Maasai warriors in Kenya now protect African wildlife: The hunters are now the collectors

The little kid is hunched over his school book in a dusty classroom of a village school in Kenya, close to the equator. A visiting tourist peers at the lion he's carefully drawing and tells him what a great job he's making. The boy, probably no more than seven, beams with pride. "This lion is my friend," he tells her. "He bought me this pencil!"

This boy is part of a gradually unfolding revolution in Kenya that is seeking to reconnect Africans to their wildlife. For as they start to share in the income from a booming sustainable tourism industry, so they become eager to help protect and preserve the lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant that bring many of these tourists to their lands.

Where once Maasai warriors, for instance, would kill a lion on their coming of age to prove their strength and courage, now they're being persuaded that to be a guardian of lions carries much more prestige and honour. While rhinos have so often been targeted by poachers for their valuable horn, locals are now much keener to report any suspicious newcomers they feel may be up to no good.

Schemes like the Big Life Foundation, a partner of the Ol Donyo Lodge in the Chyulu Hills of southern Kenya, just north of Mount Kilimanjaro, gives work and wages to hundreds of Maasai as rangers to protect more than 8000 square kilometres of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem. 

And new partnerships between wildlife conservancies and cattle-owning Samburu warriors further north mean that if a wild animal kills one of their livestock, they're able to claim compensation as long as they don't take revenge on the predator. 

Slowly, these alliances are proving incredibly successful in allowing game – once seen as competitors for land, food and water, and a major threat to human security – to flourish. 

Across much of the rest of Africa, poaching is a major threat. The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), the leading international conservation organisation focused solely on Africa, predicts that, at current rates, elephants, rhinos and other iconic species will all be gone within our lifetimes. 

Poachers mostly target the bigger animals for their horn, tusks, pelts or bones, and there is also enormous pressures on the wildlife's land, moving them closer to humans with the inevitable clashes. AWF research has found that the population of black rhinos has fallen 97.6 per cent since 1960, making them now critically endangered, up to 35,000 elephants were killed in 2005 alone, only about 2000 of the endangered Grevy's zebra remain and 85 per cent of the historic rangelands of lions has been lost.  

Yet in many parts of Kenya wildlife protection programs are doing so well, they are fast becoming templates for the continent to help successfully conserve the wildlife and enrich locals simultaneously.

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And tourists, like me, are among the biggest winners. It's wonderful to watch buffalo rolling around in the mud at one of Kenya's first wildlife conservancies, the Nairobi National Park, while staying at The Emakoko Lodge, knowing there's little chance today of hunters attacking them for their meat. 

Similarly, it's stunning to gaze on black rhino stomping across the vast yellow plains of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya in the middle of the country, with their young often hiding shyly behind their legs, knowing they're going to be safe from poachers.

As a lioness watches protectively over her cubs nearby, it's heartening to realise it's odds on they'll reach maturity, too. 

Yet that's not the only way visitors revelling in these sights are benefiting. With the local Kenyan community now a partner in Lewa, these magnificent lions bring in the tourist dollars that have helped pay for major improvements in our young student artist's Elsa Primary School – and provide more bursaries, books, paper and pencils. As a result, the school now invites tourists to visit their classrooms and receive one of the friendliest, most heart-warming welcomes imaginable.

It's an introduction that tourists rarely had before. But now many tribal people are inviting them to their schools, homes, workplaces and into their lives to learn and understand their traditional ways, feeling it's a much more equal exchange of trade.

"People love coming here not only to see the wildlife, but to meet some of the local people," says Calum Macfarlane who runs Lewa House. "Things are really changing. People can now see the benefits of the wildlife, they can see what a difference it's making to their lives and Lewa's become a bit of a model for that. People are now coming from around the world to see how it's done."

While most tourists are still from Britain and the US, the number of Australians visiting is rising steadily. Although we've traditionally tended to favour Asia for our holidays, many more of us are now seeking out Africa, and Kenya in particular, for trips with the Sydney-based Classic Safari Company's bookings up 30 per cent on previous years.

In Kenya, another major factor in the change of attitude towards wildlife is the success of the Maasai Olympics, a much more colourful version of the main event, where warriors compete in events such as spear-throwing, standing jumps and running.The games have been held every two years since 2012 as an alternative way for young men to prove themselves rather than the traditional killing of a lion. The winners receive medals and cash prizes, and the top village, a prized breeding bull.

A survey last year found 91 per cent of the Maasai believed that the Maasai Olympics had made them much more willing to support lion conservation, with 93 per cent saying they felt it offered a good, or very good, alternative to traditional lion hunts to establish and recognise manhood.

The Lion Guardian program is another big hit. "They make a young warrior responsible for protecting a lion instead," Annie Waterer of Ol Donyo says. "They each look after a lion and warn villagers if he's straying into their area, to make sure the fences for their cattle are all secure. They now realise this is a very important job, that carries a lot of prestige and honour."   

In northern Kenya, the Northern Rangelands Trust supports 33 wildlife conservancies across nearly 44,000 square kilometres of this arid and semi-arid country, which is home to more than 480,000 people. This has always been the poorest part of the nation, but wildlife tourism is bringing jobs, education and infrastructure, empowering women and seed-funding small businesses. 

Wildlife is flourishing as a result, according to the NRT's 2015 report which states that "security, livelihoods and conditions for wildlife are all improving as a more resilient social, economic and ecological landscape emerges".

A big percentage of money paid by tourists to stay in some of the most fabulous lodges in these areas goes back to the community. At the Sarara Camp in the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy of the north, for instance, visitors swim in an infinity pool looking over a waterhole where huge numbers of elephants, buffalo and giraffe drink. They'll then go on game drives or walks, horse rides or out fly camping in the conservancy and barely see another human bar the odd Samburu warrior or ranger. 

