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Out of Africa

Over the years we have developed wonderful relationships with the passionate, dedicated leaders of so many important, inspiring conservation efforts. We all share a common bond, which is our unbridled love for our planet and the many gorgeous animals that inhabit it along with us. When we heard of the work of the Lion Guardians in Kenya, our excitement meter rose significantly. To learn of a successful experiment in conservation that was effective in reversing the dwindling numbers of lions in Africa was thrilling—and we knew we had to meet them.

Though difficult to track down (the wi-fi in the bush is notoriously finicky), we did finally connect with the founders of the Lion Guardians, Dr. Stephanie Dolrenry and Leela Hazzah, two brilliantly tenacious women who have settled into a region of Kenya near Amboseli National Park to connect with the local Maasai people and help them to learn to peacefully co-exist with the native lion population there, who in past years have been more aggressively hunted as retaliation for feeding on Maasai livestock.

We're in awe of their strength and sophisticated conservation ingenuity, and wanted to share their incredible story (which inspired our Fall 2016 collection) here on Le Blog. Below is the first half of an interview we did with both Stephanie & Leela.

How did you know it was lions you wanted to dedicate your life/work to?

From a very young age, we both knew we wanted to dedicate our lives to wildlife conservation and in particular to those species that were endangered due to conflicts with humans. From the moment we set foot in East Africa, we knew this is where we wanted to conduct our life’s work. Lions and pastoralist communities were the most intriguing to us because lions are not only one of the world’s most charismatic and emblematic species, they are also in threat of extinction primarily due to people who are trying to safeguard their own livelihoods.

In the early days, we thought that if we could figure out a way to help people live peacefully with a species that is a direct threat to their livelihoods then that would be the ultimate in conservation success. Furthermore, we hoped this knowledge could be passed on to save lions and help communities in other regions of Africa.

Describe what it was like to arrive in Amboseli in 2005-06 – what were those first few weeks/months like?

The first weeks and months were exciting and very challenging. There was so much to learn and understand. It took years for us to fully comprehend both sides of the story – the people, the lions and the challenges they each faced.

Tell us about the Maasai-what was the relationship like when you arrived, and what is it like now?

We never imagined when we first started Lion Guardians that we could transform people who killed lions to the point where they would risk their own lives to stop other people from killing lions.

When we first started, we were not sure if our ideas would work. It was a risk we had to take. The warriors had never been to school, they had never held paid jobs – we had to train them, teach them to read and write, and build their capacity to monitor lions and wildlife and mitigate conflicts with communities. Most importantly, though, we needed their perceptions to shift, to see themselves as guardians of lion and no longer as lion hunters. This shift has happened. Today the Guardians feel a sense of ownership over the lions they monitor, it is the same type of strong bond that they have with their cows, it is their livelihood and it has become their reputation.

We are delighted to have a booming lion population in the community lands where lions were once nearly absent from.

By utilizing all of the positive Maasai cultural values toward lions and their environment we have been able to drive the conservation effort and provide them with an example that living with and protecting lions can provide them similar prestige. For example, today, within Maasailand, employment brings more prestige then killing a lion does. Furthermore, we are utilizing all the traditional skills of a Maasai warrior to both reduce conflict between livestock and carnivores and to monitor lions. Finding lost livestock, reinforcing livestock corrals, and informing herders of predator presence were all traditional mitigation techniques that Maasai warriors employed. Moreover, warriors have traditionally been recognized by their community as the defense force or army of the community. This job lets them keep this important cultural role. Now Lion Guardians are using these techniques as a proactive way to mitigate conflict in their community, and in turn reduce lion killing. We are delighted to have a booming lion population in the community lands where lions were once nearly absent from.

Tell us about your success and how you have been able to take your method into other regions in Africa.

Our unique approach has reduced lion killing by more than 90% in areas where our model is used. We have also documented a tripling of the lion population at our core site in southern Kenya and improved connectivity between the Ngorongoro and Serengeti lion populations in Tanzania.

We believe that conservation approaches cannot be developed over night; when developing a program you need to take your time and truly understand the local context (culture, values, motivations behind a targeted behavior, etc.) as this will allow for a more sustainable and organically developed program to surface and succeed.

Local people are the ones who share their landscape with wildlife and bear the costs of living with them. So it is essential to listen to their problems, their concerns, and attempt to empathize with their situations. Every story has two sides – it is important to understand both. We believe this has led to the program’s success and acceptance.

Our unique approach has reduced lion killing by more than 90% in areas where our model is used.

Furthermore, one of the core principles of the program is to identify the drivers behind wildlife killings - and that is something that can be done regardless of the race, religion or tribe of those responsible for the killings. In 2012, we expanded the model to a pastoralist community outside of Ruaha National Park in Tanzania in collaboration with the Ruaha Carnivore Project and Panthera. There, we worked with the Barabaig tribe who are notorious wildlife hunters, and who also have an intimate knowledge of their environment. Since the project’s inception we have been able to minimize lion killing in the region.

Currently, across Africa, there are at least five other organizations that are running “Guardian-like” projects. All have been successful in reducing lion killing in their areas of operation. We are ecstatic to see some of the lessons we’ve learned and tools that we’ve developed over the years, help to save lions and ease tensions with communities across Africa.

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