The Kenyan Maasai Who Once Hunted Lions Are Now Their Saviors

Courtesy Andrew Dubbins
The Maasai warrior Kamunu Saitoti had been hunting for almost a day when he finally came across lion tracks in the dusty ground. It was in 2007 in the Maasai-owned area of ​​Donkey Egg in southern Kenya, the light was dimming, and Kamunu's two younger warriors said they should perhaps return to their village because it is dangerous to be around lions at night. But Kamunu was determined to find the lion that had eaten his father's cow.
A severe drought hit the region. Wildebeest and zebras died by the thousands, and so the lions - who had starved to death for their natural prey - decided to attack Maasai cattle in greater numbers. Cattle are the Maasai's livelihoods, and warriors like Kamunu were responsible for protecting them.
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The three warriors reached for tall spears and wore the traditional colorful panels, bracelets and earrings of the Maasai that stretched their earlobes. They trudged across the savannah with sandal feet until Kamunu spotted three lions under a tree. One - a woman - had a bloated stomach, which led Kamunu to suspect that she was the culprit.
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As an experienced lion killer, he secretly led the warriors through the chaparral and waited behind a tree for the lions to fall asleep. With the adrenaline pumping, they jumped out of the bush, sprinted towards the lions, and attacked them with their spears. The frightened lions fought back, growled, rushed and roared at the warriors. But when they roared, Kamunu's hunting party knew they stabbed the animals in their open mouths, pierced their organs, and made them bleed internally. The lions hissed, choked, and coughed blood until they finally collapsed.
Courtesy Andrew Dubbins
Kamunu waited for the beasts to die - because a wounded lion is a terrible thing - before pulling his steel knife out of its sheath and slicing open the lioness's belly. He had expected to find his father's cow in it, but to his great surprise found that her stomach was empty. His bad luck continued when he was arrested for murder by Kenya Wildlife Service rangers. He was imprisoned for ten days and his father had to sell three cows to pay his bail.
Lion hunting was an old tradition among the Maasai, the semi-nomadic tribe who herd cattle in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Throughout the tribe's two thousand year history, its warriors hunted lions to defend their livestock and as part of a ritual of growing up. Lion hunting increased as the human population in the area increased. Villages and pastures burrowed deeper into the wildlife habitat and brought the Maasai cattle closer to the lions. Between 2001 and 2011 Maasai warriors killed over two hundred lions in southern Kenya, which is 40 percent of the population each year. These hunts, combined with habitat loss, poaching, and disease, caused the lion population across Africa to drop from half a million in 1950 to less than 30 thousand in 2013. A decade ago, scientists feared the lion in Kenya could be extinct by 2020.
Instead, lion populations have rebounded in Maasai-owned countries in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania known as Maasailand. "We are now having discussions about what to do with so many lions," said Egyptian-American conservationist Dr. Leela Hazzah.
She is the founder of Lion Guardians, a nonprofit that gives Maasai warriors who once killed lions the responsibility to protect them. Building on their traditional tracking skills, the warriors learn to equip lions with tracking collars, then use radio telemetry antennas and GPS receivers to track their movements and warn villagers and shepherds when a lion is nearby to thwart conflict.
Leela founded the organization in 2006 and studied Kenya's declining lion population for her master's thesis. She interviewed Maasai lion killers and found an article about Kamunu who was arrested for the murder of a lioness. The article had a grainy picture of him in the caption, his deep-set eyes twinkling at the camera. Leela asked about Kamunu and almost every warrior knew about him. He came from a family of lion killers and had five kills to his name.
Determined to speak to him, Leela visited his rugged mountain village in the Maasai community of Eselenkei, known for its many massive birds of prey. After a few hours of searching, she spotted a man riding his bike down the hill. Leela recognized him by his picture and his boasting. "I could tell he was a lion killer just because he rode a bicycle," recalls Leela.
Leela waved to him and he stopped his bike.
"Where are you from?" asked Leela, who looks youthful and is petite.
"I just got out of prison," said Kamunu, a tall, non-smiling man.
"What happened?" Asked Leela.
Kamunu shook his head, then told the story of his father's missing cow, the lion he thought was his killer, and his subsequent arrest.
