How to Save the Lions

In the dark the safest way to attack the lions was to catch them in the headlights of a car and run them over. Once the adults were downed it was easy enough to dispatch the cubs with spears and arrows. When the killing stopped last year in Kitengela, on the plains outside Nairobi National Park, six lions were dead. It was the worst such incident in recent memory.

Killing lions without a licence is a criminal offence in Kenya and the slaughter was witnessed by a trio of park rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service. Outnumbered, they decided not to try to stop what one of them described as “mob justice” by locals angry that their goats had been eaten. Seven months later no one has been arrested. Whereas elephant and rhino poachers often end up dead or in jail, no lion killer in Kenya has ever ended up behind bars.

Recent estimates put their number (lions) in Africa at 15,000-25,000. LionAid, a conservation group based in Britain, says it knows of only 645 still in west and central Africa.  Paula Kahumbu of Kenya-based Wildlife Direct says their fate Africa-wide will be decided in Kenya, home to one in ten of the surviving beasts. Kenya is losing about 100 every year, its wildlife service estimates, most of them killed by herders whose cattle graze the land where lions hunt. Cheap pesticides, such as Carbofuran, which is tasteless and odourless, have replaced spears as the chief killer. Kenya’s human population, up from 8m at independence in 1964 to 42m-plus today, has deprived the lions of habitat and prey.

Laurence Frank, who runs Living With Lions, a Kenyan charity, says that the big cats are viewed as an expensive nuisance by rural people who see few benefits from tourism.   Compensating owners for livestock lost to lions may have reduced locals’ incentive to look after their herds. Paul Mbugua of the Kenyan Wildlife Service suspects that last year’s Kitengela killings were meant to send a message that the local Masai wanted bigger compensation. Paying them to guard the lions has worked better…..Most successful of all has been the sprouting of private conservancies turning ranches into wildlife havens that earn their keep from tourists as well as farming, and recycle the income into local communities better than national parks do. Several such ventures in Laikipia, a plateau north-west of Mount Kenya, are reversing the downward trend in lion numbers.

Excerpts, Kenya’s lions: Sad for Simba, Economist,  Jan. 26, 2013, at 45

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