Cecil, Aslan and the Samburu moran

By Stephanie Brittain and Chris Pollard.

He is the world’s most famous Lion. Since he was killed on July the 1st in a controversial trophy hunt in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, Cecil has been plastered all over the media. Meanwhile, the dentist who killed Cecil has been lying low. Last week, he finally broke his silence to say that he would never have killed that specific lion if he knew it had a name.

I thought this was an interesting statement to make. Perhaps naming an animal makes it more human, something to be treasured and cared for? Does simply giving an animal a name make killing it a lot harder? If so, conservation has been missing a trick here.

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Cecil the lion

Having said that, naming lions for conservation is not new. For example, the Ewaso Lions is a grassroots project working in Samburu, Northern Kenya. They aim to improve coexistence between local pastoralists and lions through research and community-based outreach programmes with Samburu warriors, women and elders. Naming lions is one of their activities.

Conflict in Samburu

In Samburu, lions often spill out of the National Parks and onto neighbouring land in search of food and territory. When lions roam into the adjoining pastoralists’ land, they become vulnerable to persecution, as communities retaliate against lions for killing their livestock. Further, boys in Samburu have been traditionally expected to hunt and kill a lion in order to become a Samburu warrior (moran), as a coming of age ceremony. Lion persecution and habitat loss has led to a decline of the lion population with less than 2,000 remaining in the region in 2009. This represents a decline of 26% in seven years.

Warrior Watch

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Tracking for Lions. Credit: Mongabay

The Ewaso Lions project works to reverse this population decline through a number of activities, including work to improve the attitudes of local communities to lions. One aspect of this work is a project called Warrior Watch. Rather than killing a lion as a coming of age ritual, Warrior Watch encourages Samburu warriors to become guardians of the lions; naming and understanding the history and behaviour of each local lion. Then following any lion attacks on livestock, warriors will encourage herders not to take retaliatory action.

Their role extends to investigating problem animals and offering solutions to protect domestic animals from future attacks. The personal affinity Warriors hold for the lions helps them promote the message that lions have a greater value alive due to the conservation fees paid by tourists who visit the area to see them. These fees help pay for educational bursaries, water projects, and employment opportunities in the community. As part of the project, weekly meetings are held where warriors can report any sightings, recent conflict and discuss ways to better protect their livestock. Through Warrior Watch, these young men receive English lessons and food bursaries. Now virtually all the participants are literate. This incentivised local women to want to join in the Lion conservation effort, so Ewaso Lions established the Mama Simba programme, meaning “mothers of lions” that also offers literacy classes.

Literacy classes for Samburu moran

Of course, it’s not just naming lions that have led to this level of success. In the past, conservation efforts have not engaged with the local communities. In particular, Samburu warriors have long been neglected in wildlife conservation, despite their important local knowledge of wildlife issues. Engaging these warriors instils tolerance for lions and other carnivores. In turn, the warriors spread a conservation message to their peers within their communities.

Through this engagement, sustainable conservation plans can develop that work to protect the lions whilst enhancing the lives of local people. The project enables the development of strategies for long-term lion conservation by better understanding the extent of persecution, and the impact of habitat loss. Ewaso Lions staff has dramatically changed local attitudes, and the lion population monitored has grown to 40 individuals—the largest in more than a decade.

Lions do not run around with name badges on. Yet naming a lion, in combination with community engagement, can have a positive impact on the psyche of humans who, be it for trophy killing or for revenge, kill lions.  Whatever comes of Mr Palmer and the enormous outcry that was caused by the killing of Cecil, perhaps his comments on naming lions were not far off the mark. Perhaps all lions, elephants and tigers should each have a name, and its very own warrior.

Click here for more information on the Ewaso Lions project