People and Lions: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

The 11 lions killed in Queen Elizabeth National Park earlier this year were just the latest victims in a centuries-old conflict, but one which has escalated in recent years. As human populations in East Africa have exploded, consuming increasing amounts of wildlife habitat in the process, the numbers of some of the region’s most iconic and important species have been in steep decline. Globally, scientists estimate that lion populations have fallen by more than 40 percent in the past 20 years, and the 20,000 or so wild lions that remain occupy just 8 percent of the species’ historical range.

But while their numbers have decreased, lions have nevertheless been forced into closer contact with their human neighbours. With cities and agricultural areas constantly increasing in size, pastoral tribes tend to be marginalised, pushed onto less productive land – land otherwise occupied only by wildlife. Once there, their cattle compete with wild herbivores for grass – and become a tempting meal for predators.

For your average urbanite, this does not pose any particular inconvenience. Unless you live near Nairobi National Park, lions are unlikely to prowl your neighbourhood. But for people whose livelihoods depend on livestock, this has become a matter of life and death. Livestock losses to wildlife have become more commonplace as herders are forced to graze their cattle and goats at the edges of, or even inside, protected areas such as Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. So it is not strange, then, that retaliatory killings occur: lions kill a beloved domestic animal, the herdsmen kill the lions – any lions – in revenge, and to prevent further livestock deaths. The villagers thought to be behind the poisoning of those 11 lions in April 2018, which included 8 cubs and represented a significant proportion of the park’s lion population, blamed the killing of a cow.

In some cases, however, the killing of lions has other causes. In Kenya, Masai have been known to go after lions because of their economic value as tourism attractions: a protest against a government they feel values wildlife higher than pastoralists. The ultimate cause is largely the same, however: agricultural and urban expansion pushing herders and wildlife closer together.

Poaching certainly needs to be punished, but the killing of predators is a symptom, not the root cause. Finding a path toward peaceful coexistence between herders and the predators that hunt their livestock is the only path forward, and it will require a great deal of persistence, creativity, and a shift in how the region’s wildlife is valued.

There is cause for optimism though. In Rwanda, lions are being successfully reintroduced to Akagera National Park. In Kenya, there are dozens of projects working to reduce conflict. Some of them focus on the protection of livestock, such as building predator-proof night time enclosures for cattle and goats. Others turn hunters into protectors, creating ambassadors who can mitigate conflict from within. The most wide-reaching Kenyan solution is perhaps the private conservancy model, where land owners – mostly pastoralists – are paid a monthly fee to allow wildlife to roam their land. In other words, the wildlife becomes a financial asset not only for the state and for city-based safari operators, but for the people who share their land and bear most of the burdens and risks that come with such neighbours.

In the end, this is the only sustainable solution. Rather than going along with the people versus wildlife narrative, thereby making the assumption that what benefits one necessarily harms the other, let us change it to something more mutually beneficial. It might not be as simple as arresting poachers, but there is no reason to think that wildlife – even lions – should not be an asset for Uganda’s pastoral people. Once that happens, perhaps there won’t be any poachers to arrest.

text and photos: Marcus Westberg