A hundred years ago, in Kenya, there were many more lions and far fewer Maasai tribesman. Back in those days it could be argued it was more acceptable for a young Maasai Warrior in Kenya to prove his courage and worth to the girls in his community by killing a lion with a spear. Today, there are far more young men with spears and far fewer lions. They have turned to sport to achieve the same goal.
There are an estimated 2,000 lions in Kenya, but let’s remember that wild cat estimates are often optimistic. And to attract the attention of girls, young Masai warriors still want to kill a lion. It is just their way of impressing women and every culture has its own way.
“When you kill a lion you get a lion name, you get respect and you get girls…” Says Yumeke Lepos a tribal elder.
These ritual killings by young Maasai warriors are one reason why the lion population has gradually decreased. In addition lions are poisoned to protect cattle. The lion is forced to live amongst farmers.
Along came a Texan entrepreneur, Tom Hill, who fell in love with Kenya and who became a conservationist in the 1990s.
He has spent 14 years working on conservation projects in the Tsavo-Amboseli ecosystem. He says that the Maasai elders wanted an alternative to the ritualistic killing of lions by young men. Tom Hill remembered his days in America when the “best quarterback gets the prettiest cheerleader.” His solution was to introduce a version of the Olympic Games – to substitute sport for killing. The idea came to him in 2008.
The games are run by the Big Life Foundationand they are backed by one of the most famous sons of the Maasai, David Rhudisha, who broke the world record in the 800 meters at the London Olympics. He says that lions are vital for the Maasai because they bring job opportunities through tourism and he has recognised that the world is changing and that the Maasai need to modernise their ways.
In an enlightened move they decided that lion killing as a tradition can become a thing of the past. Now Maasai warriors prove their worth and value to their girls in their own version of the Olympic Games. We know how talented many Kenyan athletes are especially in middle to long distance running. This is a welcome modernisation for people who are interested in the conservation of iconic species.
In addition, farmers are being encouraged to participate in a compensation scheme which reimburses them if lions kill their cattle. This is a scheme similar to that employed by The Snow Leopard Trust to protect the Snow Leopard in its habitat. It’s a clever scheme but it needs to be protected because apparently critics say that the compensation scheme leaves conservationist open to blackmail by the Masai. They say that the Masai demand more money otherwise they will go back to killing Lions. Let’s hope they can iron out that problem.
Another method to protect the lion is for “lion guardians” to be trained to warn other herders of the presence of lions whereupon they can take proactive steps to avoid an attack by a lion thereby preventing big cat poisonings in revenge for the loss of cattle.