The radio crackles, a dusty message. Not good news – the Maasai are hunting lions.
The cats have reportedly broken into a boma overnight and killed 40 shoats (sheep/goats) and a cow. The loss is devastating to the family involved. In anticipation Big Life, a local conservation organisation, has already sent rangers to the spot to monitor the mood, and the latest message ignites a flurry of action at the headquarters.
I join the small group on the back of a Land Cruiser, a team of rangers involved in a fight with deep emotional triggers. In this pastoralist society livestock are wealth, and predators have the ability to wreck livelihoods. Retribution can be swift. The rangers joke nervously, the information so far has been vague and the outcome is unpredictable. We race through the dense bush on the lower slopes of the Chyulu Hills and accelerate as we hit the vast yellow plains below. After an hour of bum-bashing travel someone spots a distant human silhouette on a hill. Soggy black cotton-soil is an impenetrable barrier between us and from here we walk.
The bush is quiet after the roar of the car engine, boots crunch on volcanic soil. The rangers fan out over a gentle slope, no sign of life, human or animal. Eventually a shout from below, and a sad find. A young lioness, killed by Maasai spears. Her claws, tail and ears are gone, prizes for those most instrumental in her death. To the men involved, this killing is a form of the revenge, but also represents one less lion threatening their livestock. There is no right or wrong here, and as we turn the only hope is that the death of one lion will be the end of this incident. But movement in the distance signals that this is not over. A line of forty Maasai men marching across the dry land, heading in the direction in which the rest of the pride had fled.
We head back to the vehicles and the rangers move off in the same direction as the advancing men, parallel but maintaining distance. In the meantime Richard Bonham (head of Big Life) has arrived in his small plane and is swooping low over the plain, pretending to chase the lions and thus lure the hunting party in the wrong direction. We park on a nearby rise and watch as the scene unfolds. The hunters have skirted one side of a hill and the rangers are on the other. Both move in the same direction but are invisible to each other, we realise that a meeting is inevitable. I am with Sambu, a senior staff member of Big Life and excellent negotiator with an in-depth understanding of both sides of this story. We leave the vehicles and begin to climb the gentle slope. Suddenly, the silence is burst by a loud wail, followed by the collective voice of fifty men chanting and hollering. The few rangers that I am with take off at a run, I follow behind. We can’t see anything but the volume speaks of a serious confrontation. I stay below the ridge, not wanting to introduce the potential complication of my presence, and to be completely honest also not desperate to run into a melee of angry Maasai. Minutes clunk by. Slowly things seem to cool off. I risk joining the outskirts. The scene is awfully real, this is what conservation is about here. Forty Maasai, adorned in everything from Manchester United jerseys to full traditional regalia, face-off with the green fatigues of thirteen Big Life rangers. Every man on both sides is from the area. Sambu’s voice battles the presence of these proud men. I understand nothing but the body language needs no interpreting. He talks for the lives of the four remaining lions, and slowly I observe the tide begin to turn. As the ugly mess breaks up, faces emerge. I realise that this is not a group of testosterone driven young men, but a diverse group spanning teens to old men. This hunt was not for pride or bragging rights, it was a response to a terrible loss. Some of the hunters have moved off to the side, and the vocal core begins to shrink. Slowly, men begin to walk away, some return to pull their friends with them. Finally, they are all turned. The landscape breathes out.
Here, as across Africa, lines are emerging in the fight to conserve ecosystems – people that derive benefit from wildlife versus those that don’t. This is no longer a romantic story of an African people holding onto their traditional way of life and coexisting with predators. Livestock were traditionally valued in themselves, these days school fees and cell phone bills need to be paid, and the local definition of value is swimming out of focus. No matter how much you might like having a lion roaring in the distance, or are prepared to coexist with it, there is only so much loss that you will tolerate before it becomes too much. And then you retaliate. I challenge anyone to look me in the eye and tell me that you would do different. It’s the age-old mantra – cost versus benefit. This is not some abstract western economic concept to be bandied about by greybeards, it is the universal trade-off that drives decision-making, conscious or otherwise, in every living human. The notion that local communities need to derive value from wildlife is not new, but successful attainment of this goal appears to be elusive across the continent. Until each person sees the actual benefit of having wildlife around them, you cannot expect them to act other than in their own best interests, and if that means killing a lion then this should not come as a shock to our western conservationist sensitivities.