Kamunu was angry and confused about his prison sentence, and Leela could understand why. Once, killing lions earned him respect and prestige in the community. But the ways of the Maasai warrior faded. The Maasai were becoming increasingly western - they carried cell phones and rode motorcycles. Education instead of lion killing was the new path to status. Kamunu, who could neither read nor write, struggled to adapt to the changing times.
Leela pondered the seeds of an idea that would become Lion Guardians. "If you happen to get a job, will you stop killing lions?" she asked Kamunu.
Kamunu fixed her with a hardened look. "I will only stop killing lions when they stop killing our cattle," he said firmly.
Leela saw something in Kamunu. He had an integrity and pride and respect from his community. He was a die-hard lion killer for sure. But if she could change his heart, she thought, others would follow.
On a trip to East Africa last year, I met Leela in the Lion Guardians' hill camp near Amboseli National Park in Kenya. I had read an article about the conservation group years ago and was intrigued by the picture of Leela - an American college student in her twenties - recruiting a team of traditional Maasai warriors to trade their spears for radio telemetry antennas and save the lions who did them 'I was so proud of the hunt once. Leela gave me a tour of the camp, then we sat in the shade in front of her tent office and she told me the story of the Lion Guardians - her life's work.
It started 15 years ago, and a world away, on the redwood-shaded campus of UC Berkeley in Northern California. Leela had studied elephants as a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, but after reading about the decline in the lion population in East Africa, she was drawn to the challenge of saving them. She had Berkeley Professor Dr. Called Laurence Frank, a renowned carnivore researcher who was impressed with her command of the Swahili language, and invited her to Berkeley for an interview for a research fellow.
Known as an eccentric in the conservation community, Laurence was nicknamed "Laurence of the Hyenas" and used infrared night vision goggles to chase the cats through Kenya's Maasai Mara at night. In Berkeley he ran the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, which houses the second largest collection of hyena skulls in the world, some of which he personally removed from the corpses of sick corpses. He had also established a colony of live hyenas, housed in stables in the wooded hills above campus, that could be heard cackling and screaming at night by students walking home from class.
In her interview, Leela endeavored to follow Laurence's questions, which centered more on anthropology than on her chosen subject, biology. "We don't need to know more about lion biology," said Laurence. "What we need to know is about the Maasai and why they kill lions."
Leela, then 26, hesitated. "But I don't know how to work with communities," she said. "Maybe you should find an anthropologist."
Laurence laughed. "You just have to live there," he said encouragingly. "Don't ask too many questions. Just stay tuned and be useful." A few months later, Leela was in a commercial airplane over the moonlit Atlantic towards Maasailand.
Africa can be a dangerous place for foreign do gooders. Around the time Leela arrived in Maasailand, a British filmmaker, reminiscent of the famous gorilla researcher Dian Fossey, was murdered in the Rift Valley while fighting poachers. An Italian writer was recently attacked by poachers on her ranch in northern Kenya. As a precaution, Leela wore a dog tag that her father had given her in case something should happen.
Laurence lent her his beaten up Land Cruiser, formerly a Canadian postal vehicle (Leela has no idea how he got it to Africa) in 1974, and she found a house on a cliff overlooking Mbirikani in the Chyulu Hills, a wooded ridge of lava through the Kilimanjaro explosion two hundred thousand years ago. The house belonged to an Irish mission couple. They were never around, so Leela cleverly moved in.
From Leela's seat on the hill, she could see Maasai warriors gather in the village to hunt lions, jump in circles with their spears, and shout a battle cry before running into the hills. It is illegal to hunt lions and warriors can be arrested and imprisoned for it. But Leela never called the authorities. It was only there to learn and observe.
It was painful to take care of Leela, an animal lover to the core. Leela grew up in Washington DC and has always felt more comfortable with animals than with humans. As the daughter of Egyptian immigrants, she felt too Egyptian for America and too American for Egypt, like a right and a left shoe on the wrong foot.
