Imagine for a moment that you are a Maasai tribesman in Kenya and your entire livelihood is invested in your livestock. One day, a lion attacks one of your cows, killing it. Enraged, you set about to seek justice and protect your cattle from further harm. But justice today is not the same as it once was. The Maasai once used spears alone to take down lions, but now, with the rise of poisonous insecticides, it's simple for you to spread some poison on the carcass while the lion has wandered away. When the lion returns with its cubs, it ingests the poison. But so does the rest of the pride. In the span of a few hours, an entire family of lions is wiped out. Your cattle are safe...for now. But there are side effects: The region's economy, dependent on tourism, becomes unstable, and the fragile ecosystem of East Africa is shattered.
This was the reality facing Tom Hill, who began his work on lion conservation efforts in the Kenyan bush 16 years ago. As a trustee of the Maasailand Preservation Trust (known as the Ol Donyo Wuas Trust in Kenya), Hill has worked on the Mbirikani Group Ranch; and he has watched the population of lions deteriorate in the Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem (Located at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro). The arrival of poison in the region has only hastened the problem. In 2003, he says, "We lost eight lions in one afternoon. It was the last great pride of the Chyulu Hills."
It was shortly after losing that pride that Hill and his co-founder, Richard Bonham, began speaking with the Maasai community about creating a better way to account for their losses. The MPT had long been established in the region and had relationships with tribal elders. But, Hill says, they needed to find a reason to make it worthwhile for the 10,000 people in the community to want to live alongside such beasts. "We realized that if we didn’t do something significant the lion population was going to go extinct," he says. "So we sat under trees with elders for months talking about life for the Maasai and the nature of conflict with wildlife. We tried to see how could we develop a solution that could stabilize the predator population, and save them from extinction, while saving the quality of life for the people." It was out of those meetings that they developed a novel system called the Mbirikani Predator Compensation Fund.
The fund's goal was to provide a monetary incentive to encourage the community not to retaliate against the lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas that often attack livestock. If one of the tribespeople found that livestock had been killed, he or she would report the incident to a community Game Scout, who is employed by the trust to combat poaching. This scout would issue the person a voucher, which could be exchanged for the cost of a cow at the end of a two month period. But the voucher comes with a catch: If no one in the community kills a lion over that period of time, then everyone who has lost livestock is repaid. If someone decides to take action against a beast, no one receives a dime.
The Predator Compensation Fund was an idea that took some getting used to, Hill admits. But since it was launched in 2003, it has become widely accepted within the community. The number of lion killings in the Mbirikani region has dropped dramatically as a result of the program. What's more, this model is now being replicated on two neighboring Maasai ranches, bringing the total area of protected land up to one million acres. The first replica was started by another NGO, Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, who based their model on the Compensation fund. But the second was created independently by the community from the Ogulului Group Ranch. They approached Hill and Bonham, saying they were willing to use their own funds from tourism dollars to start the program. "They’d been watching us," says Hill, "and they wanted to do the same thing...Now these communities that have clamored for it have gotten it done." Since the Ogulului launched their lions-only version of the program in April of this year, there has only one lion reported killed on the ranch. Prior to the program's implementation, approximately two lions were being killed each month, on average.
Success generates a greater demand for funding. The National Geographic Society has partnered with the Maasailand Preservation Trust to create the Maasailand Lions Emergency Fund to expand and continue programs in the Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem.
For Hill, the Predator Compensation Fund is critical to maintaining the tourism economy of Kenya. "Tourism is the biggest income source, creating most revenue" in the region, he says. "The lion is the paramount animal of tourism in Africa. If you don’t have lions you don’t have tourists." But, he says, tourism alone is not enough. "Tourism is critical but not sufficient – it’s a very important element and it has to be part of the solution." He reasons that not enough money from the National Park entry fees collected by the government is redistributed back into the communities, and more government support is needed to protect the animals.
"If the First World wants the Third World to continue to have wildlife – it’s going to have to pay for it," Hill says. He would like to see an endowment or trust set up that would cover the entire region. But until that happens, he says, tourists can help to support such efforts by staying at lodges like the Mbirikani Group Ranch's Ol Donyo Wuas 22-bed eco-lodge, which provides tourism income to the community and directs a portion of its proceeds towards conservation efforts. "Through your presence you’re supporting this work."
Read More: Get more information about the Ol Donyo Wuas Lodge. Learn more about National Geographic's role in the the Maasailand Lions Emergency Fund, and donate to the fund here. Watch a video posted by Conservation International, another supporter of the program. Check out a photo gallery of threatened lions from the Maasailand range.
Photo: Beverly Joubert for NGS