Lion tracking in Maasai culture

Tracking is an art and an age-old tradition which can be very addictive. Lion tracking is usually inspired by boundless curiosity and ultimately the burning desire to find a lion. Whilst tracking, it is imperative to remain alert to every detail of your surroundings; from the dirt trail to the sky above, a paw print on the ground, or the calls of carnivorous birds, the environment is filled with clues and signs.  A keen tracker is able to interpret these clues and, more often than not, successfully follow and sight a lion.

Lions frequently travel on livestock/wildlife trails, riverbanks, dirt roads or around waterholes so this is where a seasoned tracker is likely to start looking for paw prints or pugmarks. Like a signature, paw prints have consistent shape and size and can be used to confirm a lion’s sex, age and even identity. For instance, the paws of a male lion are squarer and bigger than a female’s. Furthermore, unlike other predators, claw marks are not visible on the paw prints of all cats including lions.

Once a tracker has spotted paw prints and is on the trail of an animal, there can be no greater satisfaction than to follow the clues and signs in the environment until he has a visual of the particular species he is tracking. But to achieve this is no easy task. The tracker has to construct exactly what took place several hours before he came along simply by observing the tracks on the ground. Through his observations he also has to surmise the probable direction in which the animals have ventured after they left that particular spot.

While some tracking skills can be developed, some individuals have an innate ability to read their surroundings and follow the signs till they spot the animal they have been tracking. Here in Maasailand, being a good tracker can define an individuals standing in the community. Usually, a seasoned tracker is a warrior of great repute and someone the entire community would revere.

Of all the animals that the Maasai track, the lion is probably the most well known. The lion is one of the most beautiful, enigmatic and majestic animals in the world. And although lions bring many problems to those that live with them, Maasailand also shares these feelings of wonder and respect. Lions elicit reverence for their grace and independent nature; they also trigger fear when they come into close contact with people and livestock. In the past, successfully tracking and spearing a lion was a valuable act and proof of bravery amongst the Maasai. It carried with it prestige, status and respect in equal measure. But time has changed and the concerted efforts of different stakeholders especially within the Amboseli ecosystem is bearing fruits and slowly changing the tide. Direct benefits accruing from wildlife has brought about a positive attitudinal change, which carries with it a glimmer of hope for the future of wildlife species including the lion. In fact, over the last three years, there has been a significant increase in the lion population around the group ranches of the greater Amboseli ecosystem. Through programs such as Lion Guardians, Maasai warriors are now able to use their natural inborn tracking skills to protect lions instead of harming them, while at the same time helping to protect their communities from confrontations with predators. In zones where Lion Guardians patrol, the art of tracking is very much alive, albeit, for a completely different purpose!

Lucky sisters found alive

Last Saturday began just like any other day but little did we know what adventures lay in store. All of a sudden around 9.00am, our camp was flooded with over 100 people from a neighboring Maasai section, Kaputiei. Upon inquiry, they explained that they were in search of two little sisters lost in the bush over 80kms from their home. The search team had followed their fresh tracks close to our camp. The elder of the two girls was six years old; her sister was three. The search team had slept overnight in the bush, their efforts halted only by the setting sun. The two little sisters’ tracks had meandered through the southern section of Eselenkei Group Ranch, an area of thick vegetation, which is inhabited by many different wildlife species, including lions, hyenas, and leopards.

The Lion Guardians team immediately joined the search for the two sisters and helped to quickly mobilize local community leaders and partner organizations such as Big Life scouts. Employing our tracking skills, patience, and in-depth knowledge of the area, our hard work finally paid off when the girls were found near Lion Guardian Kamunu’s boma, having eaten absolutely nothing for two days. We are still amazed that these two little girls not only survived the pangs of hunger but also the ever present wildlife: looming elephants, curious hyenas, and the fact that they came quite close to the secluded place where lioness Selenkay is keeping her very young cubs. But what baffled us all the most was the long distance covered by the two little girls within a span of only two days.

Although monitoring lions is a key responsibility of a Lion Guardian, they often do many duties assisting their communities. One of these important duties is helping young herders and their herds arrive home safely each day as well as finding lost children when they wander away from home.

Although monitoring lions is a key responsibility of a Lion Guardian, they often do many duties assisting their communities. One of these important duties is helping young herders and their herds arrive home safely each day as well as finding lost children when they wander away from home.

