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Lions and Maasai - a complex and nuanced relationship

Many conservation organizations propose that the major reason for the decline in Africa’s “dangerous” wildlife is directly attributable to human-wildlife conflict. In fact, the most prevalent reason given for the precipitous decline in Africa’s lion population is seen as a direct consequence of such “problem” animal conflict – and it is true that lions do eat cattle and occasionally attack humans where remnant populations occur outside protected areas. In retaliation, lions are poisoned and speared and shot in numbers every year. Consequently, financial compensation programmes, conflict resolution schemes, and wildlife education curricula have been established to attempt to at least mitigate what is perceived as a universal hatred of lions among rural populations. The ultimate aim is to introduce positive perceptions of lions to communities, and thereby contribute to enhanced survival possibilities for the species.


But a recent paper (Goldman, Mara J. , Roque De Pinho, Joana and Perry, Jennifer (2010) Maintaining Complex Relations with Large Cats: Maasai and Lions in Kenya and Tanzania, Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 15: 5, 332 — 346) takes a highly interesting look at the real relationships between lions and the Maasai, a pastoralist and agro-pastoralist tribe in Kenya and Tanzania. The authors propose that an existing respect and appreciation of lions can form the basis for future lion conservation programmes on Maasai lands.


 Lions and Maasai perceptions


 The Maasai are highly dependent on livestock for social, cultural, nutritional, and economic needs. Lions outside protected areas thus represent a threat to Maasai livelihoods by preying on livestock where they come in contact. This is nothing new; lions and Maasai and their cattle have been living together for hundreds of years in eastern Africa, and Maasai have kept lion populations in check by traditionally hunting them. This hunting is undertaken by young Maasai men, the ilmurran, in a highly culturally important practice called the olamayio. The ilmurran actually have a more comprehensive task than hunting lions – they  are the warriors generationally charged with protecting the community in general, dealing with cattle raiders (and doing a bit of the same), and attempting to ensure minimal consequences of drought. But as their duty as lion hunters, using only spears and shields, they are culturally rewarded for strength and bravery. The olamayio is illegal in Kenya and only tolerated in Tanzania after lions have killed livestock.


The Maasai have undergone many social changes in recent years, including western education, Christianity, land privatization (mostly to their disadvantage), changing livestock breeds, wage labour, and tourism income. Yet their traditions and culture continue to be a source of pride and identity.   


The authors of the paper conducted interviews with Maasai communities in both Kenya and Tanzania, and found that attitudes towards lions were much more complex than previously supposed. In essence, lions were respected and admired for their courage, intelligence, bravery and beauty; but disliked for the fact they preyed on livestock. Nevertheless, other wild animals like elephants and hyenas fell into the despicable category. The authors quote some replies to their questions:


“If a lion kills a cow, that’s because it’s hungry! Lions don’t just kill like elephants.

[The elephants] kill for no reason because of their bad temper: they kill

people and don’t eat [them]! They kill cows and they don’t eat [them]!; they

kill goats and don’t eat [them]! The lion instead is very reasonable: if it kills a

cow, it eats it so it makes it its food. (Elder, Olgulului-Lolarrash GR)”


“The lion is better because if it gets in a herd of cows, it is just looking

for food to eat, which is fine. But the hyena, that is witchcraft: it just kills and

doesn’t eat. (Elder, Imbirikani GR)”


“If you pass near a lion you must stop and look at it! You’re never tired looking

at it! The colors are good, it’s a strong animal. . . . I just like its body, the way

it is strong. (Elder, Olgulului-Lolarrash GR)


“The lion. . . . It is just emotional for people! Maybe because it’s strong

and fierce. . . . If we hear that a lion is there, everybody goes and wants to see

it. (Woman, Imbirikani GR)”


“If you find a lion and you can take your time watching it, you can imagine

an olmurrani when you look at a lion. You can also imagine a bull. . . . So a

lion builds up so much in the mind! I don’t know what’s really inside the lion,

but it must have something magic inside. It’s really principled. . . . He’s a hero

absolutely ! If it decides it is this way, it will be that way and that’s it. It’s not

a joke! (Elder, Olgulului-Lolarrash GR)”


“When you walk in the bush, you have nothing to fear from lions: a lion will

not get you. Lions are only dangerous if you spear them, if you provoke them.

Otherwise, you can pass on their side and they will do nothing to you. They

also protect you in the bush at night, especially the children and the women.

Lions will protect them against other bad animals and in the morning will

bring them to their bomas”


The authors discovered many stories about lions protecting women and children, and this is an example:


“A mama had left her husband’s boma for her father’s home. She had been

walking for three days. She was tired and hungry and stopped to pray. She

prayed to God that she arrive safely. The woman was carrying a young child

and had become so weak that she could barely walk. She saw a lion in the

distance, was startled, and sat down and cried. The lion just sat and watched the mama. Then the lion killed a young gazelle, walked towards the mama, dropped the gazelle in front of her and walked away. The lion did not go far but sat at a distance and watched as she ate the gazelle. Another lion came to take the gazelle and the original lion pushed the intruder out of the way so the mama could continue eating. The woman kept walking and came across the footprints of a group of ilmurran. She followed the footprints and an olmurrani came out of the woods and saw her. She asked for water, which he brought her and she bathed her child. The olmurran told the woman they were at orpul and that she should wait and he would bring her some meat. The lion was watching all of this and came to sit with the mama. When the olmurrani saw the lion he wanted to kill it but she said, “No, do not kill it, it was sent by God!” So the ilmurran left the lion alone and helped the mama find her way to her father’s boma and the lion went home.”


The authors mention that whether these stories are true or not is of less relevance than the moral contained – lions can be allies, and lions and people can have positive interactions and share respect. They also show that lions are not all alike to Maasai; they are individuals and while some lions cause loss and need to be eliminated, others have helped people and are worthy of great respect.


 Culture can assist conservation


 The authors conclude that Maasai can both fear and dislike, like and respect lions. A single interviewed individual often had both emotions, perhaps suggesting why lions still exist with a level of tolerance in Maasai areas today. Indeed, the authors state that “Maasai attest that hunting lions keeps them afraid of people, and that attacks on people have risen as a result of prohibitions on [Maasai] lion hunting, protected area demarcation, and wildlife conservation in general.” In addition “Schematically, we could say that Maasai like lions except when they kill livestock, then they do not like them, except when ilmurran hunt the lion, then they like them because it is an important cultural act that also helps reassert the power and strength of the ilmurran to protect society (and in which the whole community partakes through the subsequent celebrating). Even as olamayio is increasingly less practiced, for being illegal, discouraged by conservation initiatives and Christianity, its memory among older people underlies positive perceptions of lions.”


And in terms of lion conservation efforts on Maasai lands, the authors feel that the positive perceptions of lions already present among the communities can be used as a foundation for support. Poisoning and excessive hunting are already not seen as moral by many Maasai themselves, and the Kenyan “Lion Guardians” program (where local ilmurran are recruited to abate retaliatory killings) seems to be bearing fruit.


It is a great example of how African solutions to conservation of African wildlife should be further explored and integrated into an overall program.


Picture credit:

Posted by Pieter Kat at 13:19

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