Kenya’s poisoned lions - a tragedy waiting to happen | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 15.12.2015
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Kenya’s poisoned lions - a tragedy waiting to happen

The recent poisoning of "celebrity" lions in Kenya has yet again exposed the gaps in conservation efforts for big cats fighting for survival. But how good are their chances?

Just a few months after the killing of the famous Cecil the lion, the poisoning and death of three lions of the Marsh Pride - made famous in the BBC TV series "Big Cat Diary" - may have left wildlife lovers in shock - but conservationists say the tragedy was long in the making.

Three lions, including Bibi, the matriarch of the pride featured in the long-running series, were poisoned earlier this month - allegedly by Masai herdsmen in the Masai Mara game reserve after the lions killed two of their cows.

"Shocked - no, sad - hugely, this has been disaster waiting to happen for a very, very long time," said Jonathan Scott, a British zoologist and co-presenter of "Big Cat Diary," who has been tracking the Marsh Pride for the past 40 years.

"Anybody who knows Kenya and the Mara knows that we are facing serious issues about how to get the right balance between sustainable tourism, which does not impact overly on the environment, and acknowledging that tourism pays the bill for the wildlife," Scott told DW.

Humans vs. lions

African lions are facing extinction, with their population more than halving since 1980. A recent study by an international team of researchers found that lion populations in West, East and Central Africa were declining and were likely to halve again in the next twenty years. Currently, there are a little over 20,000 lions left in Africa.

A major reason for this rapid decline is that lions are increasingly coming into conflict with humans. It is no different in the Masai Mara reserve, renowned for its wildlife safaris, where lions have been driven out of their core territories by a surge in illegal livestock grazing by Masai herdsmen.

Two young lions playing with each other.

Several lions in Masai Mara have been driven out of their core territories by a surge in illegal grazing by Masai herdsmen

"There are these illegal invasions of cattle at nights into the reserve, which is a stronghold of the big cats," Brian Jackman, who co-authored a book on the Marsh Pride with Scott, told DW. "The herdsmen knowingly drive their animals in harm's way straight through the territories of lions and other predators. There are bound to be casualties."

Masai herdsmen are witnessing an increasing fragmentation of the rangelands they can graze their cattle on, due to the privatization of land and the creation of wildlife conservancies.

Masai landowners trade parts of their grazing grounds for conservation purposes in return for money. Anne Kent Taylor, a conservationist at the Masai Mara, told DW that they often use this money to buy more cattle, instead of investing in banks and often end up with more cattle than their small plots can support. The herdsmen then illegally turn to the grazing grounds in the protected areas at night, when most predators are on the prowl.

"The Masai have been here for 300 years and before that other pastoralists roamed these areas for thousands of years," said Scott. "So pastoralism and wildlife can be relatively good bedfellows - but not at night, not if they come inside the reserve."

The way forward

Wildlife conservationists say that authorities should take immediate remedial measures to minimize animal casualties in the Masai Mara reserve, which has long been a victim of local authorities' mismanagement and corruption.

Jackman suggested that dedicated grazing lands should be carved out for Masai cattle - along the lines of conservancies - or that Masai herdsmen should be persuaded to opt for smaller herds of much higher quality and encouraged to use feedlots and hay as alternatives to nomadic grazing.

There is also a need to ban both the development of any more lodges and camps within the reserve and the expansion of existing ones. Conservationists say authorities must work harder to implement the ban on pesticides like carbofuran, which are used to kill a lot of lions and are readily available in neighboring countries.

"There is a need for stricter enforcement of laws so that nobody feels they have to take their cattle into the reserve and then poison the lions," Philip Muruthi, the head of species protection at the African Wildlife Foundation, told DW. "The same people with aspirations to have more tourism are being selfish when they poison the lions, which are the main draw for tourists to the Masai Mara."

Taylor, whose organization works with the Masai to fortify their livestock enclosures (or bomas) against predation, said the fortification has "really helped to keep both the livestock and the lions safer ... and the demand for us to protect bomas is endless."

Scott, who felt the death of the lions as a personal loss, hopes that the deaths will motivate all the stakeholders to act as soon as possible.

"If these lions died and something good comes out of it then that would be enough … I am glad the issue has come to the fore because lions can speak louder on this issue than we individuals can," he said.

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