Upon finding the girls, the now smiling and happy search party, which included ten women, came to our camp for much needed food and water as the Lion Guardian team opened their generosity taps. They were so appreciative of our magnanimity. They at once realized that the only reason the Lion Guardians team was available to help is because there are lions on this land. Knowing this, they promised to be more tolerant of different wildlife species that frequent their land as a show of appreciation for our actions. As a further indicator of their respect and appreciation of our help, the parents of the two girls invited us for a slaughtering ceremony to cleanse the two girls.

After the search party and the two girls had their fill, we pulled together many resources to facilitate their transportation back home. Game watchers Porini  assisted by providing transportation home for the girls and their family. We are thankful that the girls were found and that the Lion Guardians were able to use their skills and stamina to help their neighboring community. Stay tuned for more stories of how the Lion Guardians go above and beyond to help their communities!

Lighting it up!

Earlier this year, to combat an increase in livestock depredation by lions, Lion Guardians and the Kenya Wildlife Trust (KWT) teamed up to bring Lion Lights to nine separate bomas in the Amboseli ecosystem.

Lion Lights are an automated lighting system designed to deter large predators such as lion, leopard, hyena and cheetah, from killing livestock held in enclosures. This simple device was invented by an 11-year-old boy, Richard Turere whose family and neighbors were faced with predator incursions and livestock depredation on almost a daily basis in Kitengela (an area bordering the Nairobi National Park). The device is essentially a system of torches that flash intermittently. These intermittent flashes simulate the movement of a person around the boma and thereby deter predators. Actually, one of the most admirable aspects of the whole system is that it can be moved from one boma to another depending on the pastoralists’ movement patterns. Michael Mbithi and David Mascall refined the basic system developed by Richard and now solar-powered prototypes are being trialed in several locations.

In order to determine where the Lion Lights would be installed, the Lion Guardians team conducted a survey, in the group ranches of Eselenkei, Mbirikani and Olgulului, to establish which bomas experience the most lion incursions. In addition, we included Kunchu community land adjacent to Selenkay Conservancy, as there were a lot of livestock depredations by lions in that particular area as well. The survey was conducted over a period of two weeks. Lion Guardians also asked the community members to recommend the bomas that should get the Lion Lights based on their knowledge.

At the end of the two-week survey, we compared the recommendations made by community members with those emerging from the Lion Guardians’ program conflict data. Encouragingly, the results were very similar. Following the confirmation of which bomas were to get the system, the Lion Lights were successfully installed by Michael Mbithi and his project team, in close collaboration with the Lion Guardians in each chosen area.

PJB_5735e1_Philip-J-Briggs_Lion-Lights
A Maasai lady proudly shows of the Lion Lights installation at the boma where she resides.

Since the installation in early June, Lion Guardians have been monitoring the incursion and depredations in the bomas with Lion Lights as well as the bomas neighboring them. Whilst our sample size is not statistically significant so as to draw long-term conclusions, the data we have collected does have positive indicators. As of now, all of the nine bomas fitted with Lion Lights have not experienced further carnivore incursions since the installation. Boma owners also openly admit that they now enjoy peaceful sleep at night. They told us that even when they observed predator tracks as close as 100 meters from the boma these predators had not entered the boma.

graph

Furthermore, neighbors to Lion Lights bomas have also expressed having felt the impact and protection of the lights at night. In fact, our current data shows that when the Lion Lights are actually visible from the neighboring boma then there are no incursions and depredations in those bomas either. There have however been reports of bomas (outside of our trial group) with Lion Lights suffering incursions. For instance, one boma at Nkiito in Olgulului Group Ranch (Lion Lights system was installed in November 2012) did experience a lion incursion. The culprit was a female lion nicknamed Asama who within the same week had killed a sheep inside a Born-Free fenced boma! Experts attributed the incursion to too much spacing between the Lion Lights.

Overall the Lion Lights also appear to be easy to use but boma owners have faced certain challenges. For example, users have overloaded the system by charging other electronics, they have also suffered a lack of power especially during colder months of June and July, and the required maintenance of the solar panel has challenged several bomas. However, Lion Guardians have monitored the situation and always responded as quickly as possible to address these issues.

