In Africa, the wildlife slaughter is growing. The death toll has prompted conservationists to warn of the extinction of wild populations of rhinos, elephants, and lions outside of a few scattered reserves and wildernesses.
Yet a new program to protect lions in Kenya has proved effective against the odds. The initiative, called Lion Guardians, enlists traditional Masai warriors to convince their communities to protect lions rather than hunt them.
The Lion Guardians program was “associated with near-total cessation of lion killings in each area where it was implemented,” according to researchers who help run the program, reporting their results in the journal Conservation Biology. Only five deaths were reported in the study area, mostly attributable to outsiders and political conflict, while surrounding areas witnessed more than 100 killings during the same period.
In Kenya, Masai pastoralists often spear or poison lions to retaliate after predators have killed their livestock. The Guardians pays the Masai warriors, who are called limurran, about $100 per month to warn herders about nearby lions, recover lost livestock, reinforce protective fencing, and stop lion-hunting parties. The tribesmen are taught to read, write, and communicate in Swahili, and monitor lion movements through a mix of traditional knowledge and modern radio-tracking.
The Lion Guardians program is now expanding. It has 52 Lion Guardians employed in East Africa protecting more than 1,700 square miles of vital habitat with growing lion populations. And at a cost of $41 per square kilometer per year, it’s about half the expense of its most common alternative, compensation programs for livestock killed by predators.
But replicating the success of the program in other areas will be challenging. The Lion Guardians program enjoys trusted access to the Masai, who have a strong culture of traditional resource management, and insulation from the worst of urban and agricultural encroachment and criminal poaching.
Today, only about 30,000 free-ranging lions remain. The number has plummeted by more than 30 percent in the last two decades, leading to “widespread declines and local extinctions,” according to the U.N.. The Lions Guardians program could help turn around this population crash in some areas. But alone, it almost certainly won’t be enough.