Lion-killer Maasai turn wildlife warriors to save old enemy

Updated 1038 GMT (1838 HKT) February 8, 2017

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(CNN)The Maasai have roamed Tanzania since time immemorial. Cattle in tow, the East African pastoralists have circled the land looking for fresh grass, co-existing with nature for as long as anyone can remember.

But nature is not always kind. Fifty percent of the world's lion population lives in East Africa -- and lions like to eat livestock.

East Africa is home to 50% of the world's lions, but human-animal conflict is a huge threat to the population in Tanzania.

    Historically the Maasai would use deadly force to protect their herds, often heading out in revenge parties to hunt and kill lions. There were ritual killings also, known as "Ala-mayo." Killing a lion, a symbol of strength and power, was a rite of passage for Maasai initiates into "Morani," the warrior class. Armed with a spear, these youths became men in the process, returning to the tribe to be treated with new-found respect.

    Killing a lion has historically been a gateway for young Maasai to enter into Morani, the warrior class.

    The Tanzanian government banned ritual killing in the 1970s, but certain pockets of activity were silently condoned. In Ngorongoro Crater, north west of Tarangire National Park and a conservation area since 1959, the practice was judged sustainable due to the high lion concentration and low human presence. In the 1960s the tribe claimed no more than 10 animals per year, but as with so much of the world in the 20th century, the Maasai's population grew in Ngorongoro. Forty lions, if not more, are now under threat annually in the conservation area, and all over Tanzania lion numbers are declining.
      Conservationists know the problem needs to be addressed, and in a remarkable turnaround they've enlisted the very best gamekeepers to patrol the Maasai Steppe: the Maasai themselves.
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      At around 5am the Maasai "Wildlife Warriors" rise to birdsong, nature's alarm clock. A bowl of porridge and cup of chai to start the day. Slipping on a pair of sandals, their soles recycled from old car tires, the Warriors head out of their "kraal," a small sheltered community, to begin tracking.

      Wildlife Warriors regularly survey the wider Maasai steppe for large predators.

        These Maasai have traded in their hunting ways for a life of conservation. Part of an initiative run by the Tanzania People & Wildlife Fund, an organization specializing in human-animal conflict, the Warriors are spread across communities in Tarangire and the surrounding rangeland, using their skills, their lifeblood, to protect what was once their adversary.
        Beyond the "boma," a low wall surrounding the "kraal," tracks line the dirt. They betray the lions, hyenas and wild dogs who visit in the night, drawn to livestock and, in the dry season, the community's water supply. On an uneventful day, Warriors might take a car owned by Tanzania People & Wildlife and conduct an animal headcount, circling the Steppe in the early morning.

        A team tracking animals in the bush.

          But sometimes tracks start inside the "boma," suggesting a big cat. When big cat footprints are involved, they usually lead to a kill. The next step is crucial.
          "People are becoming more and more angry towards wildlife," says Wildlife Warrior Lucas Lengoje. In the past a carcass resulted in retribution. The head of cattle per person has decreased among the Maasai in recent years, meaning the pain of every loss is felt all the more.
          "The community finds it very difficult to comprehend the importance of the wildlife," Lengoje adds. "It takes time to calm them down and for them to believe you, as they care more about their livestock than wildlife."

          Maasai populations in Tanzania have steadily increased, while the head of cattle per person has reduced.

          Some of the reprisals have become extreme. Aside from spearings, Maasai have begun poisoning carcasses between a lion's initial gorge and second feed. This not only kills the lion, but anything that feeds on the lion's subsequent carcass.
          Fighting to keep lions alive
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          Fighting to keep lions alive 05:31
          Wildlife Warriors intercede, dissipate the situation, and ultimately provide solutions for their communities and those around them. One of their primary concerns is to document the attack and location, using GPS to map the incident on Tanzania People & Wildlife's database. They'll also warn neighboring herders of the dangers nearby.
          Then begins the long-term approach to preventing cattle loss. "Living Walls" (African myrrh trees joined by chain link fences) are being used by Tanzania People & Wildlife. Built in collaboration with the Maasai, they have have been rolled out across communities.

          A boy walks through the gate of a living wall, a sturdier, more secure replacement for a boma.

          "The difference between the 'boma' and the Living Wall is that the living wall uses chain link," explains Elvis Kisimir, from Tanzania People & Wildlife. 'Bomas' contain dried twigs from the thorny acacia bush, but chain link is infinitely more effective, especially when fortified with living, fast-growing thorny trees, which only become more impassable with age. In the wet season these walls reach over 12 feet high.
          "We currently have more than 700 'bomas,' and the Living Wall is a program that has safeguarded 99% of our livestock at night," says Kisimir.
          Maasai tribe's struggle to preserve wildlife
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          This immediate success is being supplemented with education programs fronted by Maasai Wildlife Warriors, aimed at neutralizing any antagonism between man and his fellow predators.

          Young men have embarked on lion hunts in the past known as Ala-mayo.

          "If we decided to do this on our own, we wouldn't achieve much," admits Kisimir. "Community is everything."
          Laly Lichtenfeld, executive director of Tanzania People & Wildlife, describes this as "the next step," and a way to help create a self-regulating environment in which both Maasai and lions can prosper.
          "The Maasai people are absolutely critically integral to the conservation process in northern Tanzania," she adds. "This is their land, and their livelihoods are so dependent on wise environmental stewardship.
          "Healthy grasslands mean healthy livestock. And the livestock, the cattle, are core of their being -- who they are. It's their pride, it's their identity; it's their economic wellbeing. And so if they can manage to really keep these ecosystems intact and healthy, then everything in the system benefits."

          A Maasai youth surveys the steppe in traditional costume.