Courtesy Andrew Dubbins
The National Zoo was their refuge. Leela spent hours in peace, watching the monkeys, lions or their favorite, the elephants. Her parents did not allow pets, so she and her identical twin sister found frogs, turtles, and snakes and hid the animals around the house. Her mother finally found her with a scream. During the summer they visited the family home in Cairo, Egypt, where Leela's father said he used to hear lions roar from the roof. Leela stayed up late at night, listening to the lions. Her father never had the heart to tell her that all the lions in Egypt were now gone and critically endangered.
The Maasai tend to be wary of outsiders as they have a long history of British colonization, and many were Leela cold at first. But over time, people got used to looking around them. They usually only see white tourists in their Land Rovers speeding to and from safaris, but Laurence's truck collapsed so often that Leela had to travel long distances between Maasai villages. "I didn't know foreigners could walk!" said a Maasai woman to Leela.
One evening, some villagers knocked desperately on Leela's door. They said there was a baby in the village with a serious and mysterious illness and that the doctor was completely drunk. They asked if Leela could help and Leela raced to the sick child's hut in her vehicle. She secured the baby in the Land Cruiser, but when she tried the ignition, it didn't start! She cranked and cranked. Finally the engine coughed. Leela sped three hours down the muddy road to the nearest clinic, where another doctor managed to save the baby's life.
Weeks later, Leela contracted malaria. She developed a dangerous fever and could not leave her bed or open her eyes. The news of Leela's good deed towards the infant had gotten around the community and a Maasai medicine man known as Muganga came to Leela's house with the bark of a local tree. He ground the rind to a fine powder and mixed it into a cup of hot tea, which tasted terrible. The medicine man meant Leela to "keep drinking, keep drinking". She forced herself to swallow the strange liquid cup by cup until she fell into a deep sleep. When she miraculously woke up, she was healed.
A short time later, an old Maasai elder invited Leela to a local celebration, which she accepted with honor. She wore modest long skirts among the Maasai and was careful never to dress promiscuously or to imitate Maasai fashion. When she came to the celebration, some villagers eyed her with suspicion, others greeted her with warm smiles and welcomed her to the circle of dancing Maasai warriors.
A group of Maasai women who laughed at the young foreigner said: "If she wants to live here, we should give her a Maasai name." The ladies quarreled for a while, what to call them, until an old woman who was considered very wise in the village stepped forward. "I see something in her," said the woman, looking Leela deep in the eyes. "We should call her Nasera." It was the old woman's name and in Maasai it means "woman of leadership".
As the Maasai slowly warmed up on Leela, she managed to arrange interviews with lion killers in the area for her master's thesis.
With the help of a local interpreter who spoke the Maasai language Ma, Leela invited the warriors to the missionary's house. They drank tea under the pavilion in the courtyard, from which one had a breathtaking view of the snow-capped Kilimanjaro, known by the Maasai as the "White Mountain".
In the male-dominated Maasai culture, the warriors did not see Leela as a threat and spoke frankly about killing lions. In addition to ritual and retaliatory reasons, Leela discovered that a simmering anger against the government fueled the murder.
"These foxes have taken all of our fertile land ... for wildlife," one angry warrior told the government. He was referring to how Amboseli National Park once belonged to the Maasai people until the government evicted them in 1974 to create the safari park and banished them to the dusty volcanic areas on the edge of the park. "Now these wild animals are killing people," he said, "eating our cattle, damaging our crops ... They only get money from wildlife and forget about the problems humans face from wildlife."
After a year with the Maasai and conversations with numerous lion killers, Leela felt in 2006 that she had gathered enough information to complete her master's thesis, which she wrote in Dr. Laurence Frank's house in the Laikipia plateau wanted to write Northern Kenya.
Courtesy Andrew Dubbins
Leela shared a room there with Laurence's new research associate, Stephanie Dolrenry, a Missouri biologist who does hyena research, and the two students who bonded out of a passion for carnivores and their eagerness to save the lions.
They would talk to Laurence about protecting the lions around the fireplace. Laurence was a Jewish American, but fascinated by Scotland. He regularly quoted Scottish verses and buckled up Celtic songs, sipping Highlands Scotch, considering conservation tactics as he went.
