Number of the felines has gone down by a half since the 1950s

By: JOEL REYIA

The sun had just set over the Siria Escarpment, and darkness was descending over the expansive Mara plains. Saitoti Lewantai was squatting under a tree outside his boma, cutting up some roast meat with his simi and handing the pieces to five other warriors encircling him. They ate slowly, each man thinking of the task that lay ahead.

The Eunoto ceremony, during which warriors graduate to junior elders, was due in a few weeks and each one of them wanted to make a name for himself. To prove their mettle, they had to kill a lion. After finishing their meal, they sprang to their feet.

Lewantai led the way and the others fell in step behind him. They followed an old cattle track that meandered through sparse acacia and woodland. By: the time the full moon was out at 9 pm, they were only halfway through their journey, the huge boulders of Kirindon visible in the distance.

Soon they came to a familiar spot on the bank of the River Mara. It was a favourite camping spot for warriors on hunting expeditions in the Mara. They thrust their spears into the ground and settled down for their night.

At dawn, the cry of the southern ground hornbill shattered the eerie silence. Lewantai woke up and immediately moved to rouse the others. But to his utter disappointment, two warriors were missing.

He mobilised the remaining men and they started out on the second leg of the journey. The Mara River’s copper-coloured waters were turbulent, thanks to a heavy downpour in the Mau Forest, but they found a good spot where they could cross it. The vast Maasai Mara conservancy stretched before their eyes, quiet and magical in the early morning light. A gale was blowing silently across the plain, shaking the feathery pods of the tawny grass.

SPIRITED FIGHT

They went past herds of zebras, gnus, antelopes and gazelles grazing. When the animals caught their scent, they ran helter-skelter.

The moon had receded and only a silvery ray of light illuminated their way. But they could now make out the dense shrubs and elephant grass. Lewantai knew that was the gorge. Its domineering look sent shivers down his spine. The gorge was the largest birthing ground for the big cats in the Mara ecosystem.

After a while, Lewantai gave his brother, Moisited Swankei, a sidelong glance. Olamayio, the lion-killing expedition, is not for the lily-livered. Even the bravest of warriors have to prepare very well. And part of the preparation meant going with someone who would not turn his back on you when the worst happened. Swakei returned the look, determination written on his face.

Nearer the gorge, the smell of rotting flesh assailed their nostrils. Carcasses lay all around. As they approached the spot, scavenging birds quickly flew away.

To announce their arrival, the warriors broke into a choral chant, their spears at the ready. Within metres of the gorge, they came across a lioness leading three cubs. On seeing them, the animals melted into the shrubbery. But they were not interested in it anyway. They were looking for a cantankerous old male that would put up a real spirited fight.

Suddenly, they heard a mighty roar. Lewantai felt the earth tremble, as he himself trembled visibly. Meanwhile, two other warriors fell to the ground and when they got back on their feet, they threw their spears away and fled in panic. Moisitet also seemed ready to run, but a barrage of insults from Lewantai saw him steel his nerves.

The duo inched forward slowly, and just ahead of them was the biggest lion Lewantai had ever seen. He figured it must have weighed at least 500 pounds. The mane had turned from tawny to dark brown with age. Enraged, it began to move around in a circle, marking its territory.

“A fight with a lion lasts only seconds, so capitalise on each second,” Lewantai recalled his father having told him, as he clasped his spear tighter and prepared to throw it at the beast.

Then, in a flash Lewantai threw his spear, but the lion had been keenly watching him and quickly got out of harm’s way. The spear landed on the moist ground, sinking half-way in The beast lunged at him, and he instinctively thrust his left arm forward, bent at the elbow to shield his face. The lion sank its teeth into his arm

The struggle, indeed, lasted only seconds before the lion suddenly grew weary and vanished, with Moisitet’s spear sticking from its back as Lewantai lay groaning in a pool of blood. His shuka was in tatters, but Moisitet had managed to get the beast of him by spearing it in the back; it most likely died.

With difficulty, Moisitet helped him up and they began the miserable journey back home. They were no longer thinking about fame. All they could think of was how to get Lewantai to hospital as quickly as possible. Ewuaso Ng’iro Sub-district Hospital was only a few kilometres away to the east, but they dared not go there for fear of running into Kenya Wildlife Service rangers.

In the past, they would bribe the rangers, but with stricter rules, especially the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013, they could not. Their progress was painfully slow. Lewantai’s wounds hurt with every step, especially the one in the small of his back. After crossing the river, they chanced upon herders who helped carry Lewantai using a shuka as a stretcher.

Luckily, after a few minutes, they found a vehicle which rushed him to hospital. For the remainder of the preparations for graduation period, Lewantai was in hospital. When he was discharged, he swore never to go lion hunting again.

