By Heather Gurd and Shivani Bhalla

The African lion is a powerful flagship species synonymous with the continent’s rangelands, but the number of lions and other large carnivores is declining rapidly.

Kenya is no exception to this grave trend. The national lion population is estimated to be fewer than 2,000 individuals. Here, like elsewhere in Africa, habitat loss and conflict with humans rank amongst the most significant threats to lions.

Rapid human population growth and encroachment into wildlife habitat has increased the frequency of human-lion interaction and conflict over recent decades. Conflicts may culminate in retaliatory persecution of lions and are often most pronounced amongst pastoralist communities for whom livestock depredation presents a significant actual, as well as perceived, risk to people’s livelihoods.

In northern Kenya, the Ewaso Lions conservation organisation is working with the local Samburu community, a semi-nomadic pastoralist ethnic group, to develop creative solutions to conserve lions and mitigate human-carnivore conflict.

Ewaso Lion’s flagship programme, Warrior Watch, was launched in early 2010 to engage the formerly neglected “moran” (or warrior) demographic in conservation. Within two years, Warrior Watch had already significantly improved local attitudes and tolerance towards wildlife.

Currently, the programme spans four community conservancies in northern Kenya; our network of warriors working tirelessly to promote lion conservation within their respective locations. In light of this success, Ewaso Lions developed new programmes targeting other demographic groups within the community. Until recently, however, one group – the Samburu women – remained notably absent.
Gender roles within Samburu society are strongly marked, with women typically assuming responsibility for the household and not participating in decision-making at the community level.

However, by virtue of their role fetching firewood and water, maintaining the homestead and tending to livestock, they are central users and managers of natural resources and also frequently come into contact with wildlife.

Moreover, whilst elders and warriors are away with cattle during the dry season, women often remain within the village. Consequently, they must deal with human-carnivore conflict first-hand should a predator attack livestock inside their village at night.

Yet, they are rarely given a chance to voice their opinions. In 2013, a small but very vocal group of ladies from Sasaab, a village located a few kilometres from the Ewaso Lions Camp, took it upon themselves to change this; to ensure Samburu women were given a voice in conservation.

The women repeatedly walked into Ewaso Lions Camp, requesting to be a part of our conservation efforts and eager to receive education and training. “We can do just as good a job as the warriors,” they said, “if only we were given the opportunity.”

In September 2013 the Mama Simba programme or, as the ladies fondly refer to it, Nkiramat Ngwezi (‘women involved in conservation’) was born.
Mama Simba equips women, who have limited exposure to conservation issues, with the knowledge and skills needed to reduce their environmental impact and effectively conserve and coexist with wildlife.

The programme began working closely with a core group of ten women from Sasaab village. The women, had seen warriors in their community progress from complete illiteracy to recording vital data on wildlife sightings and conflict incidents within three years. They expressed their own desire to read and write.

A pre-school teacher was hired and a Saturday school for the women was established. Now, the ladies are able to read and write basic English and Kiswahili. Mparasaroi, one of the leaders of the programme, proudly describes how, for the first time in her life, she is now able to read what her children are learning in school and understand what grades they receive.

She is grateful that this now gives her the opportunity to assist and encourage her children with their own education. Acquiring literacy not only facilitates the ladies’ participation in conservation-based activities, but also empowers them in other aspects of their life, including their beadwork, food and livestock trade businesses.

As part of the Mama Simba programme, the women are also involved in conservation training workshops where they learn about the importance of conservation and are provided with hands-on training in wildlife identification and conflict-mitigation.

Whilst keen to embrace any opportunity to learn about conservation, it quickly became apparent that these women had only ever experienced negative interactions with wildlife. Despite living alongside world famous national reserves, Samburu women rarely ever get to observe wildlife close up. Instead, they might just see the tracks of a carnivore outside their homestead or whilst grazing their livestock. So, in January 2014, a group of 32 women was taken on their first wildlife safari in Samburu National Reserve. This was the first time that most of the women encountered wildlife in a positive way. They were exhilarated!