Leela had a plan that arose from her conversations with the Maasai. One of the warriors (known as Murrans) had told her, “Let's help Murran conservationists watch over lions. Our tradition and culture make us the best and most experienced people to save lions. We can track lions in the dark with our eyes closed, and we will never fail. "
What if we - as Leela imagined - put the responsibility for saving them on the Maasai warriors who kill the lions? Pay the warriors a salary and train them in wildlife radio telemetry. You combine the traditional tracking skills of warriors with modern technology.
Stephanie feared the plan could backfire. After all, they were lion killers. What if they found and killed more lions with the GPS device ?!
But, argued Leela, what do we have to lose? During her time in Maasailand, she had seen more dead than live lions. She felt like she was just documenting the extinction and it was heartbreaking. The lions were running out of time, she said, and courageous action was required.
In 2008, Kamunu received a call from Leela saying she was looking for trackers for her new conservation group - Lion Guardians - and invited him for an interview.
Kamunu knew Leela from her regular visits to ask about killing lions, and he was intrigued by the offer. Because of the drought, Maasai cows became too emaciated to be sold, so a salary could supplement his herding income and help him support his family.
Kamunu agreed to the interview and traveled on foot to the Lion Guardians Camp, which is located in a private game reserve in Donkey's corner and is full of elephants, zebras, giraffes and big cats. The camp was a tree house built in an acacia tree by a Lion Guardians donor, a California eco-builder. Leela and Stephanie had requested something "Robinson Crusoe".
The tent green canvas tree house consisted of three floors with an office on the ground floor around the trunk of the acacia and the separate rooms of Leela and Stephanie in the branches above. With beds half-made and New Yorkers on the floor, the rooms were typical of two working women in their twenties, except for being in a tree house. The bathroom was a separate structure, outdoors, and solar panels supplied the camp. In the tree house camp in the animal-rich nature reserve you can hear bush babies howling at night, find snakes in the office and watch elephants having coffee in the morning.
Leela and Stephanie had already hired five Lion Guardians in Mbirikani, and Kamunu was one of 27 warrior candidates interviewed for four positions in Donkey. Leela and Stephanie looked for warriors with lion chasing skills, an enthusiasm for the opportunity, leadership potential, and a commitment to protecting the lions.
Kamunu repeated his vow in his interview to continue killing lions if they attacked his cattle. Stephanie later spoke to Leela and said, "I'm not sure about this guy." But Leela did not give up on Kamunu. She was just as stubborn as he was.
In round two of the hiring process, Leela and Stephanie gave each applicant the phone number of the camp and said, "Call if you find lions." Kamunu was the first to answer. Instead of calling, he showed up at the tree house one night. "I found lions," he announced.
To check this, Stephanie drove him around and actually found a young lioness resting in the mugwort brush. It was about six feet long with dark spots on the side and no black tip on the tail. Stephanie had heard stories from this "tipless" lioness and was excited to find her.
With Kamunu beside her, Stephanie shot the lioness with an air pistol to calm her down. The lioness was pregnant, Stephanie noticed and pointed to her swollen belly and breasts. Kamunu knelt next to the lioness and put his hands on her side. She felt her breath rise and fall. He had never touched a live lion before.
Kamunu tied the GPS tracking collar around the lioness's neck when Stephanie watched him closely and noticed that he was showing no emotion. She wasn't convinced he'd established a connection with the lion until Kamunu picked up his cell phone in the Land Cruiser, called a friend, and excitedly shared his experience with the lioness.
After a one-month trial period, Kamunu and three other warriors were hired as lion guard for the Donkey Region in early 2009. Their main job was to track down the area's lions and alert local shepherds and villagers if a lion was nearby.
Kamunu worked from home and woke up before dawn, shouldered his high-tech backpack, and set off across donkey ice rocky mountainous terrain. He stopped periodically to lift his telemetry receiver, which consists of an antenna attached to a receiver. The receiver is programmed to the frequency of the transmitter on the lion's collar and produces a tone that gets louder as you get closer to the lion's collar. Kamunu rotated the antenna until the sound got the loudest and then followed in that direction. If he got close enough and the sound boomed at full volume, Kamunu could switch to traditional tracking and look for broken branches, trampled vegetation, droppings, carcasses, and paw prints.
If he found a lion near a herd of cows, Kamunu warned the shepherd to take a different route. When the lion approached a village or a cattle pen, Kamunu called Leela and Stephanie, who would speed by in their Land Cruiser and bring the lion to safety by turning the engine, honking the horn or making loud crackers-like devices called thunderbolts , threw.
