“At the age of 6 to 9, I was responsible for my fathers cows,” says Richard Turere, now 13, and having just spoken in front of about 1500 people at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California. “And these lions were very annoying, because they were killing my father’s cows.”
Taking his responsibility seriously, Richard set out to find a solution. First, he tried fires, but the fires seemed to make it easier for the lions. Next he tried setting up a scarecrow. It worked for the first night, he said, “but lions are very clever.”
Luckily aside from learning the countless traditional whistle commands a Maasai herder can use to control his cows, Richard Turere also had a hobby of taking apart electronics (such as his mother’s new radio) so still had a few tricks to try.
Noticing the lions would stay away when he walked around with a flashlight, he had a new idea: moving lights. With a few simple wires and bulbs, he rigged up a series of flashing lights, and went to bed. Soon there were 7 households in his community using his “lion lights.”
This is where conservationist and National Geographic Explorer Paula Kahumbu came in. While not a frequent problem, lion attacks can be devastating for a family. They can also be devastating for lions, as was seen in 2012 when six lions were killed in apparent retaliatory attacks (read the story, see videos).
As a leader in National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative and director of Wildlife Direct, Paula works with researchers across Africa working to find a way to protect lions by protecting cattle. In general they are developing new techniques and spreading them. When they saw Richard’s invention they knew he had an idea worth sharing.
Now households across Kenya use lion lights and protect their livestock from predators and their crops from elephants, and Richard is attending a prestigious high school, studying subjects like foreign languages he never would have otherwise. He also now holds the school record for javelin through at 38 meters. How far did the boy that he beat throw? He answers unsurely, “Like 20-something?”
As for the future, he says “One year ago I was just a boy herding my father’s cows. Now I want to be an engineer and pilot.”
I asked him if he’s worried the lions will figure out that moving lights do not necessarily mean someone is watching the cows.
“Maybe they’ll figure out,” he tells me. “But if they figure out, I’ll get another way, because that’s what I do.”