How community averts lions' attacks, reaps big

Lions at Eselenkei Conservancy in Kajiado South, as pictured on March 14, 2018. India is probing the deaths of a dozen endangered wild Asiatic lions, half of them cubs. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • There are currently 160 conservancies across 28 counties covering 11 per cent of Kenya’s land mass.
  • Kitasho said compensations have minimised retaliatory killing of lions over the years resulting into their increase in numbers.

Near the foot of Amboseli National Park in Eselenkei Conservancy, senior warden David Kitasho gazed down at a pride of lions lapping water at a nearby water point.

Kitasho, whose name means a double lion killer in Maasai, watched delightedly as the large carnivores rolled themselves on the ground before they disappeared into some thickets not far away from the shallow water pan.

Though not a lion killer himself, the warden says he got the name from his father, who was revered by his peers and locals for killing nine lions in his Morani hey-days.

“I’m a convert. And together with other members of this community we are working tirelessly to raise awareness against killing of lions,” Kitasho announced.

Located in Kajiado South, 40 kilometres off Sultan Hamud, Eselenkei Conservancy may not appear on any geographical map as an iconic location.

But the 5,000 hectares community conservancy, which lies at the centre of a community ranch, has pristine biodiversity that is supporting lives of the much endangered lions, leopards among other wildlife.

TOURISM
It was established more than 15 years ago when the community portioned their 74,000 hectares group ranch to conserve wildlife for tourism attraction for income.

At that time there was only one lion called Delle and a few elephants, which were only seen once in 10 years, the senior warden recounted.

Surprisingly, what set out as a mere experiment spearheaded by some 3,400 villagers is triumphantly reversing a swiftly declining population of lions against the unforgiving adversity of massive land segmentation, retaliatory killings and poisoning of lions by vindictive herdsmen.

They have also dug boreholes, which provide ready water to the wild animals who now do not have to wander outside the conservation area.

Currently, the conservancy has more than 60 lions, seven leopards, 400 elephants and dozens of other games except rhinos.

“For many years we lived among these wild animals without seeing their benefits instead they attacked our livestock.

"Then we sat and figured out to establish a conservancy where we protect them as they benefit as,” Kitasho, who is also a member of the community, explained.

CONSERVATION
After setting up the conservancy, the community partnered with Game Watchers Safaris who have constructed an eco-camp within to provide tourism services to both local and international tourists.

About 50 per cent of the proceeds are remitted to a community fund to support projects such as drilling water boreholes, educating children and compensating pastoralists who lose their livestock to predators.

They are currently providing education bursaries to 120 students besides buying drugs for the neighbouring Fatima Health Centre to facilitate cheap access to medical care.

As results the community has been endeared to conserving the animals.

And currently as wildlife researchers, experts and conservationists moot plans to have lions placed on Appendix One (list of species that are most endangered) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), following a sharp decline in their numbers across the world, Eselenkei conservancy is bustling with a growing lion pride.

MONITORING

Dr Caroline Ng’weno, a wildlife expert at Mara Predators, observes East Africa represents a crucial region for the lions’ existence as it currently holds 57 per cent of Africa’s remaining lions.

She points out that lack of standardised methodology to survey the lion population across the country has been lacking, hence getting accurate estimates is curbed.

“Keeping these populations from extinction will require conservation efforts well beyond the dismal performance of protected areas and conservancies.

"Large carnivores are wide-ranging and need a lot of space. When they are isolated they invade pastoral community for food and they also in-breed, which threatens their continuity,” Dr Ng’weno explained.

As the world woke up last weekend for the World Wildlife Day under the theme “Big cats: Predators under threat”, no one would have imagined a small community in the heart of Amboseli has been ahead of the rest of us for almost 20 years, with a pioneering initiative to save lions and even going further to initiate a compensation scheme for herders whose livestock are killed by the lions.

“The scheme was established five years ago to pay off for the livestock killed outside the conservancy by predators we are trying to conserve namely lions, leopards or wild dogs,” Kitasho told Saturday Nation.

EMPLOYMENT
Jacob Leyian, the conservancy chairman, says they have also managed to create employment for their youth who work as tour guides at the eco-camp.

He said they are also striving to dissuade morans from killing lions.

“We are also trying to regulate the population of their livestock due to drought so that herdsmen do not drive their animals into the conservancy where they could be killed by lions,” Leyian said.

But as human population grows the conservancy will have to fight against the attempts of sub-division of the group ranch, which is currently sweeping across parts of the Maasai land.

“We are trying very hard to avoid sub-division of this land. Already, our neighbours in Kajiado East have sub-divided their group ranch and sold their plots.

"Even if we will sub-divide the rest of the community ranch we are hoping to keep the conservancy land intact,” the community members said.

Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA) 2016 report indicates conservancies in the country protect the 65 per cent of wildlife living outside national parks, including 72 per cent of Kenya’s population of Southern white rhinos and 90 per cent of the world’s population of Grevy’s zebras thereby securing the country’s natural heritage.

The report show there are currently 160 conservancies across 28 counties covering 11 per cent of Kenya’s land mass, 89 per cent of which is managed by communities.

COMPENSATION

The conservancy has in the last five years paid more than Sh18 million in compensations.

According to Kitasho the compensations have minimised retaliatory killing of lions over the years resulting into their increase in numbers.

“Ever since we established the conservancy only one lion cub has been killed in a retaliatory attack by angry locals after its mother invaded a home and killed a calf,” he pointed out, adding that they pay at least Sh800,000 every three months because the lions regularly invade homes after straying out of the unfenced conservancy.

He added that they have 139 carcasses of cows, goats and donkey whose owners must be compensated this month, amount which translates into Sh2.2 million.

The conservancy pays Sh20,000 for a cow, Sh5,000 for a goat and Sh10,000 for a donkey.

They, however, do not compensate for animals killed by hyenas.

“It is easy to differentiate an animal killed by a lion from those killed by hyenas. We look at footprints. Again, hyenas attack animals from behind while lions attack on the neck,” the senior warden explained.

BIG CAT
Meanwhile, threats against the survival of the wildlife, especially lions, remain relatively high across the country as the Kenya Wildlife Service estimates that the country loses about 100 of its 2,000 lions annually due to growing human settlements, rising agricultural activities, climate change and diseases.

Globally, the population of the big cat is declining at a disturbing rate due to loss of habitat and prey, conflicts with people, poaching and illegal trade.

For example, African lion populations dropped by 40 per cent in just 20 years.

Last week on Thursday as we drove past the Eselenkei Conservancy into the local neighbourhood, we came across a dead leopard called Dume; the oldest male leopard at the conservancy had attacked herders, who then killed it.

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