What do you tell someone when she asks (in a clipped British accent) if you “might go and shoot a lion” with her?
When that someone is as impressive as lion researcher Alayne Mathieson is in person, you'll probably say yes. But now, two hours later, the bluster of my acceptance has been thoroughly shaken by the dirt roads of Kenya…and the enormity of what we are going to do.
Shooting the lion (with a dart gun) — that’ll be the easy part. But convincing the angry rancher who's trapped the lion to let it go? That's going to be a little harder.
I am here in Kenya to answer one question: Is private land conservation — the strategy The Nature Conservancy is so well known for — possible here in the savannahs of East Africa?
The Conservancy is about to launch its Africa program, and Kenya’s Laikipia District — prime cattle country — is ground zero for our efforts. Red-robed masai and other nomadic pastoralists once dominated this landscape, tending to swarms of thin, weather-beaten cattle and bearing mostly a live-and-let-live attitude to predators.
But today, Laikipia is a checkerboard of private ranches and communal land. And on managed pastures, cattle losses are carefully tallied and, like lions, unwelcome
Alayne, her crew and I are heading to Ol-Naishu Ranch, a commercial beef and milk operation. The cattle here are large, fat, and expensive — and recently, some have gone missing. The lions, it seems, are working Ol-Naishu.
And the rancher is fighting back. While he’s the one who called Alayne (who’s a friend of his wife), he’s also warned her that, while she can take a look and collect samples for her research, he's lost five cows in just one week and doesn't want this lion out there.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Alayne told me as we pulled up at the ranch.
The trap sits like an altar alone atop a grassy hill. The remains of a steer are crammed into one end, and an angry lion is crammed into the other. Ranch hands have gathered a respectful distance away. As we approach on foot, a powerful scent of blood and cat urine assails our senses.
Then the lion roars, shattering the silence. The cage — perhaps weighing 1,000 pounds of steel and wire — trembles, as if unable to contain her fury. We involuntarily take a step back. I can’t see much inside: just a withering mass of fur the color of the sun-burnt hills, and two eyes that dare me to come closer.
When the ranch manager shows up, he brings his wife, his dogs…and a rifle. He will allow Alayne to sedate the lion first and collect some data before dispatching it. Now, as she moves with a dart gun in hand towards the trap, he tells me to go to the front of the cage and “distract the lion.” Distract the lion!
But it turns out I don’t need any special skills — just walking near the front of the cage elicits such furor from the animal that I’m certain she’ll bash in her head before the rancher has his chance with either the dart gun or the rifle.
Eventually, as the sun starts to set, we’re able to get this perfect lioness stretched out on the ground at the mouth of the cage, asleep from the dart that protrudes from her rump. She’s in healthy condition, and everyone crowds around her — even the dogs, paranoid and confused by the proximity of such a big cat, approach for a sniff. We drag out the examination as long as we can, playing for time.
Then, a glimmer of hope: I notice that the rancher’s wife has started calling the lioness a “naughty cat,” and the ranch hands are talking about the slaughter of another cow far from here last night — which could mean that another lion is doing the killings.
The rancher seems dubious. So Alayne starts talking fast, assuring him that, if we fit the lion with a radio collar, he’ll always know exactly where she is — making her easy to find and dispatch if she kills cattle. I can see him weighing his options as the exam ends and the cameras come out for last-minute pictures. We don’t want to press the rancher for an answer — but any minute I am expecting the worst.
Then, after an interminable silence, the rancher says tentatively that perhaps we should collar “his” lion — and Alayne is running for the truck, pulling out the radio-tracking collar even before his sentence is out. When she gets back, she shows the rancher how it works, and then (with just his silent acquiescence) collars the cat.
On the inside, I'm doing cartwheels, although I know one lion won’t make a difference. My short-term peace of mind means nothing to a rancher for whom the margin between success and failure is very thin, and for whom bullets and lion traps are cheap.
In Laikipia, like so many places around the world, there’s a new equilibrium being sought between humanity and the wild — but where it will settle on this rapidly changing continent is hard to say. The challenge for today’s conservationist is to find that common ground and allow people to fulfill their aspirations without exhausting what the land has to offer.
We leave as darkness descends and only after the lion awakens — we yell and throw stones in her direction as she vanishes into the night with two bounds, hoping to frighten her away from people and cattle forever.
Later, sitting atop the Land Rover, we break open some warm beers. But it won’t feel like a celebratory drink. While lions keep their own counsel, my sneaking suspicion is that this one will be back.
Ranchers in Kenya, much as with the ranchers the Conservancy works with in the western United States, must walk a fine line between practicing good husbandry, tolerating predators, and making a profit. For more information on what happens to lions in Laikipia and to find out about Alayne Mathieson's research, please see www.lionconservation.org.February 23, 2011