Africa's lion population is falling
An interview with lion researcher Leela Hazzah
March 25, 2008
The Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project is working to avoid this fate by developing practical measures to encourage coexistence between people, livestock and predators. Key to the effort is reducing livestock losses to lions.
Director and Assistant Director of Lion Guardians (Leela Hazzah and Antony Kasanga) at a goat roast
Leela Hazzah and Baba Murua
"Lion Guardians aid their communities by informing herders to avoid grazing areas where lions are present, improving livestock bomas (corrals), helping herders find lost livestock in the bush before they are killed by predators, educating their communities about carnivore conservation, and, most importantly, working with other murrans to prevent lion killings," explained Hazzah.
"We are currently working to expand the successful Lion Guardian program onto a neighboring group ranch, Olgulului, where over 65% of all lion killing in the Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem since 2004 has taken place."
In a March 2008 interview with mongabay.com, Hazzah talked about lion conservation efforts in Kenya.
Interview with Leela Hazzah
Mongabay: What is the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project?
Leela Hazzah: Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project (KLCP) is part of a non-government organization called ‘Living with Lions' (www.lionconservation.org) which has two projects; one in Laikipia (northern Kenya) called the Laikipia Predator Project and one, KLCP, in southern Kenyan Maasailand. My work is focused in Kenyan Maasailand with KLCP.
Mongabay: How did you become interested in wildlife and specifically lion conservation?
Olubi tracking lions. Photo by Seamus Maclennan
Mongabay: What is your academic background?
Leela Hazzah: I have a Bachelor's degree in Biology from Denison University in Ohio, a small liberal arts University. Last year I completed my MSc in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My thesis was entitled: Living Among Lions (Panthera leo): Community attitudes towards conservation initiatives and the motivations behind lion killing in Kenyan Maasailand.
Currently, I am working toward my PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison continuing my work on Maasai-carnivore conflict in southern Kenya and directing a community conservation initiative called, "Lion Guardians".
Mongabay: What is your normal day like? Is most of your time spent working with local people or lions?
Lion. Photo by Seamus
Sangale and Nemesi. Photo by Seamus
Mongabay: Why are lions threatened? Is poaching for the wildlife trade or illicit trophy hunting an issue there?
Leela Hazzah: Lions are declining throughout their range. East Africa is one of their last strongholds, containing approximately half of the remaining African lion population (the majority is in Tanzania). In Kenyan Maasailand, Maasai people are spearing and poisoning lions at a rate that will ensure local extinction within a decade. Lion killing is embedded within Maasai perception of depredation by lions on livestock, socio-economic factors, and the complex relationship between Maasai and conservation. These all affect tolerance for lions and consequently Maasai behavior towards conservation initiatives and carnivores in general.
Trophy hunting was banned in Kenya in 1978 so it does not contribute to the declining lion populations, though many believe managed trophy hunting may be beneficial to carnivore, in particular lion, populations. Illegal wildlife poaching does impact lion populations, though minimally. The most significant reason for lion decline is retaliatory (Olkiyoi) and ritual-based (Olamayio) lion killing by Maasai. Also, retaliatory poisoning in response to livestock depredation has a huge effect on carnivore populations and may kill off whole prides of lions.
Mongabay: What's the best way to minimize the impact of lions on livestock? How do you encourage local people to not take up arms against opportunistic predators? Are they compensated for losses?
Lion Guardians fixing a livestock kraal (boma). Photo by Seamus Maclennan
- Highly participatory and capacity building; allowing Maasai to aid in the creation and running of the project
- Culturally and socially acceptable amongst the Maasai
- Ensure that communities are receiving benefits from the wildlife on their land
- Produce tangible results, conservation confirmed through science
Leela Hazzah and Lepencha. Photo by Jacob Mayiani
Leela Hazzah and Kapande (Lion Guardian) tracking lions. Photo by Antony Kasanga
Lion Guardians have two major duties which benefit both the lions and the communities: 1) monitor lions movements by radio telemetry and traditional tracking techniques; and 2) aid their communities by informing herders to avoid grazing areas where lions are present, improving livestock bomas (corrals), helping herders find lost livestock in the bush before they are killed by predators, educating their communities about carnivore conservation, and, most importantly, working with other murrans to prevent lion killings. Since the inception of Lion Guardians in November 2006, no lions have been speared in Mbirikani Ranch, this is the longest respite since the late 1990s; though, on neighboring group ranches lions continue to be slaughtered. We are currently working to expand the successful Lion Guardian program onto a neighboring group ranch, Olgulului, where over 65% of all lion killing in the Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem since 2004 has taken place (i.e., over 60 lions).
For more information on the Lion Guardian program, visit the murran-ran blog site at lionguardians.wildlifedirect.org. The blog is an interactive platform where the Lion Guardians can narrate their daily stories, adventures, accomplishments, and news to interested readers and conservationists. The Lion Guardian blog also helps with fund raising--we get an amazing amount of support from donors all around the world.
Mongabay: Why lions are worth saving if they only endanger wildlife and livestock? Can you explain why we should take special efforts to protect predators?
Retei (Lion Guardian) taking GPS point. Photo by Leela Hazzah
Mongabay: Do you have any notable close-calls working with big cats?
Leela Hazzah: With the big cats we work under the belief "If you don't bother them, they don't bother you". We make smart decisions such as not walking around in the bush alone at night. The animals I worry about most are the African Buffalos and Elephants. If you aren't paying attention and walk up on them you may find yourself in a very bad situation.
Hazzah examining dead lion. Photo by Seamus Maclennan
Lepencha collaring lioness. Photo by Seamus Maclennan
Mongabay: Do you have any advice for students who are interested in pursing wildlife conservation fieldwork?
Leela Hazzah: Experience is the name of the game. If students are interested in pursing a career in conservation then I would strongly suggest volunteering in any project that is of interest to you. I cannot stress enough how important getting experience in the field doing hands-on conservation of any wildlife species will improve your chances immensely in pursuing your dreams. Find a place, species, or people that interest you and go for it. Once you have some experience under you belt and have a better idea of what exactly you want to specialize in then apply to Graduate school in Conservation Biology, Environmental Studies, or any Wildlife Ecology related programs.
Mongabay: How can people at home help protect big cats and other endangered carnivores?
Leela Hazzah: People can help by staying educated on conservation issues, making smart decisions in their everyday lives about their use of resources, also by voting in policy-makers that are conservation oriented. A direct way to help protect big cats and other endangered carnivores is by donating to conservation organizations that are doing frontline work involving local communities such as Living with Lions and the Lion Guardian program.