Stephanie Dolrenry and Leela Hazzah were both in Kenya working to save endangered lions nearly a decade ago when they stumbled upon a surprising solution suggested by local Masai lion hunters. Instead of focusing only on the lions — an approach taken by most conservation groups — why not also enlist help from the people most intricately linked to them? In other words, why not let the Masai figure out how to retool their identity as some of the fiercest lion killers on the planet to become their protectors?

In 2007, Lion Guardians was born and has since grown into a conservation force to be reckoned with.

“When we first started, we weren’t sure if it would work,” said Dolrenry, now the group’s director of science. “We needed the warriors’ perceptions to shift, to see themselves as guardians of lions and no longer as lion hunters. This shift has happened.”

Today, Lion Guardians is not only helping replenish lion populations, but also improving the lives of people who co-exist with them. And the concept is spreading.

Living peacefully with lions

For centuries, the Masai used their nearly supernatural tracking skills to hunt lions across the East African savannas. Warriors gained status while keeping lion populations in check and protecting livestock and other game from being overhunted.

But in the past 65 years, the Masai’s ability to live in harmony with nature has teetered off balance. Africa’s big cats dwindled from an estimated 200,000 to less than 30,000 because of an influx of people and the loss of 75 percent of their habitat. The Masai were hit hard as desperate lions snatched more cows, donkeys, goats and other livestock from their rural farm settlements. In retaliation, they stepped up their attacks on lions, reducing populations even further.

Leela Hazzah and Stephanie Dolrenry

Leela Hazzah (left) and Stephanie Dolrenry (right) started Lion Guardians in 2007. (Photo: Philip J. Briggs/Lion Guardians)

Dolrenry and Hazzah, now executive director, set about devising a plan with warriors and community elders to halt this bloody downward spiral. The idea was to help young Masai warriors prove their bravery, not by killing lions as their fathers and grandfathers did, but by encouraging “sustainable coexistence” between humans and lions.

“Leela and I developed a model that blends hard science with Masai traditional knowledge and cultural practices,” Dolrenry said. “We developed it together with communities instead of coming in and presenting a conservation model. We believe this has led to its success and acceptance.”

Now, instead of warriors relying on their legendary skills to track lions and close in for a frenzied kill with spears, they are recruited and employed by Lion Guardians. They are taught to read, write and wield those same tracking skills, along with GPS and telemetry receivers, to monitor lions and record data about their movements. They warn herders to avoid areas where lions are roaming, help find lost livestock before it becomes prey, strengthen livestock enclosures, and work to calm down communities when livestock is attacked to prevent retaliatory lion killings.

Recording data
Lion Guardian Lemiti records GPS data where he found a collar signal. (Photo: Philip J. Briggs/Lion Guardians)

“Our guardians feel a sense of ownership over the lions they monitor,” Dolrenry said. “It’s the same type of strong bond that they have with their cows — it’s their livelihood, and it has become their reputation.”

Population on the rebound

What began as a small operation in 2007, with five Lion Guardians working across nearly 200 square miles near Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, has grown into a formidable force of 53 guardians helping thwart lion killings in almost 1,700 square miles in Kenya and Tanzania.

In 2013 alone, 92 percent of lost livestock was recovered in areas where Lion Guardians patrol the savannas, and 59 lion hunts were prevented or halted. In fact, no lions were killed in Lion Guardians territories last year, and since 2007, only five lions have been destroyed in these areas compared with more than 100 in surrounding lands. 

Best of all, lions are beginning to make a comeback.

“Since 2009, we’ve watched lion populations increase in the Amboseli ecosystem in Kenya,” Dolrenry said.  “We want to see this happen elsewhere.”

The power of connection

LionLion survival depends on genetic diversity. That means many lion prides must be able to intermingle freely to lend an ample cross-section of DNA. The only way to ensure that is to guarantee large swaths of contiguous territory for lions to roam and hunt — a problem, because formally protected lands aren’t big enough, or connected enough, right now to sustain vast lion populations.

That’s why Lion Guardians has begun teaming up with like-minded organizations in adjacent regions to cobble together and monitor enough nonprotected land to support several lion prides.

“Over the next five years, our primary focus will be to enhance the movement and survival of lions between southern Kenya and Tanzania, and to train partners to implement our model in other areas,” Dolrenry said. “Lions must be able to survive and disperse through nonprotected areas, and seeing this happen first in East Africa, and then elsewhere, is our main goal.”

Related on MNN:

Lion photo: Philip J. Briggs/Lion Guardians
From hunters to protectors: The Lion Guardians and a story of changing perceptions
Conservation group Lion Guardians has helped East Africa’s Masai tribesmen bring back the big cats and better their own lives.