Twenty years ago there were 120,000 lions in Africa. Today, it is 25,000 and 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 these are 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 tinpot 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 you 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.
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 start filming as a queue of Maasai herders begins to build up outside a concrete hut – the HQ of Olgulului Group Ranch. Inside, individuals are 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. Not anymore.
We meet Sorouni, a village elder who was a mighty warrior in his youth – he killed four lion. 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 says, 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 straightforward. Occasionally Maasai boys fall foul of the new era of conservation.
Back at our camp in Chuylu, Ben and I are reviewing some of the video he has shot. It is afternoon in Africa and the scene around us is pretty sleepy: a few elephant at the nearby waterhole, not much else stirring, the hills shimmering in the distance.
Suddenly a game scout runs in and says a poacher has been caught – we must go!
We pile into a Land Rover and speed off through the bush, thrown violently from side to side on the rutted track. We pass by giraffes nibbling the acacia tops, see the hurricane-like damage wrought by hungry elephants with trees knocked flat and look out for lion in an ancient lava flow covered with scrub.
The vehicle comes to a sudden stop in great swirl of dust and there on a small outcrop of rock is the dismembered body of a young giraffe. The poacher, his hands tied with string, is watched over by armed guards. He can be no more than 15-years-old.
Daniel is head of the Predator Compensation Scheme.
“This isn’t poaching for sale which is a serious problem throughout Africa,” Daniel said. “This is young boys hunting for pleasure. In the old days the Maasai youngsters would often hunt down young giraffe to practise 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 have certainly cracked the elders, the leaders,” Bonham said. “But for the boys – well it is like trying to tell a European boy he must not play football.
“Though we do have some of the girls onside 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 are not interested in you!’.”
At six thirty the next morning, we are woken to news of a lion kill. Apparently an ostrich has been taken.
We set off with Steve from a group called the Lion Guardians, who are stationed at Chuylu. One of the lionesses has been fitted with a transmitter so her movements can be monitored. Steve stands on a rocky outcrop holding an antenna trying to gauge where she is.
He gesticulates frantically, indicating the pride is close by.
And then we have our first glimpse – the collared lioness is walking through the tall grass, followed by three cubs, their bellies full and fat. A young male sits under a bush by his kill, a large paw placed protectively over the carcass.
“Before there were just a handful of lion left in the Chuylu Hills,” says Steve 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 the beast.