Sara Blackburn graduated from the University of London with a BSc in Zoology, and quickly joined the Living With Lions team to run the Mara Predator Project (MPP), which she began in 2007. She created the MPP lion identification database and developed the project to involve lodge guides and visitors to participate in monitoring lions throughout the northern Masai Mara ecosystem. She has since adapted her system to the Laikipia and Amboseli Living With Lions study areas to facilitate lion monitoring in these regions. Alongside conservation and ecology, Sara has a keen interest in photography and art, which has facilitated her lion identification work.
Sara is still early in her career, and will soon be joining Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation and Research Unit to carry out a doctorate and further her work in lion research and conservation. She plans to conduct her research on the Mara lion population, and is especially interested in the impact of the conservancies on the ecology of lions in the region.
To find out more about Sara’s work and that of the Mara Predator Project, you can visit the website at www.livingwithlions.org/mara. The MPP website features the online database of study lions, and also provides lots of information on how to identify lions.
Ecological monitoring. What does this term mean and how important is it for the survival of the Mara’s lion population?
Ecological monitoring is important in understanding how and why populations changes over time, so that we can apply effective conservation techniques. Without knowing how many lions we have, we do not know if we need to increase conservation efforts. Nor can we assess how effective any conservation methods are without following how the population responds. This is most important in regions outside of national parks and reserves, such as our study area within the northern Masai Mara conservancies.
How are you monitoring lions within the Mara?
As most lions in the Mara are accustomed to vehicles, we monitor them by identifying individuals and tracking them by sight. Lions have a unique pattern of whisker spots on each side of the face, similar to the human fingerprint. As this pattern remains the same from birth until death, we are able to recognize individuals despite changes in their appearance, for example, mane length. We widen our monitoring efforts through citizen science, so non-scientists and members of the general public can contribute data. By training guides in a number of lodges across the region to identify lions, record simple yet accurate data, and involve their guests, we are able to monitor lions over a large area without excessive field costs. Most of our monitored lions are on an online database, and visitors to the northern Mara region can interact with the website to both identify lions and report their sightings.
How long has the Mara project been running and what changes have you seen to the lion population in this time? To what factors do you attribute these changes?
We have been running the Mara Predator Project within the northern conservancies and communal land for almost 4 years. We have recorded short and long term declines not only in lion numbers but in pride size and distribution. Essentially, monitoring needs to continue for several more years to determine whether this decline is a short term fluctuation in the population or an on-going trend. At this stage, we cannot confidently attribute rises in the size and spread of pastoralist communities to this decline, but human wildlife conflict has certainly been a major factor. The recent development of conservancies such as the Mara North, Olare Orok, Motorogi, Ol Kinyei, and Mara Naboisho Conservancies appears to have had a positive result on lion numbers, cub survival and pride size.
What has the monitoring taught you about lion activity in the study area and, conversely, what has it not, that perhaps you expected it to?
Firstly, we have confirmed that the Mara has one of the highest densities of lion in Africa, and that the communal and conservancy lands support a significant portion of this population. Lion activity in the Mara is similar to other natural populations in comparable environments, but we do see differences between the Masai Mara National Reserve (MMNR) and the conservancies – lion outside of the MMNR are less active during the day, almost certainly due to higher numbers of cattle and people. We do see cases of livestock depredation, but the number of livestock killed is low in relation to the number of lion in comparison with some other regions, probably due to high numbers of wild prey.
What things have surprised you?
I have been surprised at the small pride home ranges, and also at how quickly lions react to changes in livestock movements and are either disturbed in their behaviour or quickly leave the area. I have also been surprised by male lion behaviour – some prides have seen four different males in as many years; because new males usually kill a pride’s small cubs, frequent male turnovers probably reduce cub survival. Nomadic males can be pushed into other pride areas by livestock, and males have also been lost to conflict.
How can the model of lion monitoring that you have developed for the Mara be applied to other areas?
Our monitoring methods can and have been applied to other areas where lions are not elusive. If they can be approached by a vehicle, or photographed from a distance, they can be identified, and therefore tracked during daylight hours. Our monitoring methods are not only helpful in answering a number of ecological questions, but in further engaging the local Maasai community and visiting tourists in monitoring efforts. This helps to remind local people of the importance of lions in their own livelihoods, and also helps convey the message that there are often fewer lions than people think.
Which are the operators and lodges that work with the project and what kind of help do they give you?
Several lodges have engaged positively with our work. Serian Camp and Alex Walker gave us a home and immense support while we documented lion numbers and movements throughout the Mara North Conservancy. Kicheche Camps and Lodges have assisted with monitoring within Lemek, Mara North and Olare Orok Conservancy; Porini Camps and Gamewatchers Safaris have allowed us to expand into Ol Kinyei Conservancy. Several other independent lodges throughout the region have also assisted – Saruni Lodge, Governors’ Camp, Rekero, Mara Plains, Kichwa Tembo and Elephant Pepper Camp to name a few. African Impact plays a key role in identifying and monitoring lions within Mara Naboisho Conservancy. We hope to partner with several other lodges across the region as we continue and expand our monitoring efforts.
