Boy scares off lions with flashy invention

PHOTO | AFP TED curator Chris Andersen with Richard Turere, the young Maasai boy who figured out how to scare off lions by irritating them with flash lights. Turere’s invention has been praised by conservationists and pastoralists after it proved effective in keeping the wild animals at bay.

What you need to know:

  • 13-year-old’s ingenuity has been recognised with an invitation to the TED 2013 conference, this week in California, US

Richard Turere, 13, doesn’t like lions. In fact, he hates them. Yet this bright Maasai boy has devised an innovative solution that’s helping the survival of these magnificent beasts — by keeping them away from humans.

Living on the edge of the Nairobi National Park, Turere first became responsible for herding and safeguarding his family’s cattle when he was just nine.

But often, his valuable livestock would be raided by the lions roaming the park’s sweet savannah grasses, leaving him to count the losses.

“I grew up hating lions very much,” says Turere, who is from Kitengela. “They used to come at night and feed on our cattle when we were sleeping.”

Protecting family livestock

So, at the age of 11, Turere decided it was time to find a way of protecting his family’s cows, goats and sheep from falling prey to hungry lions.

“I had to look after my dad’s cows and make sure they were safe.”

His light bulb moment came with one small observation.

“One day, when I was walking around,” he says, “I discovered that the lions were scared of the moving light.”

Turere realised lions were afraid of venturing near the farm’s stockade when someone was walking around with a flashlight.

He put his young mind to work and a few weeks later he’d come up with an innovative, simple and low-cost system to scare the predators away.

He fitted a series of flashing LED bulbs onto poles around the livestock enclosure, facing outward.

The lights were wired to a box with switches and to an old car battery powered by a solar panel.

They were designed to flicker on and off intermittently, thus tricking the lions into believing that someone was moving around carrying a flashlight. And it worked.

Since Turere rigged up his “Lion Lights,” his family has not lost any livestock to the wild beasts, to the great delight of his father and astonishment of his neighbours

What’s even more impressive is that Turere devised and installed the whole system by himself, without ever receiving any training in electronics or engineering.

“I did it myself, no one taught me, I just came up with it,” says Turere.

“I had to look after my dad’s cows and make sure that they were safe.”

For the pastoralists and Maasai tribes around the park, a lion sighting is usually bad news; valuable livestock are often lost to lions looking for easy prey, prompting rural communities to take matters into their own hands.

In some cases they’ve killed whole prides that they perceived as threat, or as retaliation for lost livestock.

The use of pesticides such as Furadan — a tablespoon of which costs less than a dollar and is enough to kill a lion — has become a particularly ruthless way of doing so.

Large sums of money have been spent in recent years by officials in a bid to protect the lions and strengthen Kenya’s tourism industry.

Yet conservationists say that many of these top-down initiatives fail to gain traction with local populations.

And this is why inventions like Turere’s — home grown, simple, affordable and effective — can make a big difference.

Indeed, several neighbours of the Turere family in Kitengela have sought the teenager’s help, asking him to install the system in their enclosures.

In total, around 75 “Lion Light” systems have so far been rigged up around Kenya.

“This is a solution that was invented by somebody in the community,” explains Paula Kahumbu, executive director of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust and chairman of the Friends of Nairobi National Park.

Kahumbu and her colleagues first came across Turere’s innovation some two years ago in the course of their fieldwork.

Stunned by the boy’s achievements, they helped him get a scholarship at Brookhouse International School, one of Kenya’s top educational institutions, where he started last April.

“Richard is quite an extraordinary boy,” says Kahumbu.

She describes him as a “very smart, curious and surprisingly confident boy for his age and background,” who’s integrated smoothly among his new classmates, most of whom are from wealthy families.

“One thing that’s unique about Richard is that if you give him a problem, he’ll keep working at it until he can fix it,” she adds.

“He doesn’t give up; he doesn’t find things too difficult; he’s not afraid of being unable to do something and I think this is why he is such a good innovator — because he’s not worried that it might not work, he’s going to try and do it anyway.”

Turere says his dream is to work in aviation when he grows up.

“Three years ago when I was in the savannah herding my father’s cattle I used to see the planes flying over and landing at the airport and I was like, one day I’ll be a pilot and an aircraft engineer,” he says.

For this remarkable boy, it’s clear that the sky is the limit.