(Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Pondering the Coexistence of People and Wildlife on World Lion Day

(Photo: Jeff McCurry)
(Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Today is World Lion Day, a day to celebrate one of the most majestic and revered creatures on Earth. It is also a day to recognize that we need to take action to ensure the African lion population, with fewer than 20,000 lions remaining, has a future in the wild.

In the South Rift Valley of Kenya, lion populations are growing, while elsewhere across the continent, they are in severe decline. The difference is testament to a human-wildlife coexistence approach taken by the Maasai South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO) out of the Lale’enok Resource Centre.

The Resource Assessors team at Lale'enok Resource Centre
The Resource Assessors team at Lale’enok Resource Centre

At the heart of the program is a cadre of local Maasai who are employed as Resource Assessors (RA) to collect and apply ecological information directly relevant to community livelihoods, conservation and development. For example, the Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs monitor lion activity daily through various tracking methods. They share the information with local livestock herders, which enables the herders to make informed decisions on where to graze with minimal chance of conflict with lions.

Over the past nine years, the Cincinnati Zoo has supported the growth and innovation of the Centre and its programs. This past year, thanks to a grant through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Grants Fund and Disney Conservation Fund, the Zoo supported the training of Resource Assessors to develop new, effective ways to collect and communicate information about human-wildlife coexistence to communities in the South Rift.

RAs work on developing an educational presentation during the workshop
RAs work on developing an educational presentation during the workshop

In June, the Zoo’s COO, David Jenike, and I traveled to the South Rift to lead a Community Educators Workshop for the RAs. The purpose of the workshop was to train the RAs on how to more effectively share and disseminate the information they collect to the local community, schoolchildren and visiting international audiences. We spent several days with the group of 14 RAs, discussing and practicing education outreach and community engagement techniques and skills.

The Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs teach Earth Expedition students how to track radio-collared lions
The Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs teach Earth Expedition students how to track radio-collared lions

Following the workshop, Dave and I then taught the annual Kenya Earth Expeditions (EE) course. For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. The Kenya EE course focuses on co-existence between people and wildlife, and we spend the better part of our time in country working with the SORALO team at the Lale’enok Resource Centre. Having just completed the education workshop, the RAs were eager to try out their new communication skills with our EE students. They did a fabulous job, and I can’t wait to see how much more they develop over time.

A radio-collared lioness named Nasha and her daughter being monitored by the RAs
A radio-collared lioness named Nasha and her daughter being monitored by the RAs

Across the greater part of their range in Africa, lions are not faring as well as they are in the Kenya’s South Rift Valley. We hope that SORALO’s efforts to promote coexistence between people and lions can serve as a model for communities in other regions.

Guests visit John and Imani in the Africa exhibit (Photo: Mark Dumont)
Guests visit John and Imani in the Africa exhibit (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Here at the Zoo, we share the story of coexistence between people and wildlife on the African savannah with guests through our Africa exhibit and related education programs. The next time you visit, as you’re watching Henry and Bibi the hippos swim underwater, crushing on Cora the brand new baby giraffe, and admiring John and Imani the lions up close through the glass, I encourage you to reflect on the bigger picture. All of these animals you connect with at the Zoo have counterparts in the wild that rely on the capacity of our own human species to maintain a healthy planet and share our space with them.