Where people live in harmony with lions

In traditional Maasai society, killing lions was a rite of passage. But thanks to an innovative conservation programme in Kenya, lions and Maasai can safely share this land again.F

For as long as he could remember, Meiteranga Kamunu Saitoti dreamed of killing lions.

When he was a young boy growing up in the Maasai heartland of southern Kenya, lions were everywhere. Amboseli National Park, famous for its elephants, lions and views of Mount Kilimanjaro, was not far away to the south. Lions and other animals moved freely between the unfenced park and the Maasai communal lands where Saitoti lived.

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“Because there’s nowhere I can compare with Maasailand, with the sound of cattle bells as they return home and the different sounds of predators at night.” – Meiteranga Kamunu Saitoti, lion protector

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The Maasai communal lands, also called group ranches, are geographically close, yet a world away from the national park. Inside Amboseli, elephants wallow in deep-green swamps and big cats and hyenas stalk wildebeest and buffalo. In the lands that lie beyond, furtive lions play hide-and-seek with Maasai herders and their livestock on hardscrabble plains that turn to dust in times of drought and to muddy quagmires after rains.

This is still the case in much of rural Africa. Lions and other predators live alongside people, not behind fences, and life is hard-won for both.

The Maasai and lions have shared this land for centuries. The Maasai see themselves as they see lions – as noble, superior and formidable. More than that, lions have always been the ultimate measure of a Maasai warrior’s courage. In a rite of passage known in the Maa language as olamaiyo, when a young man reached the age of maturity, he proved his readiness to become a warrior by killing a lion.

When Saitoti was still a young child, family members told him picaresque tales of lion hunts and close encounters with the predators. Much was expected of him: in his family alone, his father and uncles had killed 15 lions between them.

Saitoti killed his first lion when he was 19, stalking the lioness through the bush in a posse of would-be warriors, then spearing it at close range. The lioness’s two cubs escaped into the bush.

Amboseli is known for its majestic herds of elephant and views of Mount Kilimanjaro in neighbouring Tanzania (Credit: Diana Robinson Photography/Getty Images)

Over the years that followed his first kill, Saitoti killed four more lions. He was one of the best lion killers of his generation, a hero to his people. The Maasai simply couldn’t imagine living in a world without lions, nor would they want to.

“If there were no lions in Maasailand, it would mean something bad,” said Saitoti. “A lion’s roar is a sign of happiness in the wild, and of good fortune.”

But then everything changed.

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The human population in the Amboseli Basin had been growing rapidly for decades, and in 2006 it reached a tipping point when Amboseli’s 100 lions found themselves living alongside 35,000 Maasai and two million head of livestock.

With little room left for lions and their wild prey, lions began killing livestock like never before, and the Maasai began killing lions, not as a rite of passage, but in retaliation. In 2006, the Maasai speared or poisoned 42 lions. It was a fundamental cultural shift that threatened to wipe out the lions of Amboseli.

“There used to be so many lions when I was younger,” Saitoti would say, years later. “We almost wiped them out.”

At the time, however, Saitoti had no inkling of the bigger picture.

After killing his fourth lion in 2006, Saitoti was arrested, briefly imprisoned and fined 70,000 Kenyan shillings (around £465); although widespread, lion-killing has, like all hunting, been illegal in Kenya since 1977. Not long after Saitoti was released from prison, some of his cows went missing. Convinced that a lion had taken them, he set off in pursuit, tracking two lions through the bush. Hours later, he crept up to within a metre or two of a sleeping male lion and speared it through the chest.

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