Lights, Camera, Lions

This morning, we’re heading out for an early game drive with Niels Mogensen.  Niels heads up the Mara-Naboisho Lion Project (MNLP), another partner organization that Basecamp is supporting.

IMG_0611The lions have been elusive to us so far on the trip.  We haven’t spotted a single one.  It’s a strange predicament considering the high density of so many other wild animals in the conservancy.

Niels explains that the lion populations of Africa are dwindling.  Human settlement resulting in loss of habitat plus a surge in human-wildlife conflict is taking its toll.   The lions play an important role in the Mara ecosystem, what Niels calls an “umbrella species”.  Their survival is ecologically vital to corresponding landscapes and other animals.

IMG_0657Suddenly, the lions come within view.  It’s two females, resting under the shade of a tree.  Niels thinks we can get closer.  A few twists and turns of the jeep and we’re within a few feet of the lionesses.  Unnerving?  Yes.  Thrilling?  No comparison.

It’s estimated that Naboisho is home to 5 lion prides, consisting of 60 individuals.  They established themselves here after the land was protected and cattle grazing became controlled – animals will naturally gravitate toward areas where there’s limited human presence.  Although the lions are free to roam the 20000 hectares of the conservancy without human interference, there’s nothing preventing them from crossing over to Maasai-settled land.  And where there’s Maasai, there’s cattle.

IMG_0584“The lions urinate near the cattle enclosures, the cows panic and stampede,” says Niels.  “It’s a buffet for the lions.” These livestock killings often result in retaliation by the local communities.  Studies show that lions are increasingly being killed outside of protected areas.

Niels and his team are determined to find a solution.  They’ve set up a dialogue with the local communities, educating them on lion behavioral ecology and movement patterns.  “Without the community’s support, the lions will have no future whatsoever,” says Niels.  The MNLP is also helping to reinforce cattle enclosures, making them sturdier and more secure.  The response from the communities has been mixed, but attitudes are shifting. Our guide, Derrick, acknowledges the change: “If a cow is killed, you buy another cow.  If a lion is killed, it’s gone forever.”

If settlement continues to increase and efforts aren’t made to prevent loss of livestock, the future of the Masai lion is uncertain. The research Niels conducts in Naboisho is critical to their survival.

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