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Community-Based Conservation Saves Big Cats in Iconic African Park

Text and photos by Kate and Marcus Westberg

The Masai Mara is a place of great beauty and drama where people and wildlife live side by side. While having a savannah full of wildlife on your doorstep seems amazing to us, living with lions is never easy.

With the generous support of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, the Anne K. Taylor Fund (AKTF) team is helping to reduce the growing conflict between humans and wild animals by fortifying Maasai livestock enclosures, or bomas, with wire fencing.

Anne and her team encourage and assist the local Maasai to be actively involved in conservation, building a sense of trust through community work that includes building schools, feeding children and introducing solar power.

Building better bomas

Cattle, along with shoats (sheep and goats), are the primary livelihood of the Maasai, who value livestock above all else. The risk of retaliatory killings of marauding lions and other big predators is high when there is so much to lose.

A traditional boma made of thorn trees is a frail defence against attack from predators who are hungry for their next meal or need to feed their family. Herders tell us that they are often forced to keep watch all night with the threat of wild animals lurking just outside the firelight.

Fencing livestock enclosures with wire barriers keeps predators at bay and livestock safe from harm. Wire fencing provided by AKTF is used to fortify the boma, with two-feet underground and six to ten-feet above. This prevents lions from pushing through, leopards climbing over and honey badgers and hyenas digging underneath.

Herders tell us that they can now sleep peacefully knowing that their livestock is being protected. At this time, over two hundred bomas have been fortified and the wire fencing continues to be 100% successful in preventing predation when it has been installed properly.

A leopard recently broke into an unprotected boma where it decimated a herd of shoats. In revenge, Maasai warriors from the local village hunted down the leopard and shot it with a bow and arrow. Sadly, this terrible loss on both sides could have been prevented if the boma had been fortified.

The demand for chainlink fencing is growing by the day, with an increasing amount of requests flooding in from Maasai livestock owners who have seen with their own eyes the effectiveness of building better bomas.

Protection against poachers

The anti-poaching team are passionate about protecting the rich and diverse wildlife of the Masai Mara, working against all odds to track down poachers, remove snares and rescue trapped or injured wildlife from a slow and horrible death.

While on patrol with Elias Kamande and his team, we discovered a poacher camp filled with old bones and a recently slaughtered buffalo. The poor animal had been driven into a dry riverbed and speared to death. We quickly went in pursuit of the poachers, but unfortunately they escaped into a nearby forest.

Photo: Maasai boma

Secured bomas provide better protection to wildlife.

Elias tells us that poachers have been taking advantage of the heavy rains to hunt on foot, while the anti-poaching team has been battling against terrible road conditions and knee-deep mud to help save wild animals from terrible injuries caused by snares, arrows, or spears.

Walking back to the car we met a pair of big male lions prowling through the tall grass. With beating hearts we stood our ground, but they soon moved off at the sight of us. It was breathtaking to be so close to these magnificent creatures in the wild, an animal whose very existence is being threatened.

A brighter future

It was a joy to visit the Oloomongi school and see all of the happy, smiling faces of the Maasai children. Everyone wanted to be photographed and a crowd of eager students quickly surrounded us.

The teachers tell us that the children are staying in school longer and getting better grades with the school lunch program, as they are now able to focus on their study without feeling tired or hungry. The Insta porridge provides the energy and sustenance they need to make it through the day.

The new classroom, after much hard work and a few delays due to the heavy rain, has been completed in time for the first term, opening its doors to many more children who will have a brighter future through education.

Power to the people

After sunset the Masai Mara is covered in a blanket of darkness except for the glowing of firelight from the inside of huts. Together with Solar Aid, AKTF is bringing renewable energy to the Maasai, using the power of the sun.

So far, solar systems have been installed in two schools, allowing for longer hours, evening classes and after-school study sessions. Solar power is also being used to set up income-generating activities to go towards textbooks, classroom furniture, and improving school buildings.

There is a high demand for clean and affordable light in the homes of the surrounding Maasai villages, with part of the profit from household solar going back into the feeding program at the school.

Clean cooking

Biofuel made out of cow dung is another energy-producing project that has everyone in the village talking. Rather than chopping down firewood, the Maasai can produce biogas from the manure from their cows. This keeps the village, or manyatta, cleaner by recycling waste and is much more eco-friendly.

The Maasai women tell us that using a gas cooker to prepare food and boil water saves them from having to walk long distances in search of firewood, giving them more time to do other chores and look after their children.

Getting a green thumb

The women’s horticulture project involves sack gardens that are low cost, easy to put together and simple to maintain with a little care. The vegetables grown this way add much-needed nutrition to the traditional Maasai diet of blood, milk, and meat.

Planting in a sack prevents wildlife such as eland, buffalo, and impala from raiding the garden, thereby decreasing the risk of revenge killings by poisoning or spearing. The Maasai women tell us that they can now feed their children without worrying that all their hard work will be destroyed.

Photo: Children in Masai Mara

Conservation strategies also seek to educate and improve the lives of local children. Ultimately, local people must benefit from healthy ecosystems.

Cultural craftwork

The women’s beading project, led by Joseph Mpatiany and his wife Regina, provides much-needed work and community support while following a tradition that has lasted for generations passed on from mother to daughter. Maasai women from different villages come together to make brightly coloured hand-beaded bracelets in intricate patterns.

This beautiful beadwork is then sold to individuals and FEED projects, which in turn feeds millions of children in Kenya and elsewhere through the UN World Food Programme.

Yearn to learn

AKTF also conducts adult education classes, including English, mathematics and Kiswahili, along with lessons on how to run a small business. Enoch Mobisa, who runs the classes, tells us that the teaching embraces the Maasai way of life while encouraging the community to adapt to modern-day Kenya.

Care for the community

At the heart of all the wonderful work done by Anne and her team lies the importance of saving wildlife. The local lion pride has just welcomed a new litter of cubs that is heart-warming to see. Protecting livestock enclosures to prevent predation and the resultant retaliatory killings, gives these lions a better chance of survival.

Community support is essential for the success of the boma project, which is why AKTF is so active in the local community. Working together with the Maasai is the only way to bring about real and lasting change and, in doing so, protect the big cats.

Kate and Marcus Westberg work with the Anne K. Taylor FundFor more photographs and stories from Marcus & Kate, please visit www.lifethroughalens.org

Comments

  1. kashu
    Loita/ Olorte
    February 14, 2012, 2:15 am

    Great piece of work! Gorgeous photos! Thanks Marcus for sharing your experience of the Mara!

  2. Austen Nazareno
    United States
    February 10, 2012, 9:08 pm

    +1 for the big cats! Helping people in Africa as well? I’m glad to support BCI!

  3. Terry
    USA
    February 10, 2012, 2:16 pm

    Great to see the Initiative is working! Very well written article. Nice to know how helping people so much will ultimately save the cats! It is a win win all the way around!

  4. patti
    n.wildwood nj
    February 10, 2012, 10:51 am

    Thankyou for these beautiful pictures of the Masai Mara..

  5. Tina
    Sweden
    February 10, 2012, 8:17 am

    Beautiful pictures and inspiring text. Well done Kate and Marcus!

  6. carl
    Biot, France
    February 9, 2012, 6:54 pm

    Beautiful photos and interesting stories. Suddenly, Masai Mara seems quite close.
    Thank you for sharing

  7. Lena
    Italy
    February 8, 2012, 4:20 pm

    Fantastic report from the field. Love the photos as well! All very inspiring.