Richard Turere was a nine-year-old Maasai boy when he was put in charge of his family’s cattle on the edge of Nairobi National Park in Kenya. At night, after he had herded the animals together into the boma, the fold, they seemed safe. But the lions jumped over the fence and took them.
He tried different things. Fire will scare them, he thought, but the light made it easier for the lions to see inside the fence. They lost their fear of scarecrows within a day. Then he had an idea: using an old car battery, a switch from a scrapped motor bike and a few bulbs from some broken torches, he rigged up a system of flashing lights. When he hung it round the kraal, it looked as if a cowherd was making his rounds with a torch.
It worked: the lions stayed away. This system of flashing lights is now used in large parts of Kenya and Richard Turere gives TED Talks on his invention called “My invention that made peace with lions.”
That peace was desperately needed. The number of wild lions in Africa dropped to very worrying levels in recent decades; a century ago, there were more than 200,000 – now there are about 32,000. At the turn of the century, there were about 2,700 in Kenya, of which only 2,000 are left. They could be completely extinct within twenty years, and they are already gone from large parts of West, Central and Northern Africa.
Nairobi National Park borders on the southern edge of the Kenyan capital, from which it is separated by a fence. A narrow river marks the other side of the park and wild animals can wade through the shallow, narrow stream, in and out of the park. Small Maasai communities live along that rim and graze their cattle, sheep and goats on the plains during the day.
Now and then, the border is the scene of trouble. If the lions attack the cattle here, the cowherds sometimes take revenge. The Maasai are not afraid of killing the predators with their spears. “Cows are valuable assets”, Hans de Iongh, Professor at Leiden University’s Centre for Environmental Studies (CML), explains. “I can understand the call for revenge if a lion steals one. The battle between man and beast continues, but with less damage nowadays.”
In contrast to other African countries, killing wild animals and selling bush meat is against the law in Kenya. “The traditional rite of passage, when a Maasai warrior must prove his courage by killing a lion, is not allowed any more, and that’s made a huge difference”, De Iongh continues. “Because some of the Maasai have switched to wild-life management, the lion population has grown considerably.”
De Iongh, Kenyan PhD student Francis Lesilau from Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and CML PhD student Kevin Groen are doing research in four national parks. “We hope our work will help protect the species. By the late nineties, lions were completely extinct in Amboseli National Park – killed by the Maasai. Gradually, they are returning from the surrounding areas.”
In 2007, Leiden University and Stichting Leo (an organisation for the protection of large carnivores in Africa) and KWS began fitting the lions in Nairobi National Park with transmitters. “In recent years, we have put collars with transmitters on at least twelve. The satellite shows us where the lions regularly leave the park at night and run in to trouble with the locals.”
The programme Living with Lions was launched at the same time; its aim is to train locals, mainly Maasai warriors, as lion rangers. “KWS runs educational programmes too: children learn how valuable this wilderness is, which builds support for management”, says De Iongh.
Evening falls over Nairobi National Park as Nickson Parmisa, chair of the local Maasai committee, herds his sheep and goats safely into the boma. “We’ve installed flashing lights here too. We still lose cattle, but now it’s more often during the day. Our animals drink over there, at the river; the lions are on the other side of the water. If a cowherd does not look out, they’ll seize a sheep or a goat. That’s why we’re glad with the transmitters; it means we know where the lions are, and we can avoid that area.”
It’s still dark when De Iongh, a group of students and PhD student Luka Narisha enter the Meru National Park. Circling vultures give away the presence of a kill. Narisha investigates on foot, disappearing into the undergrowth. It’s not without risk: a lion could be close, guarding its prey. The carcass of a buffalo has already almost been cleared of its flesh. Narisha estimates that it’s been there for a day or two. The students have found what they came for: scat, i.e. lion shit, and start collecting samples.
Two male lions are asleep in the shadow of a small tree in Lake Nakuru National Park. KWS vet Titus Kaitho drives over carefully, takes aim and shoots. The lions jump up, surprised. There’s a feather sticking out of one male’s leg. He manages to draw out the bright pink dart with his mouth, but it’s too late. The tranquillizer is already taking effect and the creature starts to fall asleep.
Everyone rushes out of the cars. A ranger lifts the slumbering animal’s massive head so that Francis Lesilau can fit the collar round its neck. Hans De Iongh and KWS’ Monica Chege fasten the transmitter with nuts and bolts.
It’s already dusk by the time the vet administers the antidote, but the lion is in no hurry to wake up. I want to capture the moment as well as I can and set up a camera on a tripod so I can take pictures via remote control. It’s dark before the lion finally gets up. He heads straight towards my camera and oops...he starts to chew it. Then he runs off with my camera and tripod in his mouth. Three Land Cruisers race after him through the ink-black bush. We can catch glimpses of the speeding creature now and then in the headlights. He only drops the camera and flees once we have him surrounded, following a rowdy chase. A ranger, grinning from ear to ear, picks the device out of the undergrowth.
“I had three today. One scat was really fresh, disgusting, like trying to grab custard.” Messages from Leiden biology students Iris Noordermeer and Dionne Jacobs flood in on the phones via WhatsApp. Nine students, supervised by Kevin Groen, have been collecting data for three months. Groen shares his results with the researchers from Kenya Wildlife Service, Monica Chege, Luka Narisha and Francis Lesilau, who is also associated with Leiden University.
“We count the different kinds of prey, too”, Groen says. “If we don’t want lions snacking outside the park, we must make sure that there is enough prey to keep them happy. We can adapt our strategy to that.” He knows that fences, on the other hand, aren’t always the solution. “In enclosed parks, grazers run into lions and other predators more often, so they are more alert and graze less, which can create a kind of landscape of fear. If there’s less grazing, more trees grow, which certain animals don’t like and that, in turn, affects the population.”
That evening, the researchers hold a “calling station” in the Amboseli National Park. They use an amplifier to play the sound of a prey. As soon as the whimpers of a distressed wildebeest sound across the plain, the first lions prick up their ears. Then more and more join them. The large group gets up quietly and starts walking towards the noise. There are thirteen of them: females, young adults and some young animals that still have spots on their fur. As soon as it’s dark, the researchers return, hoping to find scat here tomorrow. I get a few hours sleep before the alarm goes off at five o’clock.
The next morning, the coast is clear: the lions have been spotted further away. The students fervently fill ampoules and plastic grab bags with the first samples from Amboseli National Park: tell the world on WhatsApp! On the way back, a musty smell starts to fill the car.