The Maasai warriors of Tanzania are known around the world for their tradition of hunting lions. When a young warrior kills a lion, he is celebrated for his courage and skill in the face of a powerful beast. But as the human population grows, the lions are disappearing. The Maasai of the Tanzanian steppe now have a decision to make: to carry on tradition as is or to turn that age-old respect into protection. Two men, one lion-slayer and one young guardian, share their stories on how they came to protect the big cats in their communities.
By Deirdre Leowinata
“If we wanted to kill the lion, we had to find someone we knew. It was necessary to find a friend who was not afraid, who could help – and then the lion didn’t escape”. Early one morning in the year 1998, Julius Laizer was called upon to be that friend.
The Maasai people of Tanzania and Kenya are said to be one of the last remaining cultures that haven’t allowed their traditions to be significantly affected by the outside world. In that, they are commonly known for three main things: their bold attire, their fondness for cattle, and their lion hunts.
For the Maasai, the lion hunt is a celebration of bravery reflecting their reverence and respect for the big cat as a primary foe. However, their relationship with the lion has become increasingly turbulent as the pastoralists confront an ever more populated landscape where conflicts between people and wildlife are on the rise. Warriors often put down their spears, replacing them with poison and guns. With lion populations plummeting across many parts of the continent, one spot on Tanzania’s Maasai Steppe shows refreshing signs of a recovering lion population and a Maasai community in a locally-motivated transition.
Julius Laizer is a Maasai elder living in the sprawling rangelands of Emboret. At just 23 years of age, he speared his first lion. Lucas Lengoje, who is 24 now, is one of the African People & Wildlife Fund’s Warriors for Wildlife, an important component of the Maasai Steppe Big Cats Conservation Initiative. The two men are warriors of different generations, and have chosen different paths, but both have put their spears down for a road that ensures their children don’t speak of a time when lions once roamed the steppe.
“If lions are around, and our children are able to see them, I can say it will be good for me — I will have gotten my reward,” says Lucas, who already has four wives as per his family traditions. For Lucas, getting a job as a Big Cat Conflict Officer was the tipping point in his switch from hunter to defender. Not yet a full warrior, he has already made a decision that changes his entire way of life. In contrast, Julius was celebrated as a lion slayer at the same age, and a lucky photo of the celebration still hangs on his wall, though years have worn its original color.
What ties the two together is the one thing that keeps the lions out: Living Walls. An idea birthed from a combination of community knowledge and modern tools, the simple chain-link structure intertwined with Commiphora africana trees has played a big role in the changing attitudes of the Maasai people here.
“Since we installed the fence, we have not had any animals attack our livestock. Me, I installed mine in 2012*…and after that many people started asking me how I got the fence.” Julius was one of the first community members in Emboret to install a Living Wall.
For Lucas, who is (pardon the pun) on the other side of the fence, the walls make his job a lot easier. “First of all, I can say that people are now aware that there are solutions for human-wildlife conflict, because, even right now, these fences, the Living Walls…they help a lot. That’s why many people right now are asking for them to prevent the wild animals from entering their bomas.”
In his home village of Narakauwo, Lucas is the first one on the scene if a cow or a goat is attacked. He is tasked with the considerable challenge of explaining why lions shouldn’t be hunted. “Lions, they are very important for us Maasai. If someone kills a lion, it can be very significant to them,” he says.
The tradeoff for vengeance and fame is peace with the animal they have clashed with for generations. But is that enough?
In the image hanging on the wall in Julius’ house, he holds the lion’s front paw, the customary prize for the second spearman, while his friend, the first, holds the tail. He has experienced firsthand the glory of the Maasai lion slayer, but has chosen a different future for the next generation of his family. Here, near the eastern edge of Tarangire National Park, the celebrated wild animals of this country frequent the farms and homesteads of the people who live nearby. The idea of a lion, a leopard, or a pack of hyenas paying your home a visit in the night may sound exciting, perhaps even welcome to some. But when your livelihood depends on the targets of those visits, it can become more than a little difficult to live with them.
Today, the warriors of the steppe have come to a very real crossroad: to keep fighting back with spears, poison and guns, until the lions are perhaps all gone, or to embrace new methods of protecting their livestock. With support from the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative and other partners, 350 Living Walls are now in place, impacting 7,000 people with countless requests for more.
It seems for many, peace with the lions is worth the effort.
*In the original interview, Julius Laizer mentioned that his wall was built in 2007, but after a fact check we have changed the year to 2012, the year it was actually built.
Kideghesho, J.R., Rija, A.A., Mwamende, K.A., and I.S. Selemani (2013). Emerging issues and challenges in conservation of biodiversity in the rangelands of Tanzania. Nature Conservation6: 1-29.