Eunoto, the Maasai rite of passage that encourages the killing of lions as a show of courage, is one of many retrogressive African cultures that threaten Africa’s wildlife. In many African cultures, animal products such as feathers, horns, tusks, as well as hides and skins were used for various purposes. This invariably meant killing an animal bearing the product. These cultures, coupled with poaching and trophy hunting, have greatly decimated the populations of African wildlife.

Among the Kalenjin people, initiates roamed the country during the period circumcision initiates were secluded from society, killing animals indiscriminately. Any initiate who did not kill an animal or bird would be ridiculed.

These practices have been there since time immemorial and passed down generations. The Samburu have been killing lions to protect their cattle, their source of livelihood for hundreds of years, according to Tim Noonan, award-winning Australian filmmaker, journalist and cameraman. As for the Maasai, their encounters with the beasts are to recorded in lyrical accounts of early explorers and missionaries such as Joseph Thompson’s Through Maasailand.

And according to Defenders of Wildlife, it is the main factor that has led to the decline in lion populations in Kenya.

The lion’s mane and the tail are placed on the tips of the spears of the morans who first speared it. Upon arriving back home, the mane is beaded and woven into a headdress which is worn by the “owner” during the ceremony. The tail is also stretched, softened and used in beading.

In Northern Tanzania, the fast decline in lion populations has also been attributed to habitat loss and conflict with pastoralist communities. At some point last year, conservationists at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area estimated that two lions were killed per month in the Serengeti National Park, both as part of the coming-of-age ritual and due to conflict with humans.

In the past, Maasai morans used to hunt lions individually. Every warrior who wanted to graduate would hunt down a male lion and take its claws and mane as trophies. But with the gradual decline in lion numbers, elders started discouraging the practice, so hunting became a group affair, with up to10 warriors working together to kill one lion.

According to renowned Kenyan ecologist Dr Paula Kahumba, lions could be extinct in the next decade due to their indiscriminate killing and poisoning by local communities.

“We have lost like 50 to 70 per cent of the range on which lions can occur,” she said in an Earth News documentary.

Other animals such as the black rhinocerous, Grevy’s zebra, the Tana River mangabey, the sable antelope and the cheetah, among others, are now endangered. The lion, which has all along been ranked as vulnerable, could soon join the list.

A majestic animal, the lion is the second largest of the feline species, coming after the tiger. But despite its value to African tourism, it has been hunted down since the colonial days. Apart from being killed for cultural purposes, they are also used as household decorations by trophy hunters and bred for commercial purposes.

CECIL THE LION

Male Lions also contribute to reduced populations by killing cubs when the dominant male dies to encourage the females to mate with them. Young cubs are vulnerable to predators like hyenas, leopards and black-back jackals.

The recent killing of the famous lion, Cecil, in Zimbabwe by an American dentist, sent shock waves throughout the world. The act brought under scrutiny the role of trophy hunters in conservation. Consequently, the Born Free Foundation has called on the United States Fish and Wildlife service to declare lions endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Statistics show that about a century ago, there were some 200,000 lions roaming in Africa. The figure has dropped to fewer than than 30,000 in recent years, according to Born Free Foundation, while Defenders of Wildlife put the number at just 21,000. The animals, which have been used as symbols of power, courage and nobility on many crests, coats of arms and national flags, have disappeared from at least 12 African countries and only inhabit only 8 per cent of their historical range.

Last year, August 10 was declared the World Lion Day and is to be marked annually. The tragic death of Cecil in Zimbabwe has created an international cause for action to protect the few remaining lions from possible extinction in the next decade.

Listing under the Endangered Species Act would offer significant protection to lions in their natural habitat by prohibiting wounding, harming, harassing ortrade in lions and their products, and would certainly be a welcome move.

FACTS ABOUT LIONS

Population

In the 1940s, an estimated 450,000 lions roamed around Africa and parts of Asia.

Their population has been reduced by half since 1950.

Size

Height: 1.2m, males.Length: 1.5-2.4m, males Weight: 150-227 kg, (males).In general, female lions are smaller than males.Lifespan: 10-14 years.Top speed: 81 km/hr, for short distances

Reproduction

Mating Season: Throughout the year.

Gestation: Around 110 days.

Litter size: 3-4 cubs. The cubs begin hunting at 11 months but remain with their mother for at least two years.

Diet

They feed on a wide variety of prey including impala, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, buffalo and hippos. When food is scarce they can feed on small animals such as hares, birds and reptiles. In extreme cases, they join forces and attack elephants.

Behaviour

They live in groups called prides and are the only social members of the cat family. A prides consist of about 15 members, with related females and cubs making up the majority. Young males eventually leave and establish their own prides by taking over a group headed by another male. The males are territorial and use scent to mark their territory. Almost all the hunting is done by the females as they are lighter and swifter than the males.

Range map

In the past, lions were found in Greece, the Middle East and northern India. Today, only a very small population remains in northern India. In Africa, they are confined to the sub-Saharan region.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION