This is a story of changed hearts leading to changed behavior—in the backdrop of climate change. Spanning more than 15 years, it has heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies, and a mostly happy ending—perhaps. As I can’t do justice to the drama and complexity here, I encourage you to read it in its entirety in the Daily Beast.
There are several heroes, but the prime moving force is a woman named Leela Hazzah, an Egyptian American conservationist who’s a graduate student in her 20s when we’re introduced to her. She’d been studying elephants at the University of Wisconsin when she read that the lion population in East Africa was endangered.
As she wanted to make a difference, she applied for an internship with a Berkeley professor, Laurence Frank, a carnivore expert. Frank felt her knowledge of Swahili would be invaluable to efforts to learn more about the Maasai warriors who were killing the lions in Kenya.
So this diminutive young woman hopped on a plane and traveled alone to Maasailand.
As writer Andrew Dubbins observes:
“Africa can be a dangerous place for foreign ‘do gooders.’ In 2006, around the time Leela arrived in Maasailand, a British filmmaker combating poachers was murdered in the Rift Valley, reminiscent of famous gorilla researcher Dian Fossey, and an Italian author had recently been assaulted by poachers at her ranch in Northern Kenya. Leela, as a precaution, wore a dog tag her father gave her in case anything should happen.”
Frank had lent her his old Land Cruiser for transportation, and she moved into a house situated on a hill that was a lava ridge created by the explosion of Mount Kilimanjaro several hundred thousand years earlier. The owners of the dwelling, an Irish missionary couple, were never around, so Leela took up residence “on the sly.”
From there, she watched the Maasai as they hunted down and killed the lions. Doing so was by then against the law in Kenya, but she never reported them. Though as an animal lover, Leela found this inaction extremely hard, she knew she needed to learn what was going on before she could intervene.
“The Maasai tend to be wary of outsiders, having suffered a long history of colonization by the British, and many were cold to Leela at first. But over time, people got used to seeing her around.
“They usually only see white tourists in their Land Rovers speeding to and from safaris, but Laurence’s truck was breaking down so often that Leela had to walk great distances between Maasai villages. ‘I didn’t know foreigners could walk!’ a Maasai woman said to Leela.”
Then, in two events that sound cinematic but reportedly actually happened, Leela was called upon to drive a baby with a mysterious illness to a clinic 3 hours away (the nearby doctor was drunk).
The baby survived, and weeks later, when Leela became ill with malaria, a local medicine man returned the favor, apparently curing her by making tea from ground-up tree bark. She was then a part of the community.
The women named her “Nasera,” which in the Maasai’s Maa language means “woman of leadership.” It appears they saw something in Leela that she didn’t see in herself. She had told Dubbins that she always felt more comfortable with animals than with humans.
Leela began interviewing Maasai lion killers, inviting them to tea in her yard, with Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance.
The Maasai warriors explained their varied reasons for killing the lions. Primarily, as the drought killed their usual animal fare, the hungry lions moved closer to the Maasai’s settlements. The warriors felt they had to protect the cattle that were their livelihood from becoming the lions’ prey.
They were also enacting an ancient “coming of age” ritual. And they expressed ongoing resentment at the government, which had evicted the Maasai from their land to create a safari park in 1974. Some of the killings were sheer revenge for their perceived maltreatment.
One warrior told her:
“Those foxes [the officials] have taken all our fertile land… for wildlife… Now those wildlife are killing people,…eating our livestock, damaging our crops… They just get money from wildlife and they forget about the problems people encounter from wildlife.”
According to Dubbins,
“Lion hunts increased as the area’s human population grew, with villages and pastures carving deeper into wildlife habitat, bringing Maasai livestock in closer contact to lions. Between 2001 and 2011, Maasai warriors killed more than 200 lions in southern Kenya, the equivalent of 40 percent of the population each year.
“These hunts, combined with habitat loss, poaching, and disease, caused the lion population across Africa to plummet from half a million in 1950 to fewer than 30,000 in 2013. A decade ago, scientists worried the lion could be extinct in Kenya by 2020.”
After completing her research in 2006, Leela began writing her Master’s thesis in Frank’s house in northern Kenya, where she roomed with his research assistant, a biologist named Stephanie Dolrenry. Leela revealed a plan that one of the warriors, known as “murrans,” had, in fact, suggested to her.
“Let us murrans help conservationists monitor lions. Our tradition and culture make us the best and most experienced people to save lions. We can track lions in the dark, with our eyes closed, and we will never fail at it.”
Leela seized upon the idea.
“What if—Leela posed—we gave the Maasai warriors who are killing the lions responsibility for saving them? Pay the warriors a salary and train them in wildlife radio telemetry, blending the warriors’ traditional tracking skills with modern technology.”
There were potential hazards to the plan, including the possibility that the Maasai would use their new equipment to hunt down more lions, but Leela felt time was running out and the risks were worth it. She named the Group “Lion Guardians.” Stephanie became her co-founder.
Here’s another vital figure in this story: a young Maasai warrior named Kamunu Saitoti. The writer actually opens the article with Kamunu, an expert lion hunter, who kills a lioness he believes has killed his father’s cow. He is briefly jailed and fined as a result.
Leela had a sense about him, and she interviewed him for a position with the Guardians even though he insisted he’d still kill lions if they destroyed his father’s cattle. But the drought had by this point made the cows too thin for sale, so he found the idea of a salary appealing.
As part of the interview, the trackers were told to seek out lions and report back when they’d found any. It didn’t take Kamunu long. He showed up at their treehouse office and announced he’d found lions.
