A piece of heartbreaking news comes from Kenya, the wildlife haven of the world. One of Africa’s oldest lions, Loonkiito, died. Sadly, not of natural causes; he was killed. And Loonkiito was not alone. In all, 10 lions have been killed recently, including six on Saturday alone.
The deaths of the magnificent big cats are a result of rising man-animal conflict. But what’s going on in the Horn of Africa, where people are known to live in harmony with lions, sharing land and resources?
The killing of Loonkiito and other lions
Loonkiito, believed to be one of the oldest African lions in the world, was killed after being speared by herders. The 19-year-old died in Olkelunyiet village, bordering the famous Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya on Wednesday.
Loonkiito was attacked after he preyed on livestock that belongs to villagers. Paul Jinaro, spokesperson of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), a government-established body that conserves and manages wildlife in the country, told the BBC that the lion was old and frail and wandered into the village from the park in search of food.
As predators age and lose their strength, cattle make for easy prey. Loonkiito was starving and he ventured out of the protected area looking for food. He entered a livestock pen and was killed by the owner.
However, Loonkiito was not an isolated case. At least nine other lions have been killed in the last week or so with six deaths reported on Saturday.
According to KWS, like Loonkiito, the other lions were also killed by herders. The pride attacked 11 goats and a dog in the village the previous night. A “total of 10 lions have been killed in the Amboseli ecosystem” since last week.
This is “an unusually large number of lions to be killed at one go,” a KWS spokesperson told CNN.
This photo provided by Lion Guardians shows the male lion Loonkiito in Amboseli National Park, in southern Kenya in February. He was 19. Philip J Briggs/Lion Guardians via AP
The lions were all part of Kajiado County’s Amboseli ecosystem, a UNESCO biosphere reserve site near Mount Kilimanjaro, according to the United Nations.
Lion Guardians, a Maasai-operated group that works to conserve the king of the jungle, said that the killing of Loonkiito was a “tough situation for both sides, the people and the lion”. It eulogised him as “a symbol of resilience and coexistence”.
The biting drought
The deaths of lions have put the spotlight on the man-animal conflict in the region. In traditional Maasai society, killing lions was a rite of passage. But conservation efforts have changed attitudes and helped the economy, bringing jobs and income to the region.
The recent increase in man-animal conflict has been because of the drought. The East African nation is facing its worst drought in 40 years after five consecutive rainy seasons have failed.
Wild lions at Amboseli National Park in Kenya. There are an estimated 2,500 lions in the country, according to the first national wildlife census conducted in 2021. File photo/AFP
The end of a drought is often marked by a rise in man-animal conflict, according to Lion Guardians. As wild prey recovers, it becomes difficult to hunt them. As lions become hungry and “desperate”, they tend to hunt livestock, it said.
Livestock owners are aware of this trend and hence are more vigilant in such situations.
But it is not lions alone. Even elephants, wild buffaloes, hyenas and other animals wander into human settlements in search of food and water amid a harsh drought. Those living around wildlife reserves complain that predators like lions, leopards and other carnivores kill livestock and domestic animals.
Locals depend on livestock for a livelihood. David Leiyan, a 41-year-old local from Samburu East in northern Kenya, called for government intervention after 33 of his sheep and goat were killed by wild animals, according to a report by Down to Earth.
Pois Lenabori, a chief in Samburu East in Kenya, told the publication in January this year, “Cases of marauding elephants killing locals are now common. I have had to call officials from Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) on several occasions to recapture stray elephants, buffalo, lions, and hyenas roaming freely as they search for food and water and wreak havoc in villages”.
A man from the Maasai pastoralist community affected by the worsening drought due to the failed rainy season walks past his emaciated cattle. This year, Kenya faced its worst drought in 40 years. File phot0/Reuters
KWS has acknowledged the rise in man-animal conflict. It said back then that the dry spell displaced wildlife from their habitat in search of pasture and water, increasing contact with the public.
The suffering in Kenya is two ways and needs to stop.
A harmonious coexistence?
After the recent killings of lions, KWS held talks with locals and government officials to find solutions to save both human lives and wildlife. “The discussions centered on exploring ways to minimise the risk of human-wildlife conflict, including developing early warning systems to alert communities to the presence of wildlife in their vicinity,” said KWS.
KWS Board of Trustees Chair and Director General hold meeting with local community in Mbirikani Amboseli, to address Human-Wildlife Conflict in Kajiado South Sub County pic.twitter.com/IwZ4j5AJme
— Kenya Wildlife Service (@Kwskenya) May 13, 2023
According to the body, it also spoke about “exploring human-wildlife conflict in the context of community livelihoods and benefit sharing towards a harmonious coexistence in the open community and wildlife landscapes”.
Tourism minister Peninah Malonza also met locals in the Mbirikani area on Sunday and urged them not to spear wandering lions and to instead reach out to the wildlife service. The government and conservation groups have a compensation programme for herders whose livestock is killed by wild animals.
But the herders too have become more protective after losing their livestock to drought.
After hearing about Loonkiito’s death, Paula Kahumbu, a wildlife conservationist and chief executive officer of WildlifeDirect, told the BBC, “This is the breaking point for human-wildlife conflict and we need to do more as a country to preserve lions, which are facing extinction.”
There are an estimated 2,500 lions in Kenya, according to the country’s first national wildlife census conducted in 2021.
With inputs from agencies