The sun had risen less than an hour before, yet Anne and the rest of us at the Anne K. Taylor Fund were gathered on an earthen airstrip at the edge of Maasai Mara National Reserve. Our Anti-Poaching Team leaned coolly against their truck, its green paint matching their olive fatigues. I and the rest of the Fortified Boma Team fidgeted with our phones and to-do lists, making sure everything was going to be ready for our guests.
“Can you see them?” Anne asked into my double-checking, handing me a pair of binoculars. I thought at first she was referring to the airplane we were expecting, but she was pointing instead at the shade of a tree about 200 meters away.
I played with the focus for a few seconds and then saw what she was talking about. Lions, and not just a hunting party either. I saw two big males, one with an enormous dark mane, and cubs rolling around with each other, all in addition to the requisite lionesses.
“I counted fourteen,” Anne said, sounding pleased as I returned her scopes. “We’ll stop by so the guests can see them before heading out.”
“The Guests” were sixteen volunteers about to arrive from the Nairobi offices of the software giant Oracle. Oracle has been a huge supporter of AKTF’s Build-A-Boma project through National Geographic Big Cats Initiative and they wanted their employees to see the project first hand. Those who were coming had generously volunteered to get their hands dirty by actually erecting one of the fortified, predator-proof livestock enclosures (bomas) that they sponsor.
Since the main focus of NatGeo’s Build-A-Boma campaign is to protect big cats by eliminating the main source of conflict between them and humans, it seemed awfully decent of this particular pride of lions to show up and help welcome our visitors.
The Oracle volunteers felt the same way. Once they arrived and after everyone enthusiastically shook hands, we loaded into the waiting tour vehicles and two minutes later stopped next to the reposing pride. Watching the visitors from Nairobi photographing the lions, and hearing their laughter and gasps, I was reminded of the distressing fact that the opportunity to see African lions up close and in the wild is rapidly disappearing.
Human-wildlife conflict is causing extreme declines in almost all wildlife populations around Maasai Mara. For lions, most of the conflict arises when they are perceived to have killed livestock, and herders seek to revenge, or even to preempt, those losses by hunting lions. Providing a predator-proof space on the landscape through our Build-A-Boma projects helps to eliminate that source of friction between humans and their environment: if a lion is prevented from eating animals out of a boma, then the boma’s owner has less cause to kill lions.
On our way to the particular boma that the Oracle volunteers were to help build, we drove up the escarpment bordering Maasai Mara to gather some context for the challenges facing big cat conservation efforts – and conservation in general – in the area. Essentially: humans and wildlife needs, currently at odds.
The volunteers saw the thinning woodlands, spotted with raw stumps and bags of charcoal. And here and there were traditional bomas made from logs and brush, some with protective wire, but many without. All of this environmental destruction has prompted us at AKTF to develop new boma designs that use metal corners and high-tensile fencing wire rather than relying on dozens of posts made from local timber to support the protective structure. By visiting the homestead of Ole Saitoti of the AKTF Anti-Poaching Patrol Team, the volunteers got to experience firsthand how the disappearance of forests is affecting real people on the ground.
After that, we showed them one of the schools that AKTF has helped to build – a few short years ago there were thirty children under an acacia tree, but now there are more than three hundred in nine classrooms. In addition to protecting predators with fortified bomas, the long-term solution to human-wildlife conflict in the Mara involves providing environmental education as well as employable skills, giving the growing Maasai population alternatives to unsustainable herding practices. To that end, the Anti-Poaching Team spent some time explaining to the Oracle volunteers how AKTF is striving to keep people away from the easy yet extremely destructive livelihoods based on poaching and illegal logging.
Finally, after seeing the challenges that people and animals face in the Mara, and after touring several of the projects AKTF uses to overcome those challenges, the volunteers themselves got to do something about it all. Once we reached our worksite, they donned gloves, grabbed pliers, and worked shoulder to shoulder with AKTF’s Fortified Boma Team to build a predator-proof home for seven hundred sheep and goats.
The boma we built together was one of AKTF’s newly developed design, mentioned above, which involves steel corner posts sunk in concrete and wire mechanically tightened between them to make the walls of the enclosure. Though we use a few treated eucalyptus posts for stability along these fences, the entire structure requires fewer resources to construct, less maintenance attention than traditional structures, and absolutely no wood from threatened forests. Plus, their lifespan is expected to be at least 20 years, compared to 5 years for bomas built on wooden posts, and this is a more appropriate time frame for the currently sedentary Maasai in the Mara. Most importantly, these structures keep lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and honey badgers from being able to kill any livestock living within the fence, thereby protecting those predators from herders’ retaliation killings.
The Fortified Boma Team had already placed the enclosure’s steel corners in concrete the week before to ensure that they were dry and sturdy before the Oracle volunteers arrived. So with everyone there, what remained was to sink the wooden mid-posts, stretch high-tensile wire between the corners, to pull the chain-link mesh around the structure and bury it in a foot-deep trench at the base – and of course to corral some sheep into the structure. With everyone working, what would have taken our three-man Fortified Boma Team a full day to complete was accomplished in under four hours. We believe the Oracle volunteers may have a promising future in the boma-construction field!
We concluded the day with a game drive into the Reserve itself. It was the right note to end on: eighteen more lions scratching themselves on acacia trunks, elephants playing in the swamp, and a walking forest of giraffes. All of it reminding us what it is that we are fighting together to protect – a healthy ecosystem in which humans and wildlife coexist.
It was an incredible pleasure to spend time with the Oracle staff. We are very grateful to Oracle for the opportunity to share our work and passion, as well as for their partnership with NatGeo that makes our work possible.