Kamunu's job was also to collect scientific data on lion movements. He would use a handheld GPS device to pinpoint a lion's location and then manually write the latitude and longitude on a data sheet. When Kamunu first held a pen, he grabbed it like a spear. Thanks to Lion Guardians, however, he learned basic reading and writing and was now able to fill out the data sheet himself. He kept it in the cleanest and safest area of ​​his thatched mud hut and proudly handed it to Leela at the end of each month.
Co-guardians had told Leela that Maasai warriors would never compete with professional researchers when it comes to data quality, but when they checked the Guardians' data, Leela found it was remarkably accurate.
Kamunu's "tipless" lioness was the first to be tied up in the area. The warriors took the name of the first lion they killed, but now they gave the lions names. Whoever found the lion had to name it, and Kamunu named his tipless lioness "Nosieki" after a bush with beautiful red berries. Quiet and meek, Nosieki was considered a "good lion" by the guards because she never attacked Maasai cattle.
Nosieki was also comfortable around the Lion Guardians' vehicle, which allowed Kamunu and Leela to spend hours watching them up close. Kamunu felt a special bond with Nosieki. Not only was she the first lion he had tied up, he believed Nosieki was the daughter of the last lion he killed - the one whose stomach he cut open. Kamunu insisted that her stomach was swollen from recently giving birth to a litter of boys, which included Nosieki. Leela said there was no data to prove a relationship, but Kamunu was sure.
The Guardians called Nosieki's lion pride "The Tara Pride" and talked about its members like characters in a soap opera. There was Nasieku - which means "first come first" - for bringing charges against her vehicle; Mognac - which means "luck" - because Kamunu had tried many times in the past to kill him but always missed; and Selenkay - meaning "a young girl who has reached adulthood" - who had a reputation as an "bad lion" for repeatedly killing Maasai cattle to feed their young.
Whenever local warriors started hunting parties to take revenge on the lions for killing cattle, Kamunu and his fellow guards had to intercept the hunters and defuse the situation, always through non-violence. One tactic was to share the lion's story. "This is Selenkay," they would say. "She is a mother and only attacks cattle because her young are hungry in the drought." They want to remind the hunters that lions are revered for their strength in the Maasai tradition and are vital to job creation tourism in the area. "You kill yourself by spoiling the food you will depend on," they would argue.
The guards' work also included finding lost cattle and reinforcing cattle enclosures to earn the gratitude and respect of the villagers. When a guard was taken to Oxford to study wildlife conservation, the community raised $ 700 to help him along the way, despite the bad luck of the Maasai due to the drought. The Maasai women also took note of the guards, impressed with their high-tech things and their courage to work closely with lions.
The cynical attitude is that this is Leela and Stephanie, two foreign outsiders, telling the Maasai how to do things the "western way". But the brilliance of her model was twofold. First, the organization was composed almost entirely of Maasai men and women and relied on the participation and input of the Maasai community. Second, the Lion Guardians project preserved the Maasai warrior's prestige and pride, even as it erased the Maasai tradition of killing lions. While a warrior's pride once stemmed from bloody hand-to-hand combat with lions, it now came down to having a job, learning to read and writing, helping the community, and bravely defending their lions. It was a selfless and more enduring pride.
A steady stream of small donations flowed through her blog from all over the world: money from a cake sale in primary school in England, a box of raincoats from Patagonia in Ventura, a new computer, used cell phones for the guards and a new backpack for Kamunu. Reporters also walked through the treehouse camp - like Bob Simon of 60 Minutes, who investigated lion poisoning, and Sir David Attenborough of the BBC. The guards proudly told reporters that not a single lion had been killed in the area since the project started two years earlier. In fact, the number of lions grew.
One morning Kamunu was excited to find Nosieki with two newborn boys, a boy and a girl. With wobbly legs and deep blue eyes, the boys rolled in the grass and playfully nibbled on their mother's tipless tail. Whenever they found a lioness with new cubs, Kamunu and his fellow guardians had a special dance. With excitement and pride they swayed in circles, held hands and sang. They called it the "young dance".
