Friday January 5, 2018
By: Jaylan El Shazly
Imagine living in the middle of a forest in Kenya, surrounded by wildlife and locals who speak a language that is completely foreign to you. You spend your days walking, up to 30 kilometers, to explore the area, search for lions, and meet locals who are surprised to see you. ‘We didn’t know foreigners could walk!’ said the locals when they encountered Dr. Leela Hazzah, on one of her many treks in the area.
For months, this was how Hazzah lived. The American-Egyptian biologist who has dedicated her life to rescue lions grew up in Washington, DC. As a child, she spent many summers in Egypt, listening to stories about the lions’ roars that were heard from the rooftop of her family’s home. When she tried to listen for these roars herself, she was told that lions have since gone extinct in Egypt. This fueled her already feverish passion for animals. It led her to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Her postgraduate studies in conversation biology, at the University of Wisconsin, brought her to East Africa, namely Kenya and Tanzania, where she initially worked with elephants.
In 2004, she was invited to join a research team to investigate the reasons behind the killings of lions in the Amboseli area in southern Kenya. The research was at the intersection between social science and biology, which she found compelling.
She moved to a small rural Maasai community adjacent to Chyulu Hills National Park, to focus more on social aspects of how locals interact with the lions. It was the Maasai practices of lion killings that have led to the dramatic decrease of the lion population in Africa. To integrate herself with the Maasai community, she learned the local language. She attended community gatherings and invited young people to her house to build connections with them. Her first breakthrough happened when local women bestowed on her the Maasai name ‘Nasera,’ which means woman of leadership. With time and dedication, she gained the community’s trust. That helped advance her research objectives considerably.
Hazzah’s 7 years’ research concluded 2 main reasons behind killing the lions. The locals kill the lions in retaliation for attacks on their cattle. Also, killing a lion is a ritual to celebrate the rite of passage of young Maasai boys to power and manhood. These practices caused a rapid decline in the lion population, by about 40%, in the last 20 years. Strict laws imposed by the government to criminalize and penalize lion killings have not been effective, due to a long standing tense relationship between the Maasai and the government which – the Maasai believe – hasn’t sufficiently addressed the loss of grazing land.
The research findings led Hazzah to start the Lion Guardians Organization in 2007, to prevent lion killings in East Africa. Lion Guardians was a result of the close-knit relationship she developed with the community. Its idea was based on a suggestion from the locals who wanted to work together with conservationists since they are seldom asked to help with such efforts.
What makes Lion Guardians special is their work to empower locals to be the guardians of lions, and achieve change from within. By recruiting previous lion killers and young unemployed and uneducated Massai men, Hazzah is converting the lion killers to become their saviors. Her organization teaches these men how to read and write. It supplies them with the necessary tools, and utilizes their deep-rooted knowledge of wildlife and connection to the land to detect lions’ movements. The guardians are responsible to oversee a certain stretch of land. It’s their job to warn cattle herders when lions are near, to safeguard their cattle, thus eliminating retaliatory lion killings.
The data the guardians gather is also vital for further conservation efforts. Lion Guardians is working with the community to promote lion conservation, and not lion killing, as a sign of power and manhood, thus fostering a culture of conservation in the community for years to come. Bringing the community to tolerate and – eventually – accept the existence of lions was a big challenge. Nonetheless, the organization’s work has shown huge success and promise thus far. An example of that is the poisoning of the male lion ‘Sangale’. The guardian responsible for monitoring the lion was so affected by his loss that he named his own newborn son ‘Sangale’. Another rather heartwarming example is how these guardians have developed a ‘cub dance’ where they jump up and down and dance around whenever they discover a lioness with cubs, the clearest sign of lion population growth and success of Lion Guardians’ work.
In 2012, Lion Guardians received the prestigious St. Andrew’s Prize for the Environment, which further reinforced their work. In 2014, Dr. Hazzah was named one of CNN’s Heroes. Lion Guardians – along with their partners – have nearly eliminated all lion killings in their core site in Kenya. They have had similar results in expansion sites in Tanzania. Their core site is one of the only places in Africa where the lion population in free lands is growing rather than declining. Now, when visiting the areas where Lion Guardians operate, you can hear lions roar all through the night.
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