All said and done, the Lion Lights system is simple by design, affordable, easy to manage and is a valuable tool in the conservation toolkit for reducing predator – human conflicts on community lands.

Lions give sight back to many!

The recently concluded eye clinic conducted on Eselenkei and Olgulului Group Ranches of Amboseli was very successful! The clinic, sponsored by Kenya Wildlife Trust and MEAK, in conjunction with the Lion Guardians program and tourism partners Gamewatchers Porini camp and Tortilis camp, was a benefit provided to people from both Group Ranches for their tolerance of lions, in particular, and other wildlife species, in general.

IMG_0772

An acknowledgement letter with signatures and thumbprints of the patients who attended the eye clinic.

Phase One of the event was a screening process where a team of eye doctors traveled to several sites within both group ranches and treated over 500 patients with a variety of less invasive methods such as administering eye drops. These initial screenings led to Phase Two where more than 50 patients received much-needed eye surgery to correct more severe ailments at the eye clinic held in southern Olgulului. Before each patient was treated, they were asked to sign a letter acknowledging that they understood that the treatment and benefits they were about to receive, were because of their tolerance of lions and peaceful coexistence with wildlife.

Even though this was the first event of its kind for all the participating organizations, the smooth and organized manner in which it was conducted left many amazed and inspired. But by far the most inspiring outcome of the clinic was the beaming smiles on the faces of patients, the majority of whom got their sight back after years of blindness or partial blindness! Women, men, young, old, educated, and not, were all welcomed and operated on by professional doctors at the Esiteti Primary School where two classrooms had been transformed into a hospital ward.

Moonka Olting’idi, now 62 years old, was a true Maasai warrior in his youth. He had killed a record nine lions to prove his bravery. But for the last four years, Moonka had become completely blind and in fact, had to be led around by one of his children. After the operation, as his face creased into smiles, he happily announced that he could see the foot of Mt.Kilimanjaro which was almost 20 kilometers from where we were! He then added ‘I regret having killed lions in the past, but now I will pass the message to my children never to kill lions again because they have given me my sight back’. (Watch this video of Moonka talking about how Lions gave him his sight back)

Linkoe Orkolui, a young pupil at Loirero Primary School, had a cataract in her right eye that made it very difficult for her to read anything written on the blackboard. This impacted negatively on her general performance in school. Amid many fearful tears and after much persuasion, Linkoe underwent the cataract removal surgery. Once the bandages were off, her tears turned into an unforgettable smile and Linkoe immediately joined the pupils in Esiteti Primary to exercise her reading prowess.

These are just two of the many inspiring stories we heard from patients that were treated at the eye clinic.

On one of the days, the patients and pupils gathered in a darkened classroom-turned-theater to watch the Lion Guardians film during their lunch-hour.They all enjoyed it so much that we played it twice as more and more people gathered to see the film and be part of the excitement.

SC_EyeClinic_IMG_9714

Patients, teachers, students and doctors gathered to watch the Lion Guardians film

The manner in which the Lion Guardians program, Kenya Wildlife Trust, MEAK, Tortilis, and Gamewatchers handled their respective responsibilities left many community leaders and other stakeholders in awe. The organizations also received a lot of appreciation from patients, their relatives, and all community members who witnessed the successful outcome of the operations.

In the next couple of days, a follow-up team will visit all patients that were treated to remove stitches from trachoma patients, assess their condition, and attend to any other eye related problems. We will continue to update you with inspiring stories as more community members begin to “see” the benefits that come from peacefully coexisting with lions!

Official Opening Ceremony: LG Training Center

On the 2nd of November, 2013 a sherehe (Swahili for celebratory gathering) was held to officially inaugurate the new Lion Guardians Training Camp at Nairrabala, Kenya.  Amongst the honored guests were the chairman, secretary and treasurer of Olgulului Group Ranch, several chiefs from the Amboseli area, KWS Senior Warden and the Community Warden, the District Commissioner’s office, and various conservation partners which operate on Olgulului Group Ranch, including representatives from Big LifeAfrican Wildlife Foundation and the School for Field Studies. Also, many members of the local community of Nchakita, were present, including women representatives, influential elders and the new warrior age set, the ituati also graced the occasion. All in all, there was a crowd of approximately 70 celebrators, including the Lion Guardians team.

