21 Aug 2017

Building communities of passionate conservationists to save vultures

Maasai Mara team during the exchange © NatureKenya
Maasai Mara team during the exchange © NatureKenya
By Obaka Torto and Masumi Gudka

Wildlife poisoning driven by human-wildlife conflict is a leading threat to the survival of vultures in East Africa. Vulture populations in the Maasai Mara, Kenya have declined by up to 60% (Virani et al. 2011) and will continue on this trajectory if illegal wildlife poisoning is not stopped. 

Communities living adjacent to protected areas are at most risk of facing frequent conflict with wildlife, often loosing livestock as prey to carnivores. In response, some herders resort to baiting carcasses with poison to eliminate predators. Poisoning is indiscriminate and leads to the deaths of many animals, the most numerous victims are the vultures. One cow carcass can kill over 150 Critically Endangered vultures.

With the support of Nature Kenya, BirdLife’s national partner, local communities in the Maasai Mara are discovering locally driven solutions to addressing human-wildlife conflict, reducing poisoning and conserving vultures and other wildlife. To promote sharing of such ideas and experiences, in July Nature Kenya organized a community exchange visit between Maasai pastoral communities in different parts of the country. Eighteen community members from Maasai Mara travelled to Eselenkei Conservancy in Amboseli to visit the community who are supported by the Lion Guardians initiative. By combining cultural practices and traditional knowledge with science, the Lion Guardians have created a successful model to reduce human-wildlife conflict and retaliatory poisoning and killings of lions in Amboseli.

A group photo of the team from the Mara © NatureKenya

“I saw in Eselenkei where we went that vultures too are an important part of wildlife. People there really love and take care of wild animals. I will go and encourage people in my community to stop poisoning wild animals and birds while maintaining the tradition,” said Wilson Soit, Assistant Chief of Talek in Maasai Mara who participated in the exchange visit.

During the visit, the Maasai Mara group interacted with pastoralists from Amboseli to gain first-hand experience of how livestock, grazing and conflicts are effectively managed on community-managed ranches. Grazing management plans have been developed which designate specific areas and times for grazing to help minimize conflict with wildlife. In Addition, problematic lions are fitted with collars and tracked by trained Lion Guardians (hired warriors) who combine the technology with their traditional tracking knowledge to monitor the movements of the lions to inform herders where to graze to minimize encounters. Furthermore, community scouts patrol grazing zones to ensure the cattle herders and wildlife do not cross paths. These are some of the ways the community in Amboseli have reduced conflict in their area and stopped poisoning.

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Field demos taking place © NatureKenya

“We learned about a case where a lion was poisoned and buried, and when it rained, the poison was washed into the river in their community. Twenty cows and about ten goats drank the water from that river and died. Many people in the community realized how dangerous it is to poison animals – it does not only kill animals, it can kill people as well,” explained Harris Taga, another participant who represented a local group known as Friends of Maasai Mara in Narok.

Harris said he returned from the visit having learnt a lot of lessons, all thanks to Nature Kenya for providing them with this opportunity.

Nature Kenya will continue to support local communities in the Maasai Mara to help devise community based solutions to combatting human-wildlife conflict by adapting models like that of the Lion Guardians to support the implementation of poison-free conflict mitigation strategies in the Maasai Mara. Furthermore, this initiative will provide greater public awareness of the vulture crisis and increase support to protect vultures and enhance the role these birds play in human and wildlife health.

Vulture conservation activities in the Maasai Mara are jointly implemented by Nature Kenya, The Peregrine Fund and BirdLife International through funds from the BAND Foundation and Fondation Segre.