There's nothing like falling asleep to the sound of lions. As hundreds of tourists flock to the Maasai Mara to do just that, they’re also most likely witnessing the lowest number of lions in this reserve in history.
When night falls, the Maasai will oftentimes lead their livestock into the reserve to graze, due to expanding settlements encroaching on available pasture areas. When desperate, they’ll enter the reserve in broad daylight. In the parks, it’s not uncommon for them to encounter a hyena or lion, which results in livestock being eaten. Otherwise, lions will wander into the surrounding areas of the reserves and easily break through poorly-constructed livestock enclosures. Retaliatory attacks then follow, resulting in gruesome deaths of a species that is already struggling to survive the threat of unchecked human settlements and severe habitat loss.
This may look like an idyllic scene, however it shows one of the symptoms of a greater problem that leads to many lion deaths. It’s when lions and livestock compete for space.
A cheap and accessible pesticide called Furadan is commonly used to administer retaliatory attacks. This highly toxic carbamate- which is banned in the EU and the United States- is easily purchased in Africa, and just as easily used in the murder plots of defenceless lions.
A carcass will be laced with poison, and any creature that consumes a small trace amount will surely die. Death may not be instant- strength will be lost, emaciation may slowly occur, and the weakness disables them from defending themselves from others including buffalo and hyena. Soon, they'll become extremely ill and then eventually die. Antidotes that veterinarians carry are not strong enough to reverse the deathly effects of these carbamates.
It’s not uncommon for a whole pride to become poisoned by one carcass. This is what happened in December 2015 to the Marsh Pride lions, the stars of the Big Cat Diaries. The Five Musketeers of Namibia, who starred in National Geographic's Vanishing Kings, also died in this way in August 2016. Of course, these are just the well-reported cases- many more lions fall prey to these regular attacks, which have significantly contributed to their fast falling numbers.
The poison is passed on through the lion's carcass to scavengers including hyena and vultures, whom will also die, creating significant disruption to the balance of the ecosystem. Poison is a significant contributor to the rapid decline of vultures in Africa.
The lion population has plummeted by a third in a mere 20 years. It's estimated that there are now fewer than 20,000 wild lions in Africa.
Most livestock enclosures, or bomas, as they are commonly called, are poorly constructed with acacia branches and thorns. Lions are known to easily break through or jump over these flimsy structures to get to hundreds of cattle, sheep and goat that form the essence of a pastoralist’s livelihood.
Fortified enclosures made from planted acacia trees combined with chain link fences have been erected through various NGO projects and have so far proven effective in keeping lions out. The barrier to scaling this design is the cost- a fence of this type is unaffordable for most pastoralists, and so these initiatives are currently heavily dependent on NGO funding.
Ghosts in the darkness: flashing lights and painted eyes
Automated flashing lights hooked up to car batteries and solar panels have also shown positive results in deterring these cats from livestock enclosures, though again, these systems are generally dependent on funding by limited resources of NGOs. A much more affordable measure entails painting eyes on the back of cattle based on observations that lions will sometimes abandon a hunt if they’re aware they’ve been spotted. This is currently being trialled, though even if it does work, it may just be a matter of time before these intelligent creatures discern that their easy meals are in fact, merely tattooed with black paint.
Lion-proof enclosures, controlled grazing zones, greater regulation, and more incentives for the Maasai to live peacefully around lions can help to ensure that livelihoods are maintained while lions are not unnecessarily killed. While communities are being compensated for the loss of livestock due to predation, preventative measures including improved monitoring, education initiatives, livelihood alternatives and greater law enforcement is required to make a more sustainable impact.
If we want faster action, we may need to rely on the power of private conservancies to provide lions with more safe spaces to live and give these cats a chance to increase their numbers.
As with most interventions run by government, councils and non-profits, progress will be slow. If we want fast action, we may need to rely on the power of private conservancies to ensure the lions have more safe spaces to live which may give these cats a chance to increase their numbers. Until then, we watch on as the cat who is supposed to be at the top of the food chain- and all due to human activity- descends right down to the bottom.