For Maasai tribesmen like Likalee Nongalayeh, the rationale for killing lions was once simple: I myself have killed a lion, he admits. It killed my livestock.
Fellow Maasai Lamasika Olekotokay similarly recalls the days when conflicts between humans and the predatory animals were the norm.
We went out at six in the morning and came back at six in the evening trying to look for this lion, recalls Konokeih. Elephant, zebra, buffalo whichever animal got in the way, we killed.
That's no longer the case in this area of southeastern Kenya. In a remarkable reversal of centuries-old tradition, one group of Maasai communities has made the choice to start protecting lions and other large animals. On the community-owned Mbirikani Group Ranch, the Maasai are now conservationists, and today, several of them are in the United States to discuss why they have become protectors of the cats they once killed.
Through an innovative use of tourism and philanthropic funds, community members have an incentive not to destroy these majestic animals.
VIDEO: Kenyan Predator Compensation Fund
Incentives for Change
The turnaround in this Maasai community stems from an arrangement that gives the Maasai people a financial alternative to killing lions.
Every other month, herders from the Mbirikani ranch are compensated, at market value, for any of their livestock that are verified as having been killed by predators such as lions, cheetahs, and hyenas. Herders receive $80 for every donkey and $200 for every cow killed. The Mbirikani Predator Compensation Fund has paid claims to Mbirikani herders for nearly 750 head of livestock every year since its inception in 2003.
While herders are compensated if their livestock die, they also face collective penalties should anyone violate the rules. If one person kills a lion, no one gets paid.
Peer pressure develops from that, explains Tom Hill, a trustee of the conservation organization sponsoring the program. If someone loses money because someone else's son decides to go out and kill a lion, he has now lost the money he would have received for cows that had been killed previously. Hess going to tell that young man not to do that again because has suffered for it, and others have, too.
FIND MORE: Economic incentives prove to be crucial to conservation
The conservation incentive program is the result of a creative agreement to keep lions safe, struck between Maasai landowners and a local conservation organization called the Ol Donyo Wuas Trust (ODWT). In a region where the predators are being slaughtered to extinction, the agreement has nearly put an end to the killing of threatened lions on the ranch. Only four lions were killed on the Mbirikani Group Ranch since 2003, compared to 65 killed on neighboring ranches. At a ceremony in late 2006, the chief of warriors of Mbirikani officially declared brotherhood with the lions.
A team of conservationists is supporting ODWTs work. In 2007, Conservation International (CI) partnered with ODWT to promote the replication of the program throughout the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem a 2.2-million-acre area of six adjacent Maasai group ranches and four of Africa's most storied national parks, including Mt. Kilimanjaro. CI is also supporting broader replication of direct incentive and compensation approaches, such as ODWTs, in strategic areas across Africa.
The Multiple Benefits of Conservation
Changing herders habits on the 300,000-acre Mbirikani ranch is crucial because the ranch is some of the lions last remaining habitat in the world, and perhaps the best remaining habitat outside of existing protected areas in Kenya. The lion (Panthera leo) population worldwide has declined from more than one million at the beginning of the 20th century to fewer than 30,000 today. Remaining wild lions are increasingly threatened by habitat lost to agriculture and economic development, as well as hunting and localized eradication campaigns.
The Maasai community, too, has benefited from the programs economic support. Community members are now employed as lion researchers and rangers, and a project called Living with Lions helps disseminate strategies for cutting livestock losses through improved herding practices. ODWT also supports the construction of schools and children's scholarships to local secondary schools. The community now pays 30 percent of compensation claims from its tourism-based income, administers the program across the ranch, and resolves disputes through an elected advisory committee.
We are really seeing the fruit in the terms of scholarship, so our children now are going to school, says Maasai Lemoa Lengoinah. We are being employed because of those wild animals.
Because wildlife from four adjacent national parks routinely cross Maasai land, ODWT plans to expand the predator compensation fund and its broader conservation model to neighboring ranches. With support from CI, extending the model to the region's five other contiguous Maasai group ranches will help safeguard lions in addition to ensuring access to migration routes and water resources.
I remember the day, many days, when if a lion even roared, it wouldn't be there in the morning, says ODWT founder Richard Bonham. We are now at a stage where I think we can prove that this project works.