Lions of Laikipia Collaring for Coexistence

We are in central Kenya in a region called Laikipia, a highland flat found north of mighty Mount Kenya and east of the Great Rift Valley. Laikipia’s mixed landscapes of riverine woodland, scrub bushveld and endless plains are home to an astonishing variety of wildlife andoffers game viewing that rivals even the likes of Kenya’s famous Masaai Mara. It is home to the third largest population of lions in Kenya, the second largest population of black rhino, the two last northern white rhino’s on the planet as well as a number of other unique & endangered species including Grevy’s Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe and their very own race of Hartebeest. Safaris to the region, as a result, have been growing in popularity and Laikipia has been hailed as one of Kenya’s biggest success stories in conservation. But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing – we caught up with Alayne Cotterill, biologist and founder of Lion Landscapes, an independent lion conservation organization, to find out what affect the recent land invasions have had on wildlife in the area and what challenges they are facing going forward.

Reticulated Giraffe and Grevy’s Zebra. It is estimated that there are less than 2,500 Grevy’s zebras still living in the wild.

Land Invasions & Laikipia: What’s the Story?

In 2016/2017, Laikipia hit global headlines when violence erupted following armed land invasions of local ranches and wildlife conservancies.A severe drought in the northern counties of Kenya caused thousands of Samburu, members of a cattle-herding tribe, to drive their cattle south into the Laikipia region in search of grazing land.The influx of both people and cattle (some reports state upward of 500,000 head of cattle) were unprecedented and incited with violence. Many articles from the time state the invasions were a political land grab ahead of the 2017 elections, where vast numbers of cattle were used as a weapon to invade land, hoping to drive out owners and increase votes by promising land and a new distribution of resources. In a country where rapid human and cattle population growth is coupled with pastures in decline, land ownership is a major issue, especially where different values are placed on cattle and wildlife by different stakeholders.

Guns & cattle. Image by Emma Redfern

What effect did the Laikipia Land Invasions have on Wildlife?

Whilst the violence and human losses caused by the land invasions were devastating, the affect on wildlife was greater still. Aside from the massive reduction in fodder for wildlife due to extreme competition from livestock, human wildlife conflict rose dramatically and cases of wildlife getting shot were also reported. Disease too was a major issue; Canine distemper, a virus most likely caught from the pastoralists’ attendant dogs, wiped out several packs of endangered wild dogs and many other animals died due to tick borne diseases brought by the pastoralist herds.

According to Alayne from Lion Landscapes, lions fared better than most other wildlife during the invasions, limiting their use of the landscape to avoid detection by people as opposed to being killed in large numbers. That said, a more serious issue has subsequently arisen as a result of the invasions – Laikipia’s lions have developed a habit for hunting livestock.Historically, although these lions have livedharmoniously alongside livestock in densities that rival most National Parks, plentiful wild prey and excellent livestock husbandry practices kept conflict at a minimum. During the invasions however, exposure to large numbers of poorly defended livestock led lions in some areas that have never killed livestock previously to view livestock as prey. That, coupled with less “natural” food availability (as wild prey was killed directly or out-competed by tens of thousands of incoming livestock), livestock has become an attractive alternative. As such, an alarming number of Laikipia’s lions are now in a dangerous situation, faced with retaliation killings by people whose livelihoods are threatened.

Collaring for Coexistence: Protecting Laikipia’s Lion population

Research by Lion Landscapes and collaborator Living With Lions has shown that that conflict between lions and people can be effectively managed by collaring and monitoring lion movements and giving livestock owners access to real time lion movement data. This allows herders to be pro-active and keep their livestock away from lions, as well as increase their protection of livestock when close to lions. The collars, placed on one adult female in each pride and each coalition male in problem areas, sends hourly GPS location updates that are given to livestock owners via an app (provided by Save the Elephants) that maps the lion locations on Google earth. The collars are also fitted with a chip that contains a link to a Savannah Tracking Boma Shield System – when the lion gets close to a boma containing livestock; the chip connects with the Boma’s shield system and sets off alarms & lights. This scares off the lion but also alerts the boma guards. The team’s research has shown thatlions who have repeated low success at killing livestock, reduce their attempts.Where this clever system is deployed, it now better defends livestock against lions and also creates a permanent change in behavior over time, working to restore the balance and real co-existence between wildlife and livestock in the region, once again.
To learn more about Lion Landscapes and to support their work, please visit their website: https://www.lionlandscapes.org/

One of the collared lionesses. Two females that were collared in January 2018 have since had cubs. Image by Lion Landscapes.
Lion Landscapes working with KWS. This lioness is now carefully monitored and Geofences work to warn the research team if they enter areas where conflict is likely, giving them time to respond. Image by Lion Landscapes.

Learn how 13-year old Richard Turere developed a light system to keep his family’s livestock safe:

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