Unlimited Adventure series in Vail Thursday | VailDaily.com

Unlimited Adventure series in Vail Thursday

Special to the DailyLeela Hazzah has enlisted 30 Maasai warriors to help monitor lions, using technology. They've almost eliminated the killing of lions in some areas, and are pushing the program into others.

African lions are being killed faster than they can reproduce, says the director of an organization trying to keep them from being wiped out.

Leela Hazzah, director of Lion Guardians, is this week’s speaker in the Vail Symposium’s Unlimited Adventure series. And for Hazzah, what an adventure it has been.

Humans are moving into former African wilderness areas and lions are losing their habitats. For most of those people, livestock production is the only way they can make a living, Hazzah says.

The land is severely overgrazed as wild grazers like zebra and wildebeest compete with cattle for food and water.

Lions have turned to killing livestock, and humans have turned to killing lions, Hazzah says, with spears or cheap and effective poisons.

It’s creating a conservation crisis in all but the largest African protected areas, Hazzah says. Lion populations have plunged from over 100,000 individuals to around 23,000 over the past century.

Lion Guardians

Something had to be done, and Hazzah decided she’d be the one to do it.

“Lions are poisoned, shot, and speared by locals who see them as a threat to livestock,” Hazzah says. “Without urgent measures, lions may disappear completely from unprotected areas.”

Hazzah helped found Lion Guardians, a program at Mbirikani Ranch in Kenya, to develop practical ways to reduce livestock losses to lions. That was November 2006 and not a single lion has been speared in Mbirikani Ranch, this is the longest respite since the 1990s. But they’re still be slaughtered on neighboring ranches, something Hazzah and her organization are trying to stop.

Maasai warriors monitor lions and help prevent attacks on livestock by helping herders to avoid grazing areas where lions are present, improving livestock corrals, helping herders find lost livestock in the bush before they are killed by predators, educating their communities about carnivore conservation, and, most importantly, working with other Maasai to prevent lion killings, Hazzah says.

Conserve rather than kill

To many Maasai, lions are symbols of strength and courage. To others, they’re not.

Retaliatory and traditional spearing by Maasai warriors is the greatest threat to survival of lions in Maasailand.

The Lion Guardians program is reducing pressure on lions by convincing Maasai warriors to conserve rather than kill.

“Many Maasai would say that lions are not worth saving because they kill livestock and do not bring any benefits back to the people,” Hazzah says.

That view is slowly changing and Maasai are increasingly part of lion conservation.

“They are starting to realize that lions have value, both ecologically and culturally,” Hazzah says.

Every Guardian has a cell phone to report lion sightings or any illegal activity. All collared lions have been given Maasai names by the Guardians.

“We now have 29 Guardians monitoring and conserving the remaining lions over three ranches,” Hazzah says.

Hazzah earned her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.