Learning to Live with Lions

On the Kenyan savannah, a new model for community-based conservation takes root.

Learning to Live with Lions

On a cool, gray morning, Wilson ole Kasaine heads out along a dirt path deep in the savannah of southern Kenya. A red cotton cloth known as a shuka is draped across his shoulders, accented by brightly-beaded jewelry worn to indicate seniority. Soft-spoken and serious, Kasaine pauses to take note of a small tree stripped of its bark by a hungry elephant. The calmness of his gait makes it easy to forget that he’s in pursuit of one of the most dangerous — and endangered — predators in the world.

Wilson ole Kasaine. (Photo courtesy Wilson ole Kasaine)

Kasaine is tracking lions — rather, he’s tracking one lion in particular. His name is Marti, and he’s the real-life Lion King of Selenkay Conservancy.

Sitting in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, Selenkay lies just north of the Tanzanian border. The conservancy is home to the Maasai, a tribe of people widely recognized for maintaining traditional customs, social structures, and a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Conservancy land is shared between community members, most of whom are herdsmen who rely on this open terrain to graze their cattle, sheep, and goats. But because the Selenkay Conservancy is situated right outside of Amboseli, Kenya’s second-most popular national park, it’s also shared with larger, four-legged neighbors like Marti.

Tracking Africa’s largest cat on foot may sound like a death wish, but Kasaine has been doing it for most of his life. Born to a traditional Maasai family, he quickly grew to understand the simultaneous beauty and peril of the savannah wildlife. Living with big game, Kasaine says, forces you to develop a fine-tuned radar of where animals have been and where they might be going. During his 12-kilometer walks to and from school, he learned how to distinguish the paw print of a lion from that of a leopard.

Growing up, Kasaine knew that honing his tracking abilities would help him avoid surprise encounters with the massive megafauna. For many in the community, tracking was mainly a matter of self-protection. But Kasaine likely didn’t know that, years later, he would be tracking lions specifically to encounter them – and to protect them. Today he leads a small group of wide-eyed tourists over one of the conservancy’s red sandy paths, searching for the lion that has left upon it his massive, unmistakable print.

Each year, tens of thousands of tourists flock to Kenya’s national parks to try to catch a glimpse of the “big five”: elephants, rhinoceros, leopards, buffalos, and lions. The international draw of these animals means that, on the macro-level, the nation’s economy is inextricably tied to the protection of its wildlife. Park fees, lodging, and safari services rake in millions of dollars annually. The tourism industry accounts for over 12 percent of Kenya’s GDP and employs more than 300,000 people. Clearly there’s more than the environmentally motivated preservation of animals and their habitats at stake. If Kenya’s wildlife disappears, so does its second-largest source of income.

Considering the rapid urban expansion and development taking place in Kenya, this isn’t unimaginable. In 2016, the Public Library of Science published a study showing that many of the nation’s most treasured species — including giraffe, wildebeest, and Grevy’s zebra — have fallen to less than one-third of their population count from just 40 years ago. The number of lions, too, has plummeted. In 1998, the nation was home to over 15,000; only an estimated 2,000 remain today. Several experts have predicted they could vanish entirely from the country in the next two decades.

Wildlife protection efforts in Kenya have historically consisted of staking out and fencing off land exclusively for animals — and the people who pay to see them — in the hopes of keeping these regions unmarred by human development. But this also meant that the people who had originally lived there were forced off of their land, and into smaller surrounding regions. Once semi-nomadic, communities like Kasaine’s are now finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a traditional Maasai lifestyle. Many are selling land to big developers in exchange for cash.

Living on the outskirts of national parks, most indigenous communities are excluded from the economic benefits of the wildlife tourism brought to the very regions they once called home. Tribes like the Maasai find themselves at odds with conservation efforts that have stripped them of their land; less land means there’s less grass for their cattle to graze on. When drought hits, they can no longer take their hungry herds into the greener regions now reserved for wildlife, and because wildlife naturally migrates beyond the borders of these reserves, the Maasai are pitted against the carnivores of the savannah who threaten to destroy their livestock — and their livelihood.

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In June of 2012, six lions were found dead just outside of Nairobi National Park. Two lionesses, two younger lions, and two small cubs had been speared to death. After wandering beyond the park in search of food, the group of lions had entered a nearby Maasai settlement. A herd of goats left milling outside a local farmstead early that morning provided easy prey for the pride. The lions descended upon the goats, devouring eight in total, leaving only the mangled carcasses behind for the herdsmen to discover.

With each goat valued at around $60, the attack had cost the owners close to $500 – nearly ten months’ worth of income for the average local household. Many wanted the lions captured before they could do any more damage. For other community members, removing the lions from the settlement wasn’t enough. They wanted retaliation.

