The legendary hostility between the Maasai and the lion is now a thing of the past, with the once-fearsome lion hunters putting their weight squarely behind conserving the iconic species of Africa. Apart from what had been an enduring tradition associated with bravery and personal accomplishment, lion hunting had a lot to do with protecting the Maasai’s cattle – central to the tribe’s livelihood – from the predators.
Lions have a history of preying on cattle, triggering in the process a perpetual enmity with the Maasais. The turnaround has been possible because of a number of factors ranging from enhanced awareness on conservation and its worth, tourism and its benefits to the communities, and last but not the least, the Maasai’s innate sense of respect for nature and wildlife.
“Lions are dwindling across the continent and we still have a sizeable population left. The lion is part of Africa’s and our heritage, and it is for us to save it. People from all over the globe come to see this signature animal of Africa and local communities are benefitting from eco-tourism,” Sammy Kirinkhai, Maasai chief of Enkolili village near Amboseli National Park, told The Assam Tribune.
According to Sammy, many members from his community are increasingly getting engaged in tourism and related activities, earning handsome dividends in the process.
“Our artisans are selling exquisite handicraft and handloom products which are much sought after by the tourists. Many are acting as safari guides and absorbed in other professional jobs in the tourism industry,” he said, adding that communities were also important stakeholders in managing wildlife reserves.
James, the young heir of the old Maasai headman of Olpesi village adjacent to Maasai Mara National Park, echoes the same sentiments.
“We used to hunt lions as part of our time-tested traditions. A Maasai youth has to spear a lion in order to become a man – a tradition still in vogue in some places which takes place once in five-six years. The number of lions killed in this manner is negligible.
More damage had been caused by retaliatory killing of lions over livestock killing,” he said. The trend of retaliatory killing of lions, James added, has come down drastically with the realisation of the urgency of protecting Africa’s invaluable faunal wealth.
“Our wildlife has given our country a pride of place in the global tourism map. The lion is central to maintaining the ecological balance of flora and fauna. Nowadays when lions kill our cattle, we are compensated adequately. In fact, for wildlife to flourish, we are now giving away our agricultural land to forests,” he said.
Pamela Wanjugu, travel consultant with the Nairobi-based Magical Retreats and Adventures Safaris, said that the boom in wildlife tourism in Kenya and several other African countries was having a direct bearing on conservation.
“Local communities today know the worth of their precious natural heritage, especially wildlife and their habitat. Visitors from across the world view these with awe and wonder. Communities are getting a lot of benefit from tourism and they are obviously for promoting it,” she said.
Wildlife experts believe that engaging local communities holds hope for long-term wildlife conservation in Africa. “We need to evolve and promote solutions by engaging communities. People who were once lion killers now have transformed into lion protectors, and here lies hope,” she added.
New surveys and estimates suggest that the lion has disappeared from about 80 per cent of its African range. More alarmingly, their numbers have declined about 50 per cent in the last 20 years. The latest estimate is that there are only about 35,000 lions left in all of Africa. Conservationists believe it is a very serious problem that requires unique conservation approaches.