Meanwhile the drought continued. By 2009, after two years of insufficient rain, clouds of dust covered the sky and the wells ran dry. The vegetation died, then the herbivores. In Amboseli National Park, which is dry even in good weather, the wildebeest populations fell by 83 percent from 18 million to just 3,000. Ten thousand zebras died, as did over 300 of the park's 1,500 known elephants, mostly matriarchs and calves. Their carcasses lay in the park, their chests sticking out of the ashy volcanic soil like bare trees.
The Maasai lost more than 80 percent of their livestock, making wealthy families poor and poor families losing everything. The price of livestock fell, causing a catastrophic food crisis. The Kenyan government declared this a national disaster. Some Maasai herders traveled hundreds of kilometers in search of water, either south to Lake Manyara in Tanzania, north to Nairobi, or east to the sea.
The Maasai elders who practice oral history told Leela this was the worst drought in a century. They accused God of swallowing the rain. Some slaughtered their few remaining sheep and goats in order to appease the Almighty, a desperate prayer to an empty sky. Leela, meanwhile, recognized another reason for the drought: climate change. And the most tragic thing was that it wasn't the Maasai's fault. They are a pastoral people whose carbon footprint is negligible. They took on the burden of a problem that was largely caused by the first world.
Amboseli's lions grew weak as their wild prey waned or migrated to greener pastures. The lions were gaunt and thirsty and could hardly fight their prey. Sie gingen dem leichteren Ziel des Massai-Viehs nach. Verzweifelte Massai-Krieger kämpften wiederum darum, ihre wenigen verbliebenen Rinder zu verteidigen, Löwen mit Speeren zu jagen oder die Kadaver getöteter Kühe zu vergiften.
Die Löwenwächter mussten rund um die Uhr arbeiten, um die Löwenjagd zu stoppen. Trotz ihres Rufs als "guter Löwe" wurde Kamunus Nosieki so schwach, dass auch sie auf das Töten von Vieh zurückgriff und sich der Tara Pride-Löwin Selenkay anschloss. Nach einem Angriff auf ein Maasai-Viehgehege - bekannt als Boma - machten sich die Jäger auf die Suche nach den Löwinnen über dem von Dürre versengten Land und schützten ihre Augen vor wirbelnden Tornados aus Schmutz, die als Staubteufel bekannt sind. Als sie Selenkay in die Enge trieben, von ihren Jungen getrennt, griff die Löwin einen Jäger an und versenkte ihre dolchartigen Zähne in seinem Bein. Als seine Gefährten mit Speeren auf die knurrende Löwin zukamen, traf das Lion Guardian-Fahrzeug ein, brachte den blutenden Jäger in Sicherheit und beruhigte die Situation.
In einem anderen Notfall mussten Leela und Wildlife Ranger Fahrzeuge einsetzen, nachdem ein alter männlicher Löwe in eine Boma gesprungen war und von einem Massai-Krieger aufgespießt wurde, bevor er in der Nähe einer Grundschule verschwand. Leela und die bewaffneten Waldläufer suchten nach dem Löwen, als sie Schreie von einem Massai-Ältesten hörten, der von dem Löwen in seiner Seite gebissen worden war. Leela fand den Ältesten am Boden blutend, als sein kleiner Hund mutig gegen den Löwen kämpfte. Eine Gruppe von Massai-Kriegern aus dem nahe gelegenen Dorf kam durch die Bäume gerannt, um ihren Ältesten zu retten, und umgab den Löwen mit Speeren. Leela hatte im wirklichen Leben noch nie eine Löwenjagd gesehen und war von der Angst in den Augen des Tieres beeindruckt, als die Massai abwechselnd das verwundete Tier speerten. "Erschieß den Löwen", sagte Leela zu dem bewaffneten Waldläufer, der einen Moment zögerte. "Du musst ihn erschießen!" Der Waldläufer feuerte, schlug und tötete den alten Löwen.
In Eselenkei patrouillierte ein junger Löwenwächter namens Sitonik an der dicht bewaldeten Nordgrenze, als er auf eine widerliche Szene stieß. Es waren Nosieki und ihr weibliches Jungtier, die neben sechs Schafskadavern lagen, die von Jägern mit Gift geschnürt worden waren.
