Maasai Kill Half the Lions in Nairobi National Park

By Jennifer Wanjiru

KITENGELA, Kenya, June 23, 2003 (ENS) - A conflict is brewing between the government of Kenya and the Maasai tribe who are threatening to kill all the lions at Nairobi National Park, some eight kilometers (five miles) south of the city of Nairobi, for killing their livestock.

Ten lions already have been killed in the last two months by the Maasai warriors, known as morans, leaving just nine lions in the expansive park. The hunting of game has been banned in Kenya since the late 1970s.

"We have directed security agents to hunt down and lock up all Maasai morans threatening to kill lions," says Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife Newton Kulundu.

But the Maasai are adamant and have vowed to hunt and kill any lion that threatens their livestock that grazes at the outskirts of the park.


Lion in Kenya (Photo credit unknown)
"The government should have all these lions returned to the park. But the moment they stray to our areas we will no doubt kill them," says Godfrey Ntapaiya, a spokesman for the Maasai morans.

But the government has said it will not watch as the morans continue to decimate the lion population. "The country can ill afford the situation created by the morans as they chased a lion that broke out of Nairobi National Park," said Kulundu about a televised hunt for a lion.

Run by a local TV station, the story showed the morans brandishing spears and other weapons as they hunted the lion. The Maasai view lion hunting as an act of bravery, skill, and wisdom.

But the Maasai have been engaging the minister in a war of words. "We will not sit back too and watch as the lions impoverish us," said Ntapaiya. "Our emotional attachment to our cattle is well known. If the government is unable to control the lions, we will permanently control them through death."

Worried that the morans may carry out their threat, the Kenya Wildlife Service, together with a local nongovernmental organization, Friends of the Nairobi National Park, has said it will build two fenced areas within the park for the nine remaining lions at a cost of 200,000 shillings ($2,340).

The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife has been studying proposals on how to fence the southern boundary as a permanent solution to the problem of lions attacking livestock.

Director of the nongovernmental organization Council of Human Ecology Oscar Mann has criticized the move to fence the park. "If the lions are fenced into the park, and there is no migration, they will have to be fed either directly or by continuously augmenting the herbivore population with imports. The answer does not lie in fencing unless and until all else has failed."

Mann says that the amount of money that would be used to fence the Nairobi National Park would better be used to secure migration routes.


Maasai herdsmen with their cattle (Photo credit unknown)
"Our morans will not rest until we have pursued the lions that are threatening our livestock, which is the mainstay of the community," said Ntapaiya.

He criticized the minister for ordering the arrest of the morans. Said Ntapaiya, "When one lion is killed the government is up in arms against us, but when over 100 of our cows are killed nothing is done to compensate us."

Officers from the National Security Intelligence Service, and staff from the Kenya Wildlife Service have been tracking down the lion killers, but no one has been arrested. "They should all be put behind bars. Nobody is above the law," says the minister.

But the morans insist that it is the lions are in the wrong and urged the Kenya Wildlife Service to compensate them for their losses.

"We will not fear being arrested and jailed as long as we are protecting what is ours," says Ntapaiya.

The lions are believed to be preying on the Maasai livestock following the migration of wildlife from the park. Experts say that zebras, gazelles, wildebeest and antelopes, the traditional prey for lions, have been forced out of the park by a new housing project on its southern edges.

Most of the herbivores normally move outside the park between March and July when the grass inside is too high. Since the southern boundary of the park has not been fenced to avoid cutting off their traditional migratory path, the lions follow the zebra and antelopes. But as human population in the area south of the park increases, the predators find the goats, sheep, cattle and donkeys kept by the Maasai easier prey.

At the moment, most of the herbivores have found their return paths closed by the housing projects.

"The lions are hungry because their prey have moved further away and because the migration routes are all but cut off,"said Mann. Some critical paths must remain open, he said, an option that "holds far greater hope for long term viability of the park, the wild animals, including the lion, and the Maasai."

"These livestock predators kill an average of 26 animals every month. The Maasai have been patient for a long time and the government should compensate them," says Nicholas Matiko, secretary of the Kitengela Ilparakuo Landowners Association, where most of the killings have taken place.

In all the cases "the lions' claws were removed and the heads were chopped off. They were skinned and their hearts and livers removed," said the minister, alluding to a Maasai moran practice after killing a lion.

Wildlife Minister Kulundu has said that local game ranches will provide carcasses of zebra, eland and wildebeest to feed the lions until the resident zebra and antelope return. But many people are concerned that they will not be able to provide these carcasses if the migratory routes are blocked.


Michael Wamithi, former East Africa regional director for International Fund for Animal Welfare, now heads the Kenya Wildlife Service. (Photo courtesy KWS)
Michael Wamithi, head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, says on the top of his agenda is the problem of how to reign in the rising cases of conflicts between wildlife and Kitengela residents and the dilemma of keeping what is essentially private land open for wildlife.

"While many communities bordering parks were essentially nomadic," he says, "times have brought changes in lifestyle, with many of them adapting permanent settlements and some form of arable farming. It is partly for this reason that incidences of human-wildlife conflict are on the rise."

The Kenya Wildlife Service plan for the park will address issues such as loss of the migration corridor, decline of wildlife populations and human-wildlife conflicts, park pollution and poaching, lack of a buffer zone, and proximity of slum areas to the park.

"The key element in this management planning process is the participation of all relevant stakeholders in finding a long term and viable management option for the park's ecosystem. The resultant management plan will clearly set out the best management option and the necessary requirements needed for its implementation," said Wamithi.

Nairobi National Park was established in 1946 under the British colonial administration and is the only protected wild area in the world with a variety of wild animals and at least 400 species of birds so close to a major city.