Paula Kahumbu, National Geographic grantee and Buffet Prize winner, writes about an innovative solution to save lions. It’s originator is 13 year old Richard Turere.
Family portrait of lioness and her cubs, Nairobi National Park, Stuart Pimm.
Lions, once ubiquitous in Africa and Asia are now in big trouble of going extinct in the wild. Their numbers have declined from an estimated 400,000 in the 1940′s to as few as 20,000 today. In Kenya, lions are vital to the economy, they are the main tourist attraction to the country, but despite the numerous conservation efforts in the country, fewer than 2,000 remain.
WildlifeDirect has been working with the National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative to halt lion population declines by the year 2015 and to restore populations to sustainable levels.
In October 2011, WildlifeDirect with funding from the Big Cats Initiative, began monitoring the human wildlife conflict in the pastoralist areas around the Nairobi National Park. The lion attacks in and around Nairobi are seasonal and predictable – lions move out of the park whenever the wildlife migrates. Wildebeest and zebra leave the park as soon as rains start in search of sweet short grass.
Lions follow these prey animals into the dispersal area where they encounter livestock which are easier prey for them. We know from our work with Michael Mbithi and Dave Mascall that the Nairobi National Park has 24 adult lions (8 adult males and 16 lionesses), 8 sub-adults (between 2.5- 3 years; 7 males and 1 female) and at least 8 cubs of varying ages below 1 year of age.
However, the Nairobi park lions are especially vulnerable because they are surrounded by a rapidly growing urban environment. In December 2011 and January 2012, three lions were killed by the local community in retaliation for stock killed — 18 cows, 85 sheep and goats, and 14 donkeys were killed by a number of different park lions in the Kitengela triangle south of the park, in the short wet season November and December 2011.
Lion human conflict in this area is an age-old problem that has been growing worse every year. What we were looking for a local home grown solution, that is practical and affordable for the communities.
We had no idea that we would find that bright spark in a 13 year old boy, Richard Turere.
In February this year, we were attended to homesteads that were most severely impacted by the lions. The lion predation is so severe that the community tolerance reached breaking point in December 2011 and they killed three lions in one week. The killing of lions right on the city’s doorstep quickly became a national concern You can watch the disturbing footage of the lion killing here in the area due to the high number of lions in the park.
During our visits to the homesteads affected by lion predation, we discovered something totally unexpected. One family was somehow immune from nighttime lion attacks. This was the home of Richard and his family. It wasn’t always like this, they used to have lion attacks every week.
The Turere Family live in Empakasi, right on the edge of the Nairobi National Park, just south of the City of Nairobi. Richard is responsible for bringing the cattle in at night and locking them up in the boma, safe from predators, especially lions. But being so close the park puts this family’s cattle right in the path of lions and every month they lost cows, sheep and goats.
At the age of 11 Richard decided to do something about his family’s losses.
He observed that the lions never struck the homesteads when someone was awake and walking around with a flashlight. Lions are naturally afraid of people. He concluded that lions equate torches with people so he took the led bulbs from broken flashlights and rigged up an automated lighting system of four or five torch bulbs around the cattle stockade.
The bulbs are wired to a box with switches, and to an old car battery charged with a solar panel that operates the family television set. The lights don’t point towards the cattle, or on any property, but outwards into the darkness. They flash in sequence giving the impression that someone is walking around the stockade.
Richard says it took two months to devise his system by tinkering and experimenting. He gave himself many shocks in the process! Once it started working, he installed five bulbs around his homestead. In the two years that his lion light system has been operating, the Turere family has had no predation at night by lions.
Six of the neighbours noticed that they were getting hit by lions but not the Turere homestead. Richard has now installed the lion lights system in their bomas too.
For conservation and human wildlife Conflict management, this simple innovation is a breakthrough. The Kenya Wildlife Service report that human wildlife Conflict has cost the government Ksh71 million in compensation in 2011 alone – and that is only for human injury or loss of life. In Kitengela, The Wildilfe Trust and KWS have paid out several million shillings for consolation to the community for the loss of livestock to lions in 2011. The cost of compensating Kenyans for human wildlife conflict will rise dramatically when new legislation comes into play.
WildlifeDirect and FoNNaP have been focusing on prevention rather than compensation. This saves the livestock, the lions and if fewer livestock are killed by lions, the cost of compensation will also come down. Other lion conservation projects are also looking into prevention by building lion proof fences around the bomas, or stockades. At a cost of up to 1,000 dollars a piece, this is way out of the price range of the average pastoralist. Richards device costs less than ten dollars, it is practical, cost effective and easy and quick to install and to maintain.
The National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, WildlifeDirect and Friends of Nairobi Park are now looking at how to scale up the use of lion lights. They can be used in combination with fences and other deterrents.
We thank Brookhouse school who on learning about Richards amazing invention, offered him a full scholarship. Richards story has already reached over 33,000 websites and he has been invited to audition for TED. Keep your fingers crossed for Richard and lions and watch this space.
To support the lion lights project, please make a donation now.