Leela and Wilson Muli (Chief of Lenkism Zone, Olgulului Group Ranch) chat over a cup of chai

The event took place over several hours and involved the requisite food, socializing and most importantly speeches and blessings. But it all began in the wee hours of the morning, with nyama (meat) being prepared for the sherehe. As members from the community gathered, the first port of call was the barbecue area in the northwest of the LG Training Center camp. After eating their fill, they would then wend their way to the mess tent where the official ceremony was to be held. Here they were greeted by steaming chai lovingly prepared by Camp Chef Maria.

Once all guests were present, Eric Ole Kesoi (LG community manager) – master of ceremony extraordinaire, called the occasion to order. Two elders from the Maasai community blessed the land with traditional prayers and then the Chairman of Olgulului ranch declared the training camp officially open. In a symbolic gesture Chairman Leturesh cut the ceremonial “ribbon” at the entrance of the mess tent (click here for a short video of the event).

Chief Leturesh cuts the ribbon and declares the camp officially open

After the short ceremony, everyone gathered in the mess to watch the new Lion Guardian film (click here to see the LG feature film). All guests were enthralled by the captivating story of Lion Guardians and specifically by the myriad benefits that the program has brought in the areas where it operates.  In fact, the audience was so involved in the movie that when lioness Elikan growled menacingly within the film, a number of the mamas in the audience actually yelped in fear!

Following the movie, Leela Hazzah formally welcomed everyone to the Lion Guardians Training Centre and specifically thanked the Olgulului Group Ranch members for their continued support of the program. The Olgulului Group Ranch and its members have shared a long relationship with Lion Guardians team. In a grand gesture that illustrates their belief in the program and the benefits it accrues to communities, the group ranch has provided 10 acres of land to the Lion Guardians for the purposes of this training camp.

After Leela’s welcome, all the guests of honor delivered speeches emphasizing the benefits of the Lion Guardians program. They reinforced the messages from the short movie and gave first-hand examples of how the Lion Guardians has helped them. All the chiefs also recognized the important role that key stakeholders such as KWS, Big Life, AWF and others have played and continue to play in this eco-system.

Lion Guardian Community Manager, Eric managed the entire day with aplomb – from welcoming guests to introducing the speakers, translating from Maa to English or vice versa, he was literally everywhere.

After the speeches, more nyama was consumed and washed down with soda. In the end, the guests left with their bellies full, their minds inspired and their hearts filled with happiness. November 2nd was indeed a day of celebration and gratitude that went off without a hitch.

After the speeches, the guests headed down to have their fill of food.

After the speeches, the guests headed down to have their fill of food

In closing, Lion Guardians would like to thank all the guests and partners for coming and making the day so special as well as all of our supporters which have allowed the Training Centre to be a reality. A big thank you in particular to the St. Andrews Prize which provided the funds to build the centre. Also, to Steve Gold for his dedication to bringing top solar technology to the far reaches of the wilds where conservation efforts are underway – you bring light and power to our work. Asante sana wote! We look forward to many such occasions at the training camp and a continued relationship with the communities and all our stakeholders.

Leela and Stephanie with our Conservation Partners

Leela, Stephanie and Eric with our conservation partners from AWF and KWS

New Lion Guardians!

We are excited about our newest expansion site into Tarangire, Tanzania. In collaboration with Dr. Bernard Kissui and the Tarangire Lion Project, nine new Maasai Lion Guardians have been hired and are actively protecting lions in the community areas north of Tarangire National Park. These are key areas to provide connectivity between Tarangire NP, Lake Manyara and other lion populations to the north and west.

Tarangire Guardians

Members of the Kenyan Lion Guardians team are currently in Tarangire, working with the new Lion Guardians. They report that the training is going very successfully. The Tarangire Lion Guardians are dedicated to their work; they are already making great progress with their literacy skills and have already stopped two lion hunts!

Tarangire Guardians

We are excited about the collaboration between Lion Guardians and the Tarangire Lion Project to protect the lions of Tarangire and beyond. We will keep you updated on the progress at this site.

Your support helps spread the Lion Guardians model across East Africa, protecting lions outside of formally protected national parks and other wildlife areas. Please consider supporting our work as we expand our collaborations to save lions across Maasailand. We are looking to purchase a vehicle to aide the Lion Guardian Tarangire team so they can respond to conflicts quickly and access the community areas where lions are coexisting alongside people and livestock – your donation can make a difference!