“To verify, Stephanie drove him to the area, and sure enough, found a young lioness resting in the sagebrush. She was about six feet long, with dark spots across her side and no black tip to her tail. Stephanie had heard stories of this “tip-less” lioness and was excited to find her.
“With Kamunu beside her, Stephanie darted the lioness with an air gun—to tranquilize her. The lioness was pregnant, Stephanie noted, pointing to her swollen belly and breasts. Kamunu knelt beside the lioness and placed his hands on her side, feeling her breath rise and fall. He’d never touched a live lion before.
“Kamunu fastened the GPS tracking collar around the lioness’ neck, as Stephanie watched him closely, noticing he wasn’t showing any emotion.
“She wasn’t convinced he’d made a connection with the lion until back in the Land Cruiser, Kamunu picked up his phone, called a friend, and excitedly recounted his experience with the lioness.”
Hired as a guardian, Kamunu joined a group who warned farmers and herders of the imminence of a lion so they could take different routes or otherwise protect their animals.
Dubbins explains their process:
“If the lion neared a village or cattle enclosure, Kamunu called Leela and Stephanie, who’d speed over in their Land Cruiser and chase the lion to safety by revving the engine, honking the horn, or throwing loud firecracker-like devices called thunderflashes.”
Kamunu also learned how to read and write and became an accurate data collector. The larger community began to take notice of the Lion Guardians’ good works, which also included such tasks as fixing cattle enclosures and finding wandering livestock.
When one guardian was admitted to Oxford to study wildlife conservation, the cash-strapped community raised $700 to help him get there.
The Lion Guardians began naming the lions, giving the animals an individuality that helped when they had to intercede, non-violently, to prevent other groups from hunting the animals.
“’This is Selenkay,’ they’d say. ‘She is a mother and is only attacking the cattle because her cubs are hungry in the drought.’ They’d remind the hunters that lions are revered for their strength in Maasai tradition, and vital to tourism in the area, which creates jobs. ‘You are killing yourself by spoiling the food that you are going to depend on,’ they’d argue.“
“The cynical take is that here were Leela and Stephanie, two foreign outsiders, telling the Maasai how to do things the ‘Western way.’ But the brilliance of their model was twofold. First, the organization was staffed almost entirely by Maasai men and women, and relied on participation and input from the Maasai community.
“And second, even in eradicating the Maasai’s tradition of lion killing, the Lion Guardians project preserved the prestige and pride of the Maasai warrior. Whereas a warrior’s pride once came from bloody hand to hand combat with lions, now it came from having a job, learning to read and write, helping the community, and courageously defending their lions. It was a more selfless and sustainable pride.”
The story isn’t all happiness and progress. Some poachers could not be deterred, and Samunu found his favorite lion dying from hunters’ poisoning, with one dead cub next to her.
The drought took its terrible toll on the people and animals. In 2009,
“Maasai elders, who practice oral history, told Leela this was the worst drought in a century. They blamed God for swallowing up the rain. Some slaughtered their few-remaining sheep and goats to appease the Almighty, a desperate prayer to an empty sky.
The descriptions that followed were sad and infuriating as the Maasai warriors became increasingly desperate. The Lion Guardians worked “around the clock,” Dubbins writes, to protect the lions from others who would harm them.
“Leela, meanwhile, recognized a different reason for the drought: climate change. And the most tragic part was, it wasn’t the Maasai’s fault. They’re a pastoral people whose carbon footprint is negligible. They were shouldering the burden for a problem largely created by the first world.”
Their “finest hour” came in 2012, when the government refused to compensate the family of a Maasai child who’d been killed by a buffalo, blaming the death on the Maasai themselves.
Nor would the government renegotiate the deal concerning the safari park, for which the Maasai received 3% of the proceeds from tourism while supporting 85% of the animals on their lands.
In retribution, Maasai warriors determined to kill the safari area animals: the elephants, buffalos, and lions. They succeeded in devastating the elephants and buffalos, but the Lion Guardians used skill and wiliness to protect their beloved lions. Not a single lion was killed during the rampage.
There are now Lion Guardian projects in Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Rwanda—and another in India protects tigers. Despite the scientists’ projections that lions would be nonexistent in Kenya by 2020, they seem to be defying that fate thus far.
When Dubbins visited the headquarters, Kamunu—who was then a senior leader—informed him that his Lion Guardian salary had enabled him to send his children to school. He sometimes expressed regrets about all the lions he’d killed, but Leela—now Dr. Leela Hazzah and the group’s executive director—reminded him how many he has saved.
On that trip, Dubbins’ group was taken on a tour around the area and shown a pair of lion’s paw prints close to where they were meeting.
“The lions know they’re safe here.”
NOTE: Dubbins didn’t mention the number of lions now in Kenya, so I did some research. The Born Free Foundation says the Kenyan government’s official estimate shows a 25% increase since 2010, from 2000 to 2489.
Born Free’s Executive President and Co-Founder Will Travers OBE cites a number of organizations, including his, as sharing the credit for this growth. He doesn’t mention the Lion Guardians—unless they’re included in “and many more, including local communities…” All these efforts, he says are “paying off. I believe this is a sign for cautious optimism and we may yet drag wild lions back from the brink. Inspired by this, we must do more.”
As I mentioned, the story has a mostly happy ending—perhaps. To some extent, saving the lions is yet another example of the urgency of meaningful worldwide actions against climate change.
To read more about the Lion Guardians and see photos and bios of their team, click here.