Twenty years ago there were 120,000 lions in Africa. Today, there are 25,000 and that number is falling fast - all because of the eternal conflict between man and beast.

But in the Chuylu Hills in southern Kenya, numbers are actually increasing. And it is thanks chiefly to one of the lions' oldest enemies - the Maasai people. And this is a tribe for whom killing lions has always been a rite of passage.

My cameraman, Ben Mitchell, and I were flying low over iconic Africa in a tin-pot but trusty 40-year-old Cessna, its speeding shadow spooking herds of zebra and wildebeest. The great bulk of Mount Kilimanjaro loomed in the cloud.

Below we could see the temporary encampments of the Maasai. Their boumas encircled by thorn branches to protect the nomads and their cattle from the ever-present threat of predators.

Our pilot, the hunter-turned-ardent-conservationist Richard Bonham, flourished his hand across the landscape.

"When I first got here 25 years ago there were lions everywhere," he said. "And the Maasai were killing them as they have always done, spearing them in retribution when they attacked their livestock. And then they started poisoning them. They would kill a whole pride at a time."

This, coupled with continuing habitat loss, was leading to doomsday for the Chuylu lions.

[Photo by Nick Clark]

Preservation and compensation

Recognising the catastrophe that was about to happen, Richard helped set up the Maasai Land Preservation Trust, which began to compensate herders for cattle lost to predators. He did it in the nick of time: there were probably no more than five or six lions left in the area.

"The aim was to get the Maasai who own this land to use wildlife as their prime source of income. When that happened they began securing their habitat, looking after their animals as they would their own cattle."

On the ground we started filming as a queue of Maasai herders began to build up outside a concrete hut - the HQ of Olgulului Group Ranch. Inside, individuals were receiving money - compensation for cattle killed by predators.

Hyena, cheetah, jackal and lion are the usual culprits. In the past those animals would be hunted down. But not anymore.

Lion killer

We met Sorouni, a village elder who was a mighty warrior in his youth - he killed four lions. But now he is the proverbial poacher-turned-gamekeeper and encourages the youth to look to their future.

"Now we try and do all we can to make sure they don't go lion hunting," Sorouni told us, a colourful blanket slung across his shoulder in the Maasai way.

"As a community we have a new way of identifying a warrior. A warrior is the one who goes to school and comes back with a degree."

But it is not always straightforward. Occasionally Maasai boys fall foul of the new era of conservation.

Back at our camp in Chuylu, Ben and I were reviewing some of the video he had shot. It was afternoon in Africa and the scene around us was pretty sleepy - a few elephants at the nearby waterhole, not much else stirring, the hills shimmering in the distance.

Suddenly a game scout ran in and said a poacher had been caught - we had to go!

We piled into a Landrover and speed off through the bush, thrown violently from side to side on the rutted track. We passed by giraffe nibbling the acacia tops, saw the hurricane-like damage wrought by hungry elephants with trees knocked flat and looked out for lion in an ancient lava flow covered with scrub.

The vehicle came to a sudden stop in a great swirl of dust and there on a small outcrop of rock was the dismembered body of a young giraffe. The poacher, his hands tied with string, was being watched over by armed guards. He must have been no older than 15.

Daniel, the head of the Predator Compensation Scheme, explained: "This isn't poaching for sale which is a serious problem throughout Africa. This is young boys hunting for pleasure.

"In the old days the Maasai youngsters would often hunt down young giraffe to practice throwing their spears ahead of the time when they would hunt lion. These days this is actually quite rare."

But it does demonstrate how hard it is to change a mindset, to move away from a tradition.

"We've certainly cracked the elders, the leaders," said Richard Bonham. "But for the boys - well it's like trying to tell a European boy he mustn't play football.

"Though we do have some of the girls on-side now. Part of the deal used to be, if you kill the lions - the girls were lining up to be your girlfriend.

"Now the girls are saying: 'Yeah you go and kill a lion, we're not interested in you!'"

[Photo by Phillip J Briggs]

Lion sighting

At 6.30 the next morning we were woken to news of a lion kill. Apparently an ostrich had been taken.

We set off with Steve from a group called the Lion Guardians, who are stationed at Chuylu. One of the lionesses had been fitted with a transmitter so her movements could be monitored. Steve stood on a rocky outcrop holding an antenna trying to gauge where she was.

He gesticulated frantically, indicating the pride was close by.

And then we had our first glimpse - the collared lioness walking through the tall grass, followed by three cubs, their bellies full and fat. A young male sat under a bush by his kill, a large paw placed protectively over the carcass.

"Before there were just a handful of lions left in the Chuylu Hills," Steve said in a whisper. "Now there are 45 of which 22 are cubs. If this goes on, soon there will be a proper, sustainable population once more."

The fact that we were able to witness this, that we were able to shoot the perfect end to our earthrise film, is testament to the success of the project. A project, which after all, helps both man and beast.

Source: Al Jazeera