 

Special Act from a Lioness

Just after we finished our presentation to the Olgulului Wildlife Club yesterday on World Lion Day, we received a report from Lion Guardian Melompuki that he had seen tracks of a female with two very small cubs. We set-off and arrived there a few minutes before dark. The good thing is that we had with us bait from a giraffe which had been killed by a male lion the previous day. We went as close to the suspected hide-out as possible. We did the call-in* and a few minutes later, Noolamala, a lioness born in March 2010 and the only female from Nooldoinyo’s pride, came. She had moved away from the other pride members to give birth. She was visibly hungry and the hard work of raising cubs was beginning to take its toll on her physical health. After feeding on the giraffe carcass for around 10 minutes, she set-off. We sat patiently not wanting to speculate on what we suspect. After about 15 minutes she came back not alone but with two very little cubs.

NoolamalaLion ID Card

 

We were so thrilled and excited and the Lion Guardians could hardly restrain from giggling. The two very innocent cubs meeting human beings for the first time did not know how to react. They kept running around but made sure to not get too far from their mother who was busy tearing the giraffe meat apart. We had suspected that this female had given birth but we never had confirmation nor did we know how many cubs. The last two times in the recent past that we tried to entice her, she always came on her own. For her to introduce her little cubs to our team on a World Lion Day was a special act. The fact that two more cubs were added to our current cub figures who, with good protection have a very good chance of reaching maturity, makes this day very special for our team because every single lion addition in the Amboseli ecosystem is valuable.

 

PJB_1293

PJB_1300

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* call-in is when we broadcast with a loudspeaker wildlife sounds such as a buffalo calf in distress, hyenas on a kill and lions roaring.  These sounds usually entice lions, who are naturally curious, to come closer to investigate.  We try to have some sort of bait available so that the lions will stay long enough to be seen well. This gives us the opportunity to get a visual on the lions, and, hopefully, a positive identification as well.

Lion Guardians celebrates World Lion Day

Organized to bring greater attention to the plight of the lion, Saturday the 10th of August 2013 has been designated as the ‘World Lion Day’. On this day, individuals and groups were encouraged to take action that demonstrate their interest and support in protecting the World’s remaining lions. The Lion Guardian Program is proud to be one of the groups listed on the official World Lion Day Campaign website. We therefore decided to hold our own World Lion Day event at Naor-Enkare Primary school neighboring our Central camp. We organized a very successful film day attended by over 130 school pupils and community members including women. PJB_1253 After explaining the main theme of the day, we showed our new Lion Guardians film. The film discusses the Lion Guardians Program, Maasai traditional values and the benefits that come from sharing rangelands with lions while creating awareness and drawing everybody’s attention to the plight of lions. Since the pupils and community members are all Maasai speakers, we showed the Maasai version of the film with English sub-titles. PJB_1248 This kept everybody attentive and focused even though a few comments on familiar faces, places and animals were clearly evident and animated excitement filled the air. After the above film which whetted their appetite, the audience kindly requested for another film and we obliged. We showed them the BBC film on The Great Migration and by the end, we were inundated with requests for regular film shows. In fact, one pupil humbly requested that ‘every Saturday should be made a World Lion Day so we can watch a film about lions! PJB_1243 After engaging the audience with a questions and answers session, we presented the school’s boys and girls football teams with a football each. PJB_1282PJB_1264   The footballs, provided by Eco-Sys Actions have a lion logo and the excited pupils could hardly stop playing on the pitch as their teachers pleaded with them that they should stop, go home as the event was over and wait for week-days. Clearly, despite their age, we never anticipated this kind of excitement. Members of the Lion Guardians sponsored school wildlife club felt very proud for the occasion while the parents and community members kept appreciations flowing. We are happy that we were able to share our vision of a future with lions with these children, who will be the stewards of those lions some day. Support Lion Guardians PJB_1290 PJB_1273 PJB_1277

Help us celebrate World Lion Day on August 10, 2013

world lion day 1Organized to bring greater attention to the plight of the lion, August 10th has been designated as “World Lion Day.” On this day, individuals and groups are encouraged to take an action that demonstrates their interest and support in protecting the world’s remaining lions.