Catching word of what happened, rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) arrived on the scene to dissuade community members from spearing or poisoning the lions. The officials promised to capture the wayward carnivores, but without a veterinarian or any tools to sedate the lions. Seeing this as an empty promise, a few of the local warriors took matters into their own hands. They tracked and speared all six cats before the KWS could intervene.

The story took off internationally, appearing in BBC, The Guardian, NBC, and FOX News. One article referred to the warriors as a “spear-wielding mob,” while others showed photos of grim-looking KWS rangers loading the limp, bloodied lion carcasses into the backs of their vehicles.

Despite the sensationalized coverage, there’s no novelty to this story for most Kenyans. An estimated 100 lions are killed each year — and it’s believed that these deaths are largely due to human-wildlife conflict. One park official reported that, following the June incident, there were just 37 lions left in Nairobi National Park.

With this kind of conflict on the rise, the Maasai have been vilified and publicly condemned as a threat to the lion population. And it doesn’t help that hunting lions is a key part of Maasai history and tribal heritage.

To become warriors, young Maasai men once had to prove their fighting abilities by tracking and spearing a male lion. The young men would meet secretly a few days before the hunt, eventually setting out at dawn while the rest of the village was still sleeping. Once the warriors returned with a lion, the village would celebrate for a week — the claws and mane were beaded and used as decorative wear, and the tail was stretched, softened, and given to one of the new warriors.

And although many subtribes quickly put a stop to this ancient rite of passage when lion populations began to dip, this rich history bleeds into a modern perception of the Maasai as fierce and capable lion hunters.

But those who blindly vilify the Maasai fail to acknowledge the institutional exclusion of these communities from decisions about land use, from British colonization up until today. In the early 1900’s, the semi-nomadic Maasai were forced to sign a treaty leasing much of their ancestral land to colonial powers. Communal-owned indigenous land became government-owned conservation land, and this isn’t just the case in Kenya. The majority of the world’s 6,000 national parks were created through the violent removal of indigenous people from their homes.

In some ways, habitat loss has affected humans in the area just as severely as it has affected wildlife.

Kasaine can’t help but break into a smile when he talks about Marti, describing the lion in the way one might fawn over a celebrity. “He’s one of the best lions we’ve ever had,” he says. According to Kasaine, Marti was born in the conservancy nearly 13 years ago. After a brief two-year period when he ventured outside of the conservancy, Marti returned to fight — and defeat — two adult males to acquire the pride.

But even more impressive than Marti’s unparalleled strength is his unprecedented politeness.

“He’s just so…nice,” adds Kasaine, nearly giggling.

A lion is rarely described as “nice,” but for Kasaine’s community, a well-mannered big cat isn’t just an anomaly — it’s a godsend.

“We have never had a case of him individually killing a cow,” he says. “Sometimes the cows come and drink, and he stays in a bush nearby. He doesn’t bother them. He just…stays there.”

The lion known as Marti, right. (Photo courtesy Wilson ole Kasaine)

Marti’s apparent disinterest in livestock is reason enough for him to be valued here. But in addition to his amicable disposition, he now brings tourists — and cash flow — to the community. People come from around the world to Selenkay’s Porini Camp just to catch a glimpse of Marti and his pride, and there’s no one more qualified to track him down than someone who’s extremely familiar with the terrain, its extraordinary four-footed inhabitants, and how to locate them — someone like Kasaine.

Even with Kasaine’s expertise, the search isn’t always easy. Marti could be lounging anywhere within the 75,000 acres of the conservancy. But after hearing his unmistakable roar last night, a cautionary call lions make when marking their territory, Kasaine is confident he can’t be far. Shifting his focus from the horizon to the road, he keeps an eye out for scratched Acacia trees and prints in the sand.

He stops suddenly, crouching down to examine something in the sand. “Marti was here,” he says. “Not long ago. Maybe this morning.”

By studying the depth of the tracks and checking the surrounding area for signs of lion urine, Kasaine can estimate how long ago Marti passed by. He quietly surveys the colossal paw print for a moment longer before venturing off-road, carrying only a stick, in the direction of the tracks.

In the 1980s, a few conservationists began to realize that simply fencing off land for wildlife wasn’t working. Jake Grieves-Cook had been working in Kenya’s tourism industry for over a decade when he founded Porini Camp, which piloted a new model of conservation that relies upon and benefits surrounding communities. The camp was built on a small portion of Selenkay land leased on a monthly basis from the local Maasai community. Grieves-Cook employed community members to run everything — from the kitchen to game drives. The monthly income from the lease provides the community economic stability, and the camp offers high-paying employment opportunities that don’t require leaving conservancy land.

