A conflict as old as time

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

The back story

They say you can hear a lion roar up to two kilometres away. When spending time overnight at a nature reserve, I have often listened to the lions roaring at night, the sound sinks deep into your body, and you can't help but get excited. To me, it is one of the most iconic sounds of being under the African sky.

In some areas lions are admired and photographed while in other areas they are hated and killed

However, there are people that the roar of a lion strikes fear and anxiety into their hearts and not excitement. These people make up the majority of communities living near or sometimes in nature reserves. These communities are often poor and mostly rely on the nature reserve for resources and jobs. Livestock farming is an integral part of life for these communities because they supply meat, milk, and skins and have cultural value. In some communities' cows, goats and sheep are the equivalent to westernised bank accounts.

The more you have, the wealthier you become and a higher stature you have within your community. If a couple of lions crawl through the boma and slaughter 200 of your sheep (this incident happened), you're not going to be very happy with Simba, the lion. Herders get angry and retaliate by gathering their mates together, spears and rifles slung over the shoulder, and most probably there are one or two fewer lions on the plains of African as the sun goes down that night. This is textbook Human-wildlife or in this case, human-carnivore conflict. However, not all cases are cut and dried like this and trying to manage a nature reserve and the local community to coexist will put grey hairs on your head. We had a guest speaker once while doing my degree who specialised in human-wildlife conflict, and after the talk, our lecturer commented that just two years prior the guest speaker had jet black hair and now it was snow white.

I wouldn't want to meet this guy on a dark night, he can have my sheep!!

An ever-growing human population means more demand for land and food. While on the other hand, lions and other wildlife's historical land ranges have declined dramatically over the last two to three decades. Approximately only 20,000 wild roaming lions are left in Africa. Although measures are in place, issues like human-wildlife conflict, climate change and illegal wildlife trade are increasing and not decreasing. We may be slowly coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic with a vaccine galloping in on the horizon. Still, the problems mentioned above never went away or took a holiday because of the pandemic. On top of this, there is no vaccine or silver bullet to fix these environmental problems as they include people's beliefs, values, cultures and livelihoods. It takes multiple strategies, often working simultaneously to reduce the pain.

The heart of the conflict

An example of these values and beliefs comes in two different communities.

The first example is found in Kenya regarding the Maasai Mara community aka Masai Mara. The Maasai Mara people have long believed that lions are a threat to their herds and are a gateway into manhood. Thus, young men between the ages of 13-15 would have to go into the bush and kill a lion to prove that they are now men. The dwindling number of lions in the area were concerning conservationists, and thus they set up a programme called Lion Guardians. This programme included those same young men aged between 13-30 were tasked to protect the lions instead of killing them. The conservationist would achieve this by using alternative activities of becoming a man; these include throwing spears at sandbags hung in a tree etc. They were taught about the benefits of lions and what would happen is the lions weren't there. The conservationists also taught them how to use GPS trackers to pick up the location of roaming lions. The Maasai community took to the programme energetically as they kept their herds safe and aiding in conservation and ecotourism. The men were also still seen as warriors because they were keeping their community and livestock safe.

The Lion Guardian project is doing some good work in Kenya and has really embraced conservation

The second example is Ethiopia's research, where the community thought that lions had no use whatsoever. A different portion of the community even liked seeing lions in their natural habitat but would still like to see the lions extirpated from their area. This community also practised bushmeat hunting. If you take the natural prey of lions out of the ecosystem, you're asking them to come and eat at your drive-through McDonalds. I think a couple of the Lion Guardians should take a trip to Ethiopia. I'm trying to get across here that what works for one community may not necessarily work for a different community.

Other communities have yet to embrace coexistence with carnivores and have a hard time understanding the relevance or importance of living with lions or other carnivores

For conservation efforts to be successful, conservationists need to consider five factors. These are the stakeholders (i.e., the community), the lions, the lion's prey, the livestock and the environment. If one of these factors is neglected or left out entirely, the campaign will fail.

A chart showing the interlinking dimensions of human - carnivore conflict

Alternative solutions and the way forward

There have been many ideas and tactics performed by conservationists; some successful, others not so much. A better approach for keeping the peace between man and lion has been financial compensation which aids herders to recover from their losses. Flickering lights have worked in the past, but the predators become habituated to the lights and then attack anyway. Since most big cats go for the throat when attacking some farmers have invented neck guards to deter the lions. Alpacas and dogs are a sound security system; however, dogs themselves may spread diseases to other wildlife such as distemper, rabies etc. A more modern approach is using technology to allow man and beast to coexist. Placing collars on certain lions in different prides and using satellite technology to ping back the prides' location to the village elders' cellphones can minimise conflict considerably. This works by setting a fixed distance of eight kilometres around the village perimeter; if the pride breaks that perimeter "wall", it will send a message to the village elders cellphone and notify them. An eight-kilometre distance with the average walking pace of a lion (this is the type of crazy question you would find in a math's test, am I right?) gives the community two hours to be warned and secure their livestock.

When humans learn to coexist with carnivores rather than be against them, it will secure a future where all can live in peace.

These alternative solutions can and have been used for various predators as well such as leopards, wolves, mountain lions and tigers. The future of wildlife and human coexistence mainly depends on education, awareness and adaptive management to each project. Many projects have prospered like the lion guardian project. It is these projects that give us hope for the future of conservation and predator wellbeing. Hopefully, a day may come soon where everyone will get excited about hearing a lion roar at night.


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