Nosieki lebte noch, trat und keuchte, als ihre kleine Tochter tot neben ihr lag. Zwei vergiftete Geier waren tot von einem Baum gefallen, ebenso wie Hunderte von Fliegen. Nosiekis männliches Jungtier lebte - versteckte sich in einem Dickicht -, rannte aber weg, als er Sitonik sah. Das Junge war kaum ein Jahr alt, und Sitonik wusste, dass seine Überlebenschancen allein gering waren. Sitonik kniete ehrfürchtig nieder, als Nosieki ihre letzten Atemzüge machte und in einem leblosen Haufen neben ihrem toten Jungen zusammenbrach.
Später halfen mehrere Wächter Sitonik, die Leichen von Löwen, Schafen und Geiern zu einem Haufen zusammenzufügen und in Brand zu setzen, um zu verhindern, dass andere Tiere die Leichen fressen und an Vergiftungen sterben. Helle Flammen hüllten die Leichen wie ein Scheiterhaufen ein und setzten den üblen Geruch von Gift in der flachen, trockenen Luft frei. Als Kamunu erfuhr, dass Nosieki und ihr Junges getötet worden waren, weinte er.
Endlich, Ende 2009, entleerte sich der Regen in einer Sintflut vom Himmel. Wasser strömte die Hänge des Kilimandscharo hinunter und speiste die Bäche nach Amboseli, und Flecken von hartem Gras ragten durch den trockenen, rissigen Boden. Die Zebras und Gnus kehrten zurück und strömten zu Amboselis Sümpfen, um sich auf Sumpfgras zu mästen. Auch die Massai-Hirten kehrten zurück. Ihre Kühe wurden von Tag zu Tag gesünder und melkten bald sogar wieder.
Die Massai-Gemeinde hatte die glühende Dürre überlebt, aber stark gelitten, einige verloren 95 Prozent ihres Viehs. And the tribe’s confidence was shaken. The Maasai people have a great fear of the unknown, and the drought had left many lingering questions. Would similar droughts follow? Could the Maasai’s ancient practice of pastoralism continue to sustain them? Or should they cash out and sell their land to the wealthy Western investors, farmers, and tour companies, as many elders’ school-educated sons were urging them?
Leela sometimes felt overwhelmed by the countless threats not just to lions, but to the Maasai way of life, from climate change to subdivision to Westernization. She could understand the anger of many Maasai warriors, watching their way of life disintegrate.
But nothing prepared her for the tragedy of July 2012.
It began when a buffalo killed a young Maasai herder in a village just outside Amboseli National Park.
Maasai leaders first attempted diplomacy, requesting compensation from the government for the boy’s death. Compensation is required whenever the Maasai or their cattle are killed by wildlife, up to $10,000 for a person, or market price for cattle.
An official with the government-run Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), however, refused the Maasai leaders’ request for compensation, insisting the child’s death was the Maasai’s fault. Enraged, local Maasai leaders demanded a meeting with the director of KWS, which was scheduled for a week later. The Maasai leaders wanted to discuss not only the boy’s death but also a long-held point of contention between the Maasai and the government: Amboseli National Park’s unfair revenue split with the Maasai.
At 300,000 acres, Amboseli is small for a national park, and animals frequently move outside its protected borders into the Maasai-owned lands. Most of the park’s elephants, for instance, spend their nights outside the park, trampling Maasai pastures, while the park’s lions and other predators prey on Maasai livestock. The Maasai support about 85 percent of the park’s total wildlife population on their lands, shouldering the costs of living with the animals, and yet the tribe received only 3 percent of the revenue generated by tourism in the park.
Maasai leadership wished to ask for a fairer split from the KWS director, but when the day of the meeting arrived, the KWS director sent a community warden and two board members to attend in his place. The Maasai leaders stormed out of the meeting.
They knew the only thing the government cared about were the animals and the rich tourists who came to see them. To make the government listen, the Maasai leaders gathered 40 hunting parties of over 400 enraged Maasai warriors and instructed them to target the tourists’ favorite animals: “Kill all elephants, lion, buffalo,” they directed.