Essentially, lodges help us by allowing their guides to be trained to identify and collect data on lions they encounter on game drives. They also help by engaging their guests, whose photographs we use for lion identification. Lodge managers and owners have also contributed a large number of essential identification images and key local pride information.
What affect does the ever increasing number of lodges and camps in the Mara region have on lion pride dynamics and behaviour?
The Mara is constantly seeing increases in development, and the increasing number of vehicles surely impacts the environment. Of course, lion within the region are now accustomed to vehicles, but vehicles do on occasion interfere with natural behaviour such as hunting efforts and protecting cubs. Overdevelopment does disrupt prey movements and habitat availability, and young lions are often wary of vehicles. Harassment can lead to lionesses moving cubs more frequently, and can reveal their presence to hyena and other threats. However, I would say that tourism is the one human activity over which we should be least concerned. The increase in number of people and cattle is far more significant. It is also important to weigh the pros and cons of tourism. Lion and other animals survive in the region because they are the source of tourism generated income; without this, game is simply an inconvenience to local people, and competition for livestock and land.
How do you affect dialogue with the Maasai communities in and around the study area and how receptive are they?
Alongside monitoring, the main aim of Living With Lions (the parent organization behind the Mara Predator Project) is to help reduce human wildlife conflict. We do this by encouraging local communities to resume the traditional livestock husbandry practices that are effective in preventing conflict with predators, such as secure bomas, and diligent herding by young men instead of children. We have an educational video that reiterates these methods, and we show this throughout the communities. Engaging with the guides and lodge staff is also very important - they help communicate the importance of tolerating and protecting lion to their communities. We try to reinforce the connection between lions, local jobs, and income.
How does one begin to educate to the Maasai, who can rightly claim that they have existed side by side with lions for long before conservation organisations came into being? What are the most important issues to educate them about? For example, how do you work
with them in the construction of more secure cattle bomas?
It is true that the Maasai have coexisted with lions in the past. However, this was when there were far fewer Maasai, and far more lions. Quite simply, lion were abundant, and able to survive a low rate of human-caused losses. However, a small lion population cannot survive large losses. Lion numbers have plummeted due a relatively recent breakdown of tolerance by local people and an increase in the potency and availability of lethal methods of control, particularly the use of poison. The current level of conflict has resulted in sharply declining lion populations.
The most important issues are those of tolerance and preventing lions from taking cattle. We know how to greatly reduce or even stop livestock depredation, and local pastoralists are beginning to recognize that wildlife makes a positive contribution to their lives – the income a landowner receives from land rent, job income, community development and trade from tourism vastly outweighs the cost of a single depredation event. To kill a lion in retaliation for a small loss in livestock does not balance the books. The Anne Kent Taylor Foundation assists Maasai in this region in building very strong predator proof bomas by providing materials at half price, and LWL education programmes try to remind people that their traditional practices were very effective at protecting livestock from predators. Through detailed population monitoring, we are also able to measure and evaluate the effects of different preventative methods on lion populations, assisting conservancy management.
Just how serious are the Maasai about protecting the lion population in your study area?
The answer to this depends on personal circumstances and situations. Many of the newer generation of educated Maasai guides recognise the importance of lions for their income and see the positive effects of tourism for their communities. However, many local pastoralists remain intolerant of lions despite the fact that their growing herds are financed by land rent from the conservancies. Cultural beliefs and social pressure are sometimes more important in determining attitudes than current economic realities. Cattle have a huge value to the Maasai beyond their financial worth – they also determine social status. Few Maasai are prepared to lose cattle to lions but many are willing to sell a cow to fund half the cost of improving their bomas. The establishment of the conservancies has been a major positive step, as they pay several million dollars per year to local landowners in return for good conservation practices. As a result, there has been an increase in tolerance and a reduction in retaliatory killings as people begin to realise that predators are central to their tourism income.
Livestock compensation schemes: how do they work? Do they work? What is the possibility that such a program is open to abuse? What has your experience been of compensation schemes in the greater Mara area?
Livestock compensation schemes which reimburse herders who have lost livestock look great on paper, but are open to abuse through falsified claims, and also encourage poor livestock management – why look after your livestock if someone will pay you when a lion eats it? Compensation also can lead to blackmail – people killing wildlife to underscore demands for higher payments. My personal opinion on compensation schemes is that they make the long term situation worse. They are costly, open ended, and dependent on donor funding. They do not promote positive change or tolerance, and can encourage bad herding practices. Sustainable conservation must come from the communities and not be dependent on outside organizations.
What steps are being taken to improve animal husbandry practices in the region?
Some conservancies are encouraging changes such as increased herder age and zoned grazing grounds, and are also working to improve herds: Anne Kent Taylor is also operating around the Mara Conservancy to help pastoralists to make their bomas predator proof.
Retaliatory killings: Maasai spearings, furadan poisoning, poaching with snares etc, all contributing to the declining lion numbers - what is the prevalence of each in the Mara study area and what steps are being taken to combat them?