They departed their villages before sunrise singing excitedly about their hopes to see wildlife, especially lions. By 11 a.m. the group had been lucky enough to see a plethora of herbivores, including many antelope species, large herds of elephants and even some of Samburu’s ‘special five’, such as the endangered Grevy’s zebra.

Yet, there was still no sign of lions. The anticipation was growing, as the women were desperate to see these animals about which they had learnt so much. The group divided, with the four vehicles dispersing to search high and low for the resident pride.

Finally, at noon, we spotted two of Samburu’s famous lionesses; Nanai and Nabulu feeding on a baboon. For many of the ladies this was their first ever time to see lions and they were thrilled – watching excitedly through their binoculars.

After a while, one of the vehicles departed the scene and was soon radioing the other groups telling them to rush to the hill where they were witnessing something amazing; the birth of an elephant!
Everyone was astounded that this female had allowed us into her life to watch this miracle at close range. As the women were watching the birth unfold before them, they started to talk to the elephant in their own language, explaining how sorry they were that elephants were in trouble and that they now understood the importance of conservation. They would do everything in their power to help them and other animals.

The ladies also apologised to the elephant because, in Samburu folklore, there is a myth that women had fought with elephants, an act that had strained the relationship between the two species. It was a once in a life-time safari and a great way to start the Mama Simba programme.

As many of the women are widows, with families to support and limited opportunities outside of their small livestock businesses, a beadwork enterprise has been established to provide them with a supplementary source of income. Ewaso Lions commissions the Samburu women, renowned for their exceptional beadwork skills, to make authentic beaded lion figurines.

The programme buys the handicrafts directly from the women and sells them. Although a relatively small amount, the extra income can make a big difference to the women, especially during the dry season when it is hard to sell goats in order to obtain the money needed to buy food. A day after purchasing a number of beaded lions, we often see the ladies waiting for a lift into town to buy goods such as sugar, tea and maize.

The goods the women buy from local shops, however, will often come packaged in plastic or thin nylon bags. These bags are typically either burned or discarded in the bush or around the villages. In the past, the ladies also admitted that they would wait for the dry river beds to flow before rushing down to the river to let the water carry their waste away downstream. That creates a huge problem as livestock and wildlife can ingest the waste plastic that litters the landscape.

Through Mama Simba, Ewaso Lions has organised clean up campaigns in the local villages with 220 women. In one week, the women collected 2,221 plastic containers and 15,922 pieces of plastic litter, which were sent away for recycling. Long-term solutions for waste management are being explored and one of them could be establishing a recycling enterprise run by the Mama Simba ladies.
Since launching the Mama Simba programme in 2013, the core group of 10 ladies has worked closely with other women from their communities – spreading a conservation message to their peers. They also now constantly report sightings of lions and even conflict incidents, increasing the programme’s network of informants.

Munteli, one of the programme leaders, is a fantastic example; three years ago, she could not even write down her name. Now she regularly sends us text messages about lions. In August 2015, the ladies even participated in the “Running for Lions” event to mark the World Lion Day. Each member of Ewaso Lions team ran for their favourite lion.

The women have developed a strong sense of ownership and pride in the work they do. They love the programme so much that they even demanded uniform. They now can be seen parading round their villages in their red and white coloured cloths called shukas which are emblazoned with the words ‘Mama Simba’ for the whole community to see.

In fact, Munteli and Mparasaroi have recently taken on new roles as Mama Simba coordinators in which they will be responsible for training a new cohort of Mama Simba ladies from three additional villages within Westgate Conservancy.

The nine new women, who joined the programme in February 2016 following a three-day conservation workshop, take the current number of Mama Simba ladies to 19. “Through the efforts of these women, and the support of the wider community, we have hope for the future of lions in northern Kenya.”