For many Maasai, the age-old knowledge of hunting lions can be repurposed for tracking down the big cats for eager tourists. Lions like Marti have a new role within the community, too. Formerly cow-killers, they’re now one of the Maasai’s most reliable cash cows.

The men previously believed to be the lion’s fiercest threats are now its fiercest protectors.

Wilson points out a track in the sand. (Photo by Abbey Perreault)

Porini works with the Lion Guardians and the KWS to mutually protect communities and lions. By tracking lions with vehicles and GPS collars, Lion Guardians keep close tabs on the cats. Villagers and herdsmen are alerted if a lion ventures toward a settlement. If the Lion Guardians are unable to prevent human-wildlife conflict, Porini Camp provides compensation to the owners of the lost livestock to prevent retaliation.

But not everyone in the community was immediately supportive of Grieves-Cook’s camp. “At first, people did not know what would be the real benefit of this conservancy,” Kasaine recalls. “They thought that maybe a white person was going to grab the land and claim it as his.” For this reason, Porini was intentionally built to be easily disassembled. At any point in time, the community has the right to cancel the lease agreement.

Porini quickly became a successful model of conservation. Grieves-Cook and managing director Mohanjeet Brar worked with communities in the Maasai Mara to create similar conservancies — one of which now has the highest density of lions of the Mara ecosystem. The conservancy concept has since gained traction. Now, over ten percent of Kenya’s land mass is conservancy land — a greater percentage than national parks and reserves combined. While lion populations are still declining in most parts of Africa, they’re rising in number within Kenya’s conservancies.

These camps now employ over 140 Maasai and deliver over one million dollars each year to local communities. For many families, this increased income also offers increased opportunity for education. Kasaine has three sons; the oldest is now studying at a modern school outside of the conservancy. He shrugs when asked if he hopes his sons will become guides like him. As one of the nation’s top-rated safari guides, Kasaine humbly takes pride in what he does. But his silence suggests his dreams for his boys aren’t necessarily confined within Selenkay’s borders. 

Early the next morning, Kasaine takes campers on a morning drive — still in pursuit of Marti. Aside from the noise of the small shrubs snapping as they fold beneath the wheels of the vehicle, there’s a heavy-hanging silence, interrupted only by Kasaine quietly conversing with the Maasai driver next to him. They guide the car into an open, grassy area, dotted with a few rocks and squat Acacia trees. Prime lion territory. The vehicle stalls for a moment as it tips forward on an uneven patch of land, but eventually makes it out of the hole. With the rugged terrain, it’s not uncommon for a tire to give out, but it’s better not to get a flat when you’re in hot pursuit of a lion.

The engine cuts and the car slowly crawls forward. Directly in front of Kasaine is a lioness — fully grown and lying regally in the grass. She turns her head, displaying the piercing, golden intensity in her eyes. The car, open on both sides, is turned completely off; it would be easy for her to leap into the vehicle at any moment if she feels threatened. But there’s a kind of trust that pulses between the lioness and the guides. She quietly studies the car for a few moments before blinking and turning her massive head in the other direction.

A lioness resting on the Selenkay Conservancy. (Photo by Abbey Perreault)

In the distance, two cubs are playing. One lunges at the other, who responds by playfully swatting at her sibling before walking a few paces ahead.

The elusive Marti isn’t there, but the sight of this pride — happy, satiated, intensely calm — is even better. In the past five years, Selenkay’s pride has grown by over 200 percent, Kasaine says, thanks to the conservancy. After Selenkay’s success, community-based conservation models have started to emerge across Kenya and East Africa. Lions and other big prey are increasing in numbers, as well as in trust. Lions and elephants who have wandered outside of the conservancy have been known to return to Selenkay when they feel threatened.   

Kasaine points to two young lions gnawing on the carcass of an impala, distinguishable only by the giant horns protruding from the red meat. One of the young lions picks up his breakfast and saunters off in the opposite direction. With his back to us, he holds the impala head in such a way that the horns look like they belong to him.

While Marti never shows himself, his personal contribution to restoring the Selenkay population is clearly visible. “He’s quite prolific,” Kasaine says, gesturing to the pride.

Maybe it’s his anomalous manners, or the way that Kasaine talks about him, but it’s hard not to imagine Marti as a figure of Selenkay authority who has politely declined to meet with the media this week. But he’s left this final image — 14 lionesses and cubs yawning and eating on the sprawling open plains — perhaps as a reminder that there’s more than one family that needs to be fed within the conservancy, and that, today, everyone’s goals are aligned.