Retaliatory killings account for several lion deaths per year throughout the Mara region, mostly by spearing and poisoning. Conservancy management ranger teams work with the Kenya Wildlife Service to prevent lion killing, but prosecution is rare. Many predators die in snares set for antelope, but I believe that bushmeat poaching has been significantly reduced by the conservancies’ ranger teams.
Agriculture: how much financial compensation are the current conservancies bringing local communities compared to agriculture? If the latter is likely to be more beneficial, what will stop these conservancy stakeholders, (Maasai), pushing to increase agricultural production?
Agriculture is a threat to the Mara ecosystem and much of the northern region has been lost to wheat farming. However, the conservancies provide more financial compensation to Maasai landowners for tourism than they would gain from agriculture. Tourism in the region also supplies a large number of jobs and a respectable amount of trade to local communities.
How are declining game numbers, (reported as between 50 and 70%), affecting the various prides behaviour? How far have you recorded lions ranging from their traditional areas?
Without a longer study and comparative behavioural studies, we can’t confidently quantify the effect of declining game on the Mara’s lion population. All wildlife has declined steadily in the region, but many factors have contributed to this. Sustainable cattle grazing within the conservancies does work to attract game by keeping grass short and lush, and I have noted that prides within the conservancies have relatively stable ranges throughout the year. Lions within the Musiara region – the Marsh Pride – do range several km outside of the MMNR on a yearly basis when game becomes scarce. This behaviour increases the risk of encounters between cattle and lions, and can result in a higher number of depredation and retaliation events. However, I do not believe that prey availability within the Mara region is a significant factor in the decline of lions – if one encounters a starving lion in the Mara, it is almost always due to injury than by lack of food. Again, it is more a case of encroaching cattle and human populations that is driving the decline.
What is the future for the Mara Study and how dependent are those plans on large scale donor funding? What is the cost each day of running the study and how can small level donations, made by readers of Safaritalk, for example, help?
Our work depends entirely donations. We need to expand our team beyond one primary researcher and also hire several more Maasai assistants to expand our educational work. We are also restricted by only having one small vehicle. Personal donations go a long way in covering fuel and other running costs, which are around $40 a day. Donations can be made through the website here.
I hope that the Mara Predator Project will continue for several decades, for many reasons. It is important that we conduct a long term study if we are to fully understand population changes in the Mara. It is also important that conservancy management teams are provided with on-going data to help in their conservation efforts and measure their results. The project also directly benefits local lion conservation, most notably by involving Maasai guides in our efforts and conducting conservation education within local communities. I believe that education and long term community-driven changes are the best approach to conservation.
Aside from interaction with the study through your website and social media, how can tourists learn about your work whilst staying in Kenya? How can you better involve them? For instance, do you give talks and presentations at the camps and lodges which support you? If so, how successful have they been and what is the reaction from the tourists who meet you? What is your request of tourists visiting the area?
We do give presentations at lodges and also occasionally able to accompany tourists on game drives when they are interested in the project. The overall reaction is extremely positive – being able to recognise individual lions is an exciting and rewarding experience, and both guides and guests form a bond with individual lions and prides. It’s like a real time BBC ‘Big Cat Diary’, and I do enjoy sharing guests’ enthusiasm. We encourage our trained guides to their guests about the individual lions if they are interested, and again, this gets very positive reactions. At some of the participating lodges we have laptops set up with the online database so that guests can identify lions they saw on their game drives. Our leaflets encourage guests to upload their photos for us, too. If regular tour guides and visitors to the Mara could also share their photographs with us, and even try to GPS tag their images, it would be another great help to our monitoring efforts.
Why is the monitoring of lion’s behaviour so important? What new things can be learnt that are not already known, and how would you respond to the idea that with fast declining numbers, more focus, effort, financial assistance etc should be put on protection and anti-poaching measures rather than more research and monitoring?
We know a lot about natural lion behaviour from many in depth and long term studies. Now, with humans being the major threat to lions, the most important research questions lie in how lions behave in relation to human presence and activity, and also how local communities react to the presence of predators. It is important that we understand how lions behave in areas frequented by livestock and people, and ultimately how they learn to coexist alongside humans, as these are becoming the typical conditions which many lion populations must deal with.
In fact, research and monitoring costs very little compared to anti-poaching and other law enforcement activities. Monitoring populations is an essential part of conservation work – again, without knowing how many lions we have, and how populations are changing in relation to both human pressures and conservation actions, we do not know if our hard work is having any effect. The most effective use of conservation funding is in minimising human threats such as retaliatory killing, alongside effective monitoring.
What are your concerns for the future of the lion prides in the study area?
The speed at which human and livestock numbers are growing in the Mara region is alarming, and many predict that without intervention, the Mara may lose its lions and other wildlife within a couple of decades. Over four years we have seen a decline in the number and size of prides, and also a reduction in areas frequented by lions. I expect that this trend will continue if human numbers continue to increase within the region. However, the conservancies have been remarkably effective in forestalling further development by paying local people excellent income for effective wildlife conservation.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.