in Maasailand, the difference this time is that there is no source of replenishment from surrounding areas, which would make the future of the Maasai lions today much less certain,” said Frank.
Long-term programs to establish a sustainable balance between local Maasai and lion populations are critical. One such program is Lion Guardians. This joint effort between Living with Lions and the Maasailand Preservation Trust, supported by the Panthera Foundation, employs young warriors to protect lions. These men educate their communities about the value of wildlife and how to better protect their livestock from predators. By tracking Living with Lion’s radio-collared lions, the warriors are able to warn herdsmen of lion presence, allowing them to herd their cattle to safer areas until the lions move on.
“Positive, proactive programs like Lion Guardians are helping to improve the problem, but right now we need urgent funding to stem the immediate lion-slaughter crisis, or else we won’t have any lions to protect in the future,” said Frank.
“It is hard to imagine this part of Kenya devoid of lions and the deep lion roars that so symbolize the savannas,” added Joubert.