Further south at Ol Malo in Laikipia, an initiative by the owners' daughter, Julia Francombe, has led to a new school being built, with members of the Samburu community trained as teachers, as a model for education in pastoralist communities. 

"We teach within the boundaries of the culture – celebrating the seasons and livestock and using traditional stories and songs," she says. "We are the first school in northern Kenya to teach in their mother tongue, which makes both teaching and learning most effective." The income from tourists visiting Ol Malo, staying at the remote clifftop property, and going out among the teeming wildlife, helps to subsidise the school.

Such partnerships of wildlife tourism enterprises and the communities provide unforgettable and enormously gratifying experiences for visitors to Kenya, believes Anton Childs, who runs The Emakoko Lodge.

"Seeing wildlife like this in such a natural habitat, and seeing the people so comfortably at home with them, enriches the soul," he says. "People are now realising what a wonderful country Kenya is to visit, and when they come once, we find they return again and again."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/kenya

TOUR

The Classic Safari Company books safaris at The Emakoko, Nairobi National Park; Lewa House, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy; Ol Donyo Lodge, Chyulu Hills; Sarara Camp, Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy; Ol Malo, Laikipia; and Mara Plains, Maasai Mara.  Ph (02) 9327 0666. See classicsafaricompany.com.au

FLY

South African Airways flies to Nairobi via Perth and Johannesburg (www.flysaa.com) and Safarilink flies from Nairobi to all areas (www.flysafarilink.com)  

STAY

All the lodges have luxury accommodation in either cottages or tented camps, with en suites and private verandahs, swimming pools, dining rooms and a variety of activities and excursions. Book via The Classic Safari Company, details above.

Sue Williams travelled courtesy of The Classic Safari Company and South African Airways. 

HOW ARE AFRICA'S BIG FIVE FARING? 

THE ELEPHANT The biggest animal still walking the earth, there are now only about 415,000 in the wild across 37 countries in Africa. 

STATUS: VULNERABLE

THE RHINO There are fewer than 5000 black rhino in the wild, with European hunters responsible for their early drop in numbers and now poachers taking their toll.

STATUS: CRITICALLY ENDANGERED There are thought be about 20,170 white rhino – the second biggest land mammal in the world – left mostly in South Africa, Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

THE AFRICAN LION There are fewer than 25,000 African lions left in the wild, from more than 200,000 in the 1960s.

STATUS: VULNERABLE

THE AFRICAN LEOPARD The least seen of the big five since they are nocturnal and solitary, making them hard to track. While it's known their rangelands have shrunk, their numbers are not known.

STATUS: UNKNOWN 

THE BUFFALO With threats mostly coming from conflict with humans and a reduced habitat, there are thought to be about 900,000 in the wild, mostly in protected areas.

STATUS: LEAST THREATENED

Sources: World Wildlife; African Wildlife Foundation; and the IUCN Red List, compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

TIPS FOR VIEWING THE BIG FIVE

SPEAK SOFTLY

Keep your voice down when in your vehicle or if you are on foot, never play music, make loud noises or keep your phone on. Some creatures like the black rhino are surprisingly timid – or aggressive – and you don't want to frighten the wildlife …away nor towards you! 

GO EARLY OR LATE

Go wildlife viewing in the early morning and late in the day to see the most animals. Leopards, in particular, will usually be around only at dusk. Your guide will probably use a red light to see them so as not to dazzle them.

DRIVE SLOWLY

Sometimes there might be an elephant family hiding behind a rock, or a lion lurking in the undergrowth that you'll spot only if you're taking your time.

Don't forget your binoculars. Some lodges will lend you binoculars, which may be more bulky and powerful than yours.

SIT DOWN

Don't stand up in your vehicle because animals look at humans in a vehicle as one unit. If people stands, they break that outline and the animals will run away.  

THE SECRET LIFE OF THE SAMBURU

Eight tall Samburu warriors stand in a circle. They have just returned to their tiny village after a day herding their cattle, goats and camels in the hills and have re-emerged from their cow-dung huts dressed in all their traditional finery – beads, feathered headpieces, earrings, bangles and belts.

At some unseen signal, they start to dance to the rhythm of their own clapping and to a hypnotic, relentless chant. They move in circles, they jump high with their feet together, they twist and they turn.

After 10 minutes several girls, their heads shaven, their faces daubed with ochre, and dressed in even more fabulous necklaces and cloth tied around their waists dance nearby, bouncing their magnificent bead collars against their bodies. 

This is not a display for tourists. This is a mating ritual done each evening when the warriors have returned from herding their cattle. It's usually an intensely private affair but at Ol Malo, a wildlife lodge in the north of Kenya which helps support the local communities, every visitor is offered the chance to see it.

"You see him flicking his hair towards that woman?" our Samburu guide Leuya Lempridnany asks. "She is the one he chooses. He will put his hand on her head which is our way of kissing. We don't kiss in the way you do." We're mesmerised.

An older woman then invites us into her hut to sit in the dark, smoky interior, to watch her cook some root vegetables over an open fire.  The vegetables will be eaten with the usual fare of milk and blood. The space is so low, small and cramped, it's astonishing to think of a family of six living in this one room.

Further north near our Sarara Camp, we're invited into another village to see how these Samburu live. The noise of the goats, cattle and dogs all herded into the boma is deafening, as tiny children deftly move them into their allotted places. 

Then, down south at the Maasai Mara, staying at Mara Plains Camp, there's a visit to the Maasai village. Here, a group of women sing in a beautifully sweet harmony before the men appear to demonstrate their famous jump dancing. Sometimes, they invite visitors to join in. How better to prove that white men (and women) really can't jump?        

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