For many years, peoples of the African savannah chased big game. Hunters sometimes killed to show bravery. Often, they killed to avenge the slaughter of a prized animal. Today, a new generation has a new attitude: living together.
Saitoti Petro scans a dirt road in northern Tanzania. The tall, slender 29-year-old is marching with four other young men. They all belong to a pastoralist people group called the Maasai. (Pastoralists raise grazing animals, such as sheep or cattle.) They’re searching for signs of the continent’s top predator: the lion.
Petro points to a fresh track about as long as a ballpoint pen. Smudges in the dust tell him a large male lion passed there within the last two hours.
Africa’s elephants, cheetahs, rhinos, and lions are “vulnerable” to extinction according to scientists. Conservationists say that if things don’t change, these grand beasts will keep disappearing.
Losing habitat is the top risk to wildlife globally. Across Africa, lions have left 94% of the lands they once roamed. Grasslands are quickly becoming cropland or cities. And in places where lions still live, poaching and revenge killings are the next biggest threats.
Ultimately, God is in control of every living (and non-living!) thing. But from Earth’s beginning, He gave humans dominion over animals. (Genesis 1:28) That gives humans the responsibility to take care of God’s creation in a way that glorifies God and reflects His qualities. What a shame if humans eliminate a species—either through neglect or cruelty!
For centuries, Maasai peoples in Kenya and Tanzania have taught their children about the King of Beasts: “If you see a lion, stop and look it straight in the eyes—you must never run,” Petro says. His advice is sound. Lions prefer to chase their prey.
The Maasai consider these brave animals worthy adversaries. Petro Lengima Lorkuta, Saitoti Petro’s father, killed his first lion when he was 25. He hurled a spear at it after the cat attacked his largest bull. He says that in those days, “If you killed a lion, it showed that you were a strong warrior.”
Inhabitants of the savannah still hunt lions—often to avenge cattle that the big cats have eaten. Ancient peoples built natural fences to protect their animals at night. Many Maasai still do. But the tangled thorn bushes are no match for a hungry predator.
In recent years, revenge animal killings have become deadlier. Many herdsmen have switched from spearing individual lions to putting out poisoned carcasses: Whoever eats, dies. Such a method can slaughter a whole pride, or group, of lions—and any other animals that feed on the tainted meat.
Such possible mass slayings concern scientists and savannah residents. After all, a healthy lion population helps control diseases, parasites, and other animal populations on the savannah.
Today, Petro thinks there are too few lions, not too many. “It will be shameful if we kill them all,” he says. “It will be a big loss if our future children never see lions.”
The survival of lions—and many other threatened savannah species from cheetahs to elephants—probably depends on finding a way for people, livestock, and wild beasts to use these lands together.
A NEW PLAN
A nonprofit called African People & Wildlife offers support and training to help predators and people coexist. Petro is one of more than 50 lion monitors on the Maasai Steppe, a grassland strewn with trees and water sources.
The monitors walk daily patrol routes. They teach shepherds how to protect their cattle and live more peaceably alongside large predators. Over the past decade, this group has helped more than a thousand households build secure modern corrals made of living acacia trees and chain-link fence. The devices protect livestock at night when predators attack.
On the morning Petro finds the fresh tracks, his team hears cowbells jingling. Petro heads toward them and finds two young shepherds sitting under a tree. Their two dozen cattle are meandering toward the ravine.
Petro tells the shepherd boys about the lion nearby. He and his team help the boys turn their herd around, sending them in a safer direction.
There’s some evidence that the lion monitors’ methods to ease human-lion conflict are working. In 2005, the tiny village of Loibor Siret saw about three predator attacks on livestock each month. In 2017, they happened only about once per month. The biggest change in those 12 years? About 90 village households built reinforced corrals, which are much more effective than the older thorn barriers at keeping predators from livestock.
Protecting animals out on the steppe is a trickier challenge. But monitors helped resolve at least 14 problems in 2017 that might have led to all-out lion hunts.
While the number of lion hunts in the region is dropping, they still sometimes happen. And the local lion population is beginning to bounce back. “Once you make lions safe, their numbers can recover quickly,” says Laly Lichtenfeld, co-founder of African People & Wildlife.
More and more, scientists are also realizing they must consider the lands and people outside park areas as they plan for protection and conservation. Large migratory animals range widely: They follow the rains and the animals they prey upon—inside or outside the parks.
Sometimes, people living near parks distrust Petro’s patrol efforts to protect the lions.
“We don’t want to hear lions roar at night,” says Neema Loshiro. The village woman sells handmade jewelry on the street of Loibor Siret. The only wildlife she wants nearby are giraffes and impalas. “They’re pretty and don’t attack people or eat crops,” she says.
Petro’s family erected a reinforced corral four years ago. They have not lost any livestock to predators since. “The modern fence is very helpful,” Petro’s father says. He supports his son’s efforts to educate neighbors about avoiding predator conflicts. “Now I love to see lions,” he says—just not too near his home.
Many things stay the same on the Maasai Steppe. Petro rises each day at dawn to take the cattle to pasture, as his ancestors have done for generations. He scrubs his teeth with a twig from Salvador persica, the “toothbrush tree.” He wears a long, colorful robe and carries a sharpened machete blade.
Yet attitudes are changing. Lions are only doing what comes instinctively to them. They are, by God’s design, predators. People—like the Maasai—can choose how they respond to animal behavior. It may be wise to destroy a vicious beast that has become a man-eater. But humans who show restraint do well to creatively manage the lion population—rather than kill out of sinful anger, pride, or vengeance. God can change human hearts. He can transform a desire for revenge into a desire to protect. And we can be thankful whenever we see Him working that way—even in those who are not believers.
“We expect the growing generation to get more education than us,” Petro says, “and therefore to know the importance of wild animals.” He knows the lions and other animals of his land are vital to a whole way of life—his way of life.
“Our elders killed and almost finished off the lions,” Petro says. “Unless we have new education, they will be extinct.”