My first experience with African wildlife began when I was young, similar to the way a lot of children see wildlife: at a zoo or circus. I always loved seeing animals in these environments, but it always seemed like something was off. Once, I went to the Bronx Zoo and got to see the lions. They were lying down, and one of them happened to make eye contact with me. I knew from the nature shows that I watched as a child that making eye contact was a bad thing to do. However, seeing as the lion was in an enclosure, I felt safe. When I looked into its eyes, I saw a crushed, seemingly lifeless animal. At that young age, I knew that the beautiful creature before me belonged in the wild. Ever since that moment, I always dreamed of seeing wild lions in all their glory, and to see the spark I longed for.
In January 2013, I finally had my chance to fulfill my childhood dream. I went on a study abroad trip to Kenya through George Mason University. It was the greatest experience of my life. I have never traveled outside of the United States before, so I was a bit nervous at first. After a few days, the nervousness passed and I truly immersed myself. I saw elephant calves, hyenas with a kill, hippos lounging in the river and rhinos grazing near a watering hole. It was very surprising to see all of this wildlife. In the media, I would constantly read about poaching and the rapidly declining populations of different species of wildlife. However, each stop that we made showcased people working together to live with the wildlife around them. The first place we visited, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a partner in the Samburu Heartlands program was a prime example of balancing the needs of wildlife with the needs of the local people.
Ol Pejeta is located just outside the bustling city of Nanyuki. From what our guides said, Nanyuki has been rapidly developing, with people surrounding almost all sides of Ol Pejeta, making wildlife movement difficult. Cattle ranching is big business, and predation is a very important issue to the local people, causing most people to not be in favor of living so close to predators.
This is a similar sentiment in the U.S., particularly near Yellowstone National Park. The resident wolves have faced a lot of difficulty since their reintroduction in surviving. When wolves venture out of the park, they are usually shot on sight, and hunters specifically target collared wolves. I was intrigued to see what Ol Pejeta was doing about managing the lions, and I hoped to learn something that I could take back with me to the U.S.
Our group was staying at the research center on Ol Pejeta. During the trip, I kept a journal with me that I only worked on at night. One night in particular, I heard a lion's call. It was a kind of like a woofing sound, low and drawn out. I knew that the calls could be heard for miles, so I wasn't worried. However, the hut in which I was staying in was the closest to the bush and the door faced the road/surrounding land. After five minutes, the calls started getting a bit louder. I felt that the lion was moving towards me while calling into the night. I then quickly shut the light to my room, and waited. After twenty minutes, I turned the lights back on and resumed my writing. Barely ten seconds went by when the lion started up again. Shortly after, I turned off my room lights and switched to my headlamp, which wasn't the best light, but it beats having the king of the jungle on your door step. In America, I've had experience with bears roaming around a cabin, but not with a lion. I felt true, primal fear for the first time in a long time. I began to see why people wanted to shoot lions. This fear, combined with the threat of losing livestock has resulted in a decline from almost 100,000 lions in Africa to almost 20,000.
I was intrigued to learn about the Laikipia Predator Project, administered through the Living With Lions program. The Laikipia Predator Project has three goals: to create lion conservation plans, protecting livestock and ensuring that the local people gain an economic benefit from living with the lions. In America, a lot of people often forget that when it comes to wildlife conservation, it is not as simple as setting up a protected area and the ecosystem/wildlife will thrive. We often forget the human factor, that when it comes to a final decision, there is always someone who is impacted, and their needs should be taken into account. The Laikipia Predator Project monitors the lion population using radio collars, which consists of approximately 230 lions.
One of the staff members at Ol Pejeta came with us on a game drive. He had tracking equipment with him to pick up the signal for one of the collared lions. My heart skipped a beat at seeing the machinery. I've always dreamed of seeing radio tracking in the field, and here it was, right before my eyes. My excitement grew with each passing beep from the machine. We soon found the pride. There were about six individuals,with two males who I believe were brothers. One lion, not moving,was looking around. I looked into its eyes, and I saw the spark that I had longed for since I was a child. As I looked on, I noticed the females were the ones with the radio collars. The whole pride was just resting. I figured we would encounter lions this way, seeing as they rest for 20 hours a day. We watched them for almost an hour, and departed after that.
We left Ol Pejeta and continued our journey. We got to see lions after that, but it wasn't the same. I may have left Africa, but Africa hasn't left me. I long for the day I can return and see more of her wonders. I hope to see a world with lions and other wildlife for generations to come. The Living with Lions program and my experiences give me hope that we can see a world that balances development with preserving our natural heritage.
This is a guest blog from George Mason University's Kenya Ecology and Conservation course with instructor Ryan Valdez. The students stayed at the research centre of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy while in Africa and visited AWF's headquarters to learn about conservation and share their experiences.
John Probert was a student in George Mason University's Kenya Ecology and Conservation course with instructor Ryan Valdez. He visited Africa in January 2013 for the first time, fulfilling his dream of seeing lions in the wild.
AWF Blogs bring you to the African Heartlands, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.