TALKING WITH THE MAASAI
In September 2017 our chairman James Welch visited the Maasai Mara Ecosystem as part of a volunteering trip. This section of the website written first hand hopes to give everything an understanding of the trip.
The idea of this visit was to get a better understanding of the problems lions face in the wild and to see the threats first hand. As well as seeing the fragile habitat this also gave a brilliant opportunity to see lions in the wild and to get to see wild lion behaviour first hand. Another opportunity this gave me was to meet the people and see the way that they live. The Maasai have lived in amongst the ecosystem coexisiting with the wildlife for thousands of years. The way that they live hasn't really changed until the last 20 years. Now with the development of the modern world it is not a strange thing to see the Maasai with phones and Facebook is as popular here as it is in the Western world.
Meet Francis, one of our guides from Naboisho. He has grown up in the local area and after training at Koiyaki Guiding School he works as a guide as part of the Volunteering Programme I was a part of. Happily he agreed to answer some of my questions which I have presented here in a Q & A format. I found this interview incredibly interesting and hearing from Francis about the Maasai way of life was very eye opening. I hope you all find the information below as fascinating as I did.
Do you think that the creation of the conservancies was important for wildlife?
Yes I do, because the conservancies mean wildlife has space. The human population is increasing hugely now and creating the conservancies eliminates the encroachment of the people onto the habitat. This means that the wildlife have plenty of space to roam. Only the conservancies will help save the Mara, by keeping areas protected, we are keeping wildlife protected too.
Did It impact on the communities?
First of all people were all settled, they built semi-permanent homes. When the conservancies were created they all had to build another homestead and they had to give up good areas for the cattle which was chosen for the good grass. Another impact was someone who wanted to live their own life on their own land they know had to move and live close to other people, it interfered on their own personal lives through this relocation, but everyone relocated to create the conservancy.
Have you seen a positive impact on the wildlife from the conservancies?
Yes, creating conservancies have created a corridor for the wildlife, this means it gives them a chance to pass through. We are in the dispersal zone and we are an important part for the Mara, it is vital during the migration that the wildlife has the space to spread through the ecosystem. If there was no conservancy the place for the wildlife would shrink. The wild animals have benefited a lot from this, by being in these areas it has brought them a lot of protection too as there is no conflict from humans within them.
Do you think Tourism is important for wildlife conservation?
Very much so, the tourists pay money to see the wildlife. This money pays for the security from the rangers and it pays the money to the conservancy to keep the wildlife safe. More money means more protection and more rangers. Nearly all of the rangers and guides are employed from the local community. They are all well trained from the local area and they are all from the surrounding areas too. I think it’s a 98% employment rate from the local area.
Have you seen a change in lion numbers in your lifetime?
Yes I have and it is something that is raising an alarm. Right now if you look at Naboisho last year you would see big prides with more sub adult cubs. Now only 23 are native to the conservancy and we are not sure as to where they are all going. Even last year there were a lot more. There used to be 7 prides in the conservancy made up of different lions but now when we go on drives we see the same lions over and over again.
Lions need a huge amount of space for the dispersal and now the four males have taken over and the sub-adults are gone the younger lions are driven more out to the community areas which brings trouble.
What do you think Is the biggest threat to the wild lion population?
I think that especially the young upcoming lions outside the conservancy do present conflict with the local people. If the lions kill a cow the people may forgive it from happening once but if it happens again they may be tempted to kill or poison the lions.
Diseases do affect lions but I haven’t seen it affect them as much as cheetahs but to access medical treatment is a challenge.
What is the biggest challenge in living so close to lions?
The biggest challenge is when you don’t have a good fence for your cattle. They are easy prey for lions and if they see an easier chance they will always try. When the cattle are at rest at night with people the lions will not attack. Lions are scared of people more than anything in this world. If they don’t have people watching than the lions might attack the cattle.
Maasai value cattle very much, they are the central part of life, when you see the homesteads the cattle are always in the middle, everything is based and focused around cattle.
At the Reserve in the night time lions have very good vision in the night, the Reserve is accessed illegally because the grass is less grazed there then outside in the community land. The people who do this know that they are taking a risk and if lions attack the cattle at night they wont get compensation because they are not meant to be there. The illegal grazing is a very big problem. If cattle are killed in the conservancy as part of the limited grazing agreement the farmers will get compensation.
What has been done to help lions and people coexist?
The best thing people have done is through the compensation schemes when cattle get killed. Maasai used to kill lions. If there is no compensation they see no benefit to their cattle being killed repeatedly and they will kill lions. The Mara Lion Project does what it can to work with the local people too.
People who receive rent from the conservancy want lions in the area as this is what the tourists come to see the most, this means that more money will be received through tourism so life continues on.
Are people being educated about the importance of lions in the ecosystem?
Yes, As I told you the lion project is trying to go from village to village to tell the people as to how lions are good friends to us Maasai.
They try and go to schools every Friday, the kids are well educated as to how lions are important for us and the other animals. This is one of the reasons why the killing of lions is decreasing. As the children get older the new farmers will know more about how lions are important and the killing of lions should decrease again.
The lions are good friends to us through the money we receive from tourism and to keep us part of a balanced ecosystem.
Do you think that more can be done?
It is something that is definitely going in the right direction. We have seen species coming back such as the wild dog sighted by one of our guides not long ago. Wow we still have wild dogs in Naboisho.
We can’t keep quiet, we need to keep raising an alarm as monitoring more animals will increase their conservation. Creating more projects for other species and wildlife will bring up more issues that may be happening but we haven’t realised yet. I think a new one is being started for the trees, we need to monitor all aspects of the environment to keep it balanced, this will make is much better. We will find alarm calls and think what can we do to help.
How does your community value the lion?
At the moment we value lions a lot as we are living in an age of money now. We see lions as very important for the tourism. Not like initially when we saw them through ceremonies and trophies, those are the old times, those times are gone now.
Also we value them through the ecosystem. If there were no lions there would be more buffalo and wildebeest we would see more drought and less grass because nothing would eat the animals that eat the grass. This would affect our cattle too
By helping the grass this shows how balance is very important for us and the ecosystem. Lions are very important to us.
I would like to thank Francis for allowing me to publish this information and for his patience when asking these questions. This trip was a wonderful opportunity to meet the Maasai and to see their way of life. There are so many contributing factors when it comes to wildlife conservation. The dedication shown by the setup of these conservancies and the preservation of the Reserve through the Kenya Wildlife Service is testament to the work being done to conserve Kenya's wildlife and long may it continue. The Mara like any paradise for wildlife is close to peril. Only the combined help from the local people can keep the Mara safe.