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Human-Lion Conflict Problem Requires Big Solutions

The perilous state of lions has once again been brought to light, most recently by the poisoning of the world’s most famous lions, the Marsh Pride. This pride has been the subject of innumerable wildlife documentaries, such as the BBC’s Big Cat Diary. Indeed, even as this incident occurred, a BBC film crew were the first to pick it up, since they are here filming for their next big production, Dynasties.

If ever you’ve seen a documentary featuring lions, chances are it’s in the Mara, and chances are, it’s the Marsh Pride. If you have seen them, it may surprise you to learn that they are susceptible to human-lion conflict, given that most documentaries tend to portray the Maasai Mara as an Eden, untouched by human influence. This is far from reality. A visit to the Musiara area (the home of the Marsh Pride) on any given day will show you lions in the Reserve and a shimmer of livestock and settlement just outside the protected area. Come night fall the lines are blurred as lions and livestock begin to mingle.

While the Marsh Pride exemplify this issue, it is by no means unique in the challenges it faces. Throughout the Mara, lions and livestock interact, and the interface between wildlife and people is growing. This is an age old conflict, and one that is played out throughout the world, wherever there are predators and people in close proximity. The challenge now of course, is that there are more people and livestock than ever before, less space available to predators, and more efficient ways of killing predators.

Poison Devastation

Poison is particularly worrisome, since it has such large effects. Lace a cow carcass with poison and you could wipe out a pride of lions, hyaenas, vultures and other birds of prey. Such is the devastation of poison, it is remarkable that more of the Marsh Pride was not killed.

Although this most recent event is upsetting and reprehensible, it should not grab our attention simply because it is the Marsh Pride. It should grab our attention since this is just one example of the problems that lions and people are currently facing, throughout Africa.

The simple reality is that lions can be a menace, they kill livestock and sometimes people. In return, people retaliate and kill lions, using a myriad of different methods. Lions encroach into human landscapes, just as humans encroach into wild landscapes. Conservation practitioners aim to reduce this conflict in many different ways, but so long as there is wildlife and people in close proximity there will always be conflict. It cannot be eliminated altogether, and the task therefore is to ensure it does not impact the population as a whole.

In terms of the lion population, the Maasai Mara is, by and large, a success story, albeit with innumerable challenges that require conservation efforts. Despite enormous pressures, this ecosystem is home to quite possibly the highest density of lions in the world. At 15 lions per 100km2 [about 25,000 acres], even the shortest visit to the Mara will guarantee a lion sighting. Retaliatory killings of lions do happen, but probably in lower numbers than other ecosystems.

High Tolerance of Lions

Traditional killings of lions by the Maasai warriors is almost non-existent, and tolerance of lions is generally quite high. One of the reasons for this is that the surrounding community receives benefits from the wildlife – they lease their land to conservancies, they gain employment, they receive indirect benefits from local NGOs funded through tourism and they have access to well managed pastures within the private conservancies to graze their livestock.

This has undoubtedly built tolerance for lions and wildlife more generally, but it is not enough on its own to stop all the ecological issues. Predators are still killed, as are herbivores.

Competition for grasslands represents a bigger human-wildlife conflict than that of predators and people. 

Competition for grasslands represents a bigger human-wildlife conflict than that of predators and people. Traditionally nomadic, the Maasai in the Mara have become sedentary, owing to subdivision of land. As a result fences are being erected to protect grasslands from wild herbivores and neighbouring livestock. The alarming rate at which this is happening is threatening to cut off traditional migration routes for wild herbivores, which will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect for predators.

Concurrently, the number of livestock has sky-rocketed in recent years. People are able to buy more livestock and erect electric fences, largely due to the benefits they have received from wildlife. And yet there is a disconnect between where the benefits come from and how to ensure these benefits are preserved in the future.

Multitude of Solutions

A multitude of solutions to human-lion conflict exist which include fencing wildlife areas, compensation, insurance, flashing lights, predator proof livestock enclosures and relocation of predators. The truth is that there is no one solution, no quick fix. It will take a myriad of solutions, along with improved livestock husbandry, and large scale reform to reduce conflict, but it will not be eliminated.

Human-lion conflict is a big problem that requires big solutions. Large changes in the way that people settle, rear and graze their livestock. Changes in family planning and land-use planning. Even changes in the way wildlife areas are managed, so as to include, rather than the traditional exclusion of surrounding communities. Big changes need to happen before we can reduce lion killings and stem the range-wide decline in their populations.

While it is useful to focus on individuals, such as Cecil, and now the Marsh Pride, conservation of a species is less concerned with individuals than with populations. As distressing as it may be, the loss of individuals to human-lion conflict is inevitable, yet unacceptable and punishable by law. Our task is to ensure that these are isolated incidents that do not cause an ever declining population.

Dr. Nic Elliot is the Director of the Mara Lion Project, which comes under the Kenya Wildlife Trust. The Mara Lion Project is a research-driven conservation project and works closely with management authorities and local communities to ensure that lions have a future in this ecosystem. For more information see www.kenyawildlifetrust.org or contact info@maralions.org