Lion Guardians is proud to be one of the groups listed on the official World Lion Day campaign website.  The Lion Guardian team will be celebrating World Lion Day together with the Olgulului Wildlife Club by showing the newly released Lion Guardian film to the surrounding communities. The film discusses the Lion Guardian program, pastoralists’ values and the benefits that come from sharing rangelands with lions.world lion day 2

We hope you’ll take action in support of lions. See the list below for ways you can get involved.

How to celebrate World Lion Day:

  • Make a donation to a project that is saving lions: Lion Guardians – donate now!
  • Share the news about World Lion Day with your friends by posting an announcement on Facebook or tweeting on Twitter.
  •  “Like” World Lion Day’s Facebook page as well as the pages of your favorite lion-saving organizations (Facebook – Lion Guardians); encourage your friends and family to do the same!
  • Visit the Lion Guardian’s Amazon.com “Wish List” and help us purchase the much-needed equipment that helps the Lion Guardians monitor lions*.
  • Know any reporters or bloggers who’d be interested in writing about World Lion Day and the plight of lions? If so, direct them to our website and the information found on the World Lion Day’s campaign website and ask them to blog or write an article about World Lion Day and lion conservation.
  • World Lion Day is a great opportunity for sports teams, businesses and organizations that are named after lions or use the lion in their logo to support on the ground lion conservation by making a donation to Lion Guardians.
  • Participate in a nearby World Lion Day event or hold your own event. Need ideas for an event? Visit the campaign’s website for ideas and a list of events (World Lion Day – Get Involved).
  • Learn more about World Lion Day

world lion day 3

Together we can make the first annual World Lion Day a success!

The Lion Guardians Team

LG Team 2013

*Purchases of equipment  are not tax deductible. If you prefer to make a tax-deductible contribution please donate by cash, check or credit card.

Culture without borders

Pastoralism as a lifestyle is shared and practiced by several communities around the world. The main activity shared by all of them though, revolves around livestock production. This, to all pastoralists, is the main common trait and anything else, including language, cultural practices, belief system or organizational structures, can be different. When we expanded the LG Program to Ruaha in Tanzania( in collaboration with the Ruaha Carnivore Project), the Barabaig community was identified as the main lion killers because of their cultural practices. Amongst them, a lion killer would be rewarded with livestock by most of his relatives. This reward system became a major motivating factor behind lion killing. In contrast, for the Maasai lion killing was done to receive a lion name from the warrior’s peers.

During the 2013 Lion Guardians Games, held on June 13th, the warriors from both communities met and competed together for the first time.

The whole Barabaig team came dressed to kill!

The whole Barabaig team came dressed to kill!

As the majority of Ruaha Guardians were not acquainted with the majority of their Maasai brothers, the organization of the games was geared to ensuring that these young men with a shared objective embrace each other. The embrace was quick but their competitive spirit remained alive. The competition for whistling (a herding practice found in both cultures) set the ball rolling and was won by the Barabaig (you can listen to an example of Gwagi, the winner, whistling here). Their Maasai hosts were stirred and vowed to win the remaining events. We at this point made a decision to mix the teams and from there onward, each competitor represented his team, not his country or his community; but even then, the games still measured up to their competitive billing.

After the games the Ruaha LGs stayed behind at our newly built LG Training Center for further instruction and field experience.

Assistant Program Manager Richard Morinke teaching Darem how to use a telemetry receiver.

Assistant Program Manager Richard Morinke teaching Darem how to use a telemetry receiver.

When the Eselenkei community invited us to a traditional ceremony, we gladly accepted and took the Barabaig LGs with us. As warriors from both communities interacted, even though they spoke completely different languages, within no time they were able to understand each other through song and dance. The Barabaig LGs were dancing and jumping to different Maasai musical tunes and vice-versa.

Gwagi on the left and Noah on the right demonstrating their different styles to the great delight of the bystanders.

Gwagi on the left and Sunte on the right demonstrating their different styles to the great delight of the bystanders.

This bond between young men from two different communities surprised and entertained not only us but also the Maasai elders in attendance. Maasai women cheered both set of warriors to out jump each other and the exciting spectacle is still the talk of the community! Who said you can’t dance and jump to a different tune?