Resolving the Human-Lion Conflict

Note that this is a shortened and revised version of an article that appeared in the online conservation magazine Conjour in May 2017.

The Marsh Pride of lions in the Maasai Mara, Kenya has featured in many popular wildlife documentaries, including the long-running BBC documentary series Big Cat Diary and the recent BBC series Dynasties as well as Big Cat Tales recently shown on Sky’s Animal Planet channel.

Having spent a lot of time with the Marsh Pride during my visits to the Mara, it was heartbreaking when news broke in December 2015 that several of its lions had been poisoned. In retaliation for a livestock kill, poison was put on the cow carcass knowing that the lions would return to it.

Several lions were affected and three of them died, including a 17-year-old lioness known as Bibi that featured in Big Cat Diary. A young male lion, Alan, had to be euthanised a few days after the attack. The lioness Siena was missing and presumed dead when a lion carcass was found that had been eaten by hyenas.

I felt particularly sad about Siena as she had come through some very tough times in the previous two years. She was gored by a buffalo in April 2014, resulting in a major injury to her left flank. She recovered well after treatment from the veterinary unit of The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (SWT), but a fight with another lioness in August 2014 caused the wound to  open and she required more treatment.

The image below shows Siena with her two cubs in September 2014. Note the floppy left ear which was her most distinguishing feature before the wound to her left flank.

In August 2015, the veterinary team had to be called again when she was found with multiple wounds – including the re-opened old wound. It was assumed that these injuries were the result of a fight with other lionesses. She received further treatment in September 2015 and they reported on the SWT website that she was “again beating the odds and healing miraculously”. Sadly, it was the actions of humans that killed her shortly after.

For visitors to the Mara, it is difficult to understand how members of the local communities could deliberately kill lions, especially when they are the source of valuable tourist income. But, wherever lions and humans live in close proximity, there will be some sort of conflict. Research has shown that there are many complex social, economic and ecological factors that have to be taken into account when trying to understand and find a solution to the human-lion conflict.

Actions that have been taken to address the specific problem of lions killing livestock include compensation schemes as well as improvements in husbandry practices to protect livestock. However, mitigation strategies need to be situation-specific given the variety of factors that may be involved.

To gain a better understanding of the problem, researchers carried out a detailed study of attitudes towards retaliatory lion killings in communally-owned Maasai land close to Amboseli National Park [1]. The study took place between May 2005 and April 2006. Results showed that individuals who kept livestock for sale, rather than purely for domestic consumption, were twice as likely to carry out retaliation kills. Also, those with few livestock were less tolerant than those with large herds due to the greater significance of a loss.

Interestingly, religious affiliation was also found to be an important factor: 48% of those who participated in the study belonged to an evangelical sect, and a much higher percentage of them (35%) said they would kill a lion compared to those affiliated with other churches or no church (14%). The researchers speculated that this might highlight an important link between religion and conservation, since the evangelical sect stressed the dominance of humans over animals, while other religions promoted stewardship and accountability which encouraged tolerance.

Apparently, the Catholic Church in Kenya is one of the few that includes environmental issues in its sermons.

Other field research in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area of Tanzania [2] showed that there were more than five times as many attacks when children rather than men were in charge of herds. This suggested that persuading the Maasai to send their children to school in line with the government aim of achieving universal literacy would have the additional benefit of significantly reducing the number of livestock killings by lions.

Although other predators kill more livestock than lions do, there are more retaliatory killings of lions. Hyenas and leopards often kill smaller livestock such as sheep and goats, which are less valuable than cattle. Also, they tend to move away from the location of the kill or hide themselves, while lions are much more likely to defend a carcass and return to it. This makes it easier to find them, and the knowledge that they are likely to return to a carcass leaves them vulnerable to the easy and cheap option of poisoning.

Attempts to discourage retaliatory killings by introducing compensation schemes have had mixed success, depending on the implementation. Some schemes offer only partial compensation and, in many cases, there are lengthy delays in receiving the funds and/or complicated application procedures. Unsurprisingly, many of those who lose livestock to lions are not motivated to apply as a result.

The main problem underlying the human-lion conflict is the increasing competition for grasslands, especially during the dry season. Although the Maasai people are not allowed to graze their cattle in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the lack of strict controls means that they do so under the cover of darkness, leaving their cattle vulnerable to attacks by lions. At the same time, there are no fences around the Reserve and lions will attack livestock in nearby communities if it is not well protected. Lions such as the Marsh Pride which live close to the boundary are therefore particularly likely to be part of the human-lion conflict.

There are a number of commendable projects that aim to reduce the conflict in a variety of ways ranging from financially supporting the construction of more robust enclosures (bomas) to encouraging the Maasai to use bank accounts rather than investing their money in cattle, which have traditionally been a symbol of status and wealth. However, one of the most important factors must be to ensure that the local communities directly experience the financial benefits that the lions bring through tourism.

The Mara conservancies have demonstrated the advantages of engaging members of the local communities in conservation [3]. The Maasai lease their land to the safari camps in the conservancies, providing them with a reliable, steady income. They are also allowed to graze their cattle in a controlled way, moving the cattle from one area to another. The restrictions on the numbers of camps and tourists in the conservancies, as well as the strict environmental policies enforced, benefit both the wildlife and the visitors. Studies have shown that lion densities have increased substantially within the conservancies which suggests that the model operated by them does indeed promote lion survival.

Let’s hope that the local and national governments in Kenya, as well as in other areas affected by the human-lion conflict, can

References

  1. L. Hazzah, M.B. Mulder and L. Frank, Lions and Warriors: Social factors underlying declining African lion population and the effect of incentive-based management in Kenya, Biological Conservation, 142 (2009), 2428-2437.
  2. Managing Human-Lion Conflict, College of Biological Sciences, University of Minnesota, https://cbs.umn.edu/research/labs/lionresearch/research/managing-human-lion-conflict
  3. S. Blackburn, J.G.C. Hopcraft, J.O. Ogutu, J. Matthiopoulos and L. Frank, Human-wildlife conflict, benefit sharing and the survival of lions in pastoralist community-based conservancies, Journal of Applied Ecology, 53 (2016), 1195-1205.