This is the second part of a feature on Jeneria Lekilelei, Ewaso Lions Field Operations and Community Manager. Click here to read Part 1.
You came up with the idea behind Ewaso Lions’ flagship outreach program Warrior Watch. Can you explain your motivation for this program and its progress since its launch in 2010?
I came up with the idea for Warrior Watch after I saw the challenges we were facing to keep lions safe. A warrior’s job is to protect livestock, and when livestock are killed it’s the warriors who need to respond. The only way we can succeed in protecting lions is to get the warriors involved in conservation decision-making. We can make them ambassadors to keep lions safe.
Since 2010, the program is progressing very well. We have not lost any lions in Westgate since 2010 because of my warriors.
When I was a Scout several years ago, I would never see tracks. Now, the tracks are all over. Lions are now present in Westgate. This is progress. There is a tolerance to lions now. People have accepted it. The message has spread and the warriors have changed people. I bump into a random warrior and he will stop me and say, “There are lions there.”
The role I play in Warrior Watch is to give the warriors supervision, leadership and guidance. I help them to become like myself. I want them to talk, talk, talk about lions non-stop like I do. I give them the details about why we need lions here. I say to them, “We need to protect lions. Look how far you have come. You can read and write now. Before, there was nothing.” I also coordinate with the warriors based on lions’ movements. Then they can to go to bomas [livestock enclosures] and talk about lions and tell people not to kill lions, and to also avoid the areas with lions.
On a number of occasions you have been successful in preventing community members from killing lions following incidents of livestock predation. Can you explain how you have approached conflict situations like this and managed to resolve them peacefully?
The first thing I do is to try to find a way to stop people from going after the lions. You just have to stop them. I say, “We have already lost a cow. We will lose two things if you kill that lion”. You need to build a relationship with the people and understand how they feel when they lose a cow. I see their pain, and I know myself how painful it is.
I let them understand that I feel the same as them. People respond to that. After that, I identify the people who might go after the lions to kill them. They may be the people who control the others. Sit with them, look straight in to their eyes and speak to them calmly. Let them understand the general lion situation. They see the tracks of one lion moving round and round and think that these are the tracks of 100 lions. They don’t know that there is only one lion or that we have so few left.
I also tell them how the rhinos are far away now and how we lost them by killing them. Now we pay money to see those rhinos. There are lots of places now named after those animals we have lost, like Mugur Muny (“rhino dam”). I say, “Let’s not lose lions the way we lost the other animals.” I tell them that we only have 40 lions within this whole region. I put all the cultural things together with conservation issues so that they get the whole picture.
I talk as a warrior and as a Samburu so they know that I understand how they feel. They then calm down. I don’t leave them alone after that. Instead, I communicate with them all the time. I call them on phone and make friends with them. They need to know that I still care about them.
You spend a lot of time in the field and monitor approximately 40 lions. Do you have a favorite lion?
Nanai is my favorite lioness. When she was born in 2010, she joined two others, her cousins. The other two were very active and always on a hunting mission or sleeping. Nanai was very calm and she was very beautiful. She is very quiet and never bothers the others. She would follow the rest. I would sometimes feel sorry for her because she was always the last, whether she was looking for food or just walking.
Can you describe your most memorable encounter with a lion(s)?
Wow. There is one. I woke up at 5am and it was during Lguret’s collaring. I went all through Samburu and Buffalo Springs for days looking for Lguret. The vet was there and he said he would leave if he didn’t find the lion. Finally, at 4 pm we found Lguret sitting near the main road. Everyone was tired and exhausted. I stood for hours looking for him. Anytime I pass that area now, I always remember him sitting there.
I also discovered how clever lions are. One day we found male lions, very scared. Normally they are so calm, so I knew something was wrong. After looking closely, we saw blood all over their legs. We followed their tracks back and found they had killed a camel. The lions were scared because they killed livestock so they knew they were in trouble. I learned that lions also know when they make a mistake.
I remember finding Naramat after she had disappeared for many years. I was so excited because we know all the lions and we may miss them for a month or a few weeks, but I’ve never identified a lioness after she disappeared for three years.
What was the most difficult moment for you?
When Loirish was killed, that was my worst moment. I had known this lion for so many years and we had been following him. He had become part of my family. When he died, it was like I was missing one of my relatives. Seeing his head burned, I felt like a human being had died. I went to that community who killed Loirish and I really fought with them. That was the negative side of my work. It was something I will never forget.
What do lions mean to you?
Lions are my life. I have given my brothers all my cows to look after back home. Lions are my cows now.
Through your work you have travelled beyond Kenya. What has been your favorite conservation-related experience outside of Kenya?
I have had the chance to travel internationally, beginning with the United States. I didn’t think I would ever go there in my life. It was my first time on a plane, and I didn’t think it would leave the ground because it was so big!
Facing all these challenges in Samburu, you feel lonely. You are stressed by the community, stressed by people wanting to kill lions. Then I met all these people in the U.S. who support me and who care about wildlife. This gave me a lot of strength. I don’t feel lonely anymore because people support what I do.
I met famous people like Jane Goodall who have already passed through these challenges and are still doing conservation work. She is amazing and has been doing this for so long. That’s when I decided that one day I will say, “I have worked with lions for over 50 years”.
I also visited our partners from Niassa Lions in Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique. They work 24 hours a day, like us. They go through huge bushes the whole day making sure lions are safe. Exchanging knowledge with the community in Niassa has given me hopes that I will be able to face whatever comes for the lions, because I know I am not the only one.
In your eyes, what do you think has been Ewaso Lions’ biggest achievement to date?
We have achieved a lot. Having lions live safely in the community area is our biggest achievement. Even children and women tell us that lions are moving through the village. We know that people won’t go track and kill the lions.
For Samburus, lions have been such problem animals. To see the community members coming to say sorry when we lost a lion like Loirish was a huge thing. To get a Samburu person to say sorry is the biggest success for me, being a Samburu. It means our work is working.
To be known globally is a big achievement as well. We got the Whitley Award and also the National Geographic Emerging Explorers award. This means that we are getting recognized internationally for the great job we are doing.
What are your hopes for the future of Ewaso Lions?
I hope Ewaso Lions will exist forever to educate the Samburu people. I also hope we expand to new areas. One of the challenges we face now is in faraway places where there is no conservation. When people from those places come here, we are challenged because they don’t understand conservation. When we expand to other areas, those people can be changed too. And if we expand, then there is hope for lions in all of northern Kenya.