Like rioters, the hunters fanned out across the park’s borderlands, wading through the swamps with their spears, and vaulting over volcanic boulders in search of their targets.
Near the village of Elarai, a hunting party of 150 warriors found a herd of elephants making their morning march toward Lake Amboseli in the Park. The hunters surrounded the herd and hurled spears into their bodies. A gentle 46-year-old elephant named Ezra, famous as one of Park’s oldest bulls, was struck by multiple Maasai spears, including one in his forehead. He wandered several miles, in agony, before collapsing dead.
Within hours, KWS was reporting ten elephants and ten buffalo killed and many more injured. The rangers and conservationists could do nothing to stop it, outnumbered by the Maasai warriors. KWS requested backup from neighboring Tsavo—including Elite Special Unit ranger teams, and aerial support—but the reinforcements would take time.
Local Maasai leaders cautioned the rangers and conservation leaders in the area, including Leela, that anyone who remained on duty or tried to stop the hunting parties would be beaten. One scientist, ignoring the warning, was monitoring the situation from his airplane when Maasai spears came hurdling toward the low-flying aircraft.
From her tent office, Leela called her Guardians near the Park to warn them about the marauding hunters. “Dig a hole and bury your equipment!” Leela told them, worrying the equipment would expose them as conservationists if discovered by the hunters. “They’ll beat you and try to kill you if you get in their way!” Leela said.
But her Guardians didn’t listen. Eager to protect “their” lions, and the other animals, the Lion Guardians set out gallantly to stop the hunting parties. Dodging elephant stampedes and charging buffalo, the Guardians communicated by cell phone, reporting the hunting parties’ positions.
Having slaughtered many elephants and buffalo, the hunters set their sights on their third and final target: lions. They searched areas where lions tend to congregate, such as the Lava Forest, a thick black field of frozen lava located at the base of the Chyulu Hills. Lions go there to hide in its deep crevices and caves, and to drink the water that pools in its craters.
Each Guardian, when he found a hunting party, used his most trusted technique to stop the slaughter. One shy Guardian wiggled his way into a hunting party and—pretending he was one of them—led the group in the opposite direction of a pride of lions. Another sly Guardian convinced a hunter that the lions’ collars came fitted with a camera, which would take pictures of the hunters and send them to the authorities.
One team of five Guardians intercepted a hunting party and, using their training, simply talked to the young men. Whether affected by the Guardians’ words, or simply weary of killing innocent animals, the hunting party turned back for their villages.
It was the Lion Guardians’ finest hour, and despite the other tragic animal deaths, not a single lion was killed that day. “The Guardians really put themselves on the line,” Leela told me, as the light darkened and my visit to her camp drew near an end.
Kamunu joined us, now a senior leader of Lion Guardians, which now has projects in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique, and even in India, protecting tigers. Kamunu proudly told me his Lion Guardians salary has allowed him to put all his children through school.
Leela’s co-founder, Stephanie, introduced me to her young daughter, who guided our group to a pair of lion paw prints near the tent.
“The lions know they’re safe here,” Leela said.
I asked Leela, now in her early 40s, if she too has any family in Kenya.
“Other than these guys?” she said, nodding to Kamunu and another Guardian.
I remembered the little girl—too Egyptian for America, too American for Egypt—standing now with her warriors on a hilltop over Maasailand, finally home.
Kamunu told me he regrets the many lions he killed in his youth, but Leela is quick to remind him of the many he’s saved—like Selenkay. Thanks to Kamunu and his fellow Guardians, the fierce livestock raider lived to be one of the area’s oldest lions and birthed over 40 cubs.
When she went missing some years ago, Kamunu wondered if she’d finally met her end at the tip of a Maasai spear. Then one afternoon, he picked up her radio signal on his receiver and ventured into the bush alone to track the lioness. In a clearing, he found Selenkay with her grown daughters, and their eight chubby cubs, devouring a zebra kill. Kamunu sat and watched quietly in the setting sun as the cubs pounced and tumbled, and grandma Selenkay enjoyed her dinner.
Kamunu could recognize a young male traveling in the group too. It was Nosieki’s son, who’d survived the poisoning. The young cub had found his way back to the pride.
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In this article
Leela Hazzah

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