Stalking the Lion: Notes from a Field Biologist in Kenya

A male elephant bathing with his son

All my life, I have always loved wild animals. In elementary school, I read Call of the Wild and My Side of the Mountain. I built terrariums to keep snakes and frogs and mice as summer pets, and even raised the occasional abandoned bird’s egg. I read my children’s science encyclopedia constantly, and I was a faithful subscriber to Zoobooks.

So by the time I was in high school, I already had my heart set on becoming a wildlife biologist. I took advanced placement classes in environmental biology, volunteered with Students for Environmental Action, and (thanks to my wonderfully supportive parents) went away to environmental science summer camps for more training.

At Howard University, I became an Environmental Biology Scholar, winning a fellowship that allowed me to undertake my first research project in Africa – my most influential early experience. I went on to develop my research skills in a master’s program in wildlife and fisheries science at Texas A&M University, where I gained more field experience with a thesis project based in Scotland.

I’m now a Ph.D. student in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, where I specialize in conservation biology and focus on Africa. Here at Duke, I have the good fortune of studying under Dr. Stuart Pimm, a preeminent conservation biologist and scientific advisor to National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative. For my dissertation research, Stuart and I have teamed up with the Anne K. Taylor Fund, a Kenyan charity working to stop human-lion conflict near the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

The Maasai Mara National Reserve (fondly called "the Mara" by locals) is one of the most famous reserves in Africa, and is home to some of the most incredible natural phenomena in the world. It’s best known as one of two parks that host the Great Migration, an annual event during which millions of zebra and wildebeest journey across the massive plains of East Africa in search of food and water.

The Mara is also home to the Maasai, the most famous tribe in the world, easily recognized by their colorful red shukas, beautiful tan cattle, and lion-hunting traditions.

Every year, the Mara greets millions of visitors and earns Kenya billions of dollars in wildlife tourism. Wildlife tourism, in fact, one of the largest contributors to the national GDP, making Kenya’s biological diversity both a natural and economic treasure.

Visitors flock to Kenya to see the incredible diversity of wildlife present in the Mara: long-legged impala, trumpeting elephants, roaring lions and skyscraper giraffes, fat, rolling hippos, curve-horned waterbuck, klipspringers hopping rock to rock, and massive, soaring martial eagles.

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They also come to see the Maasai – to visit the neat hillside manyattas and participate in dances, feasts, and a myriad of other cultural events. This cultural tourism earns money for the Maasai, but makes up only a portion of their livelihood. The bulk of their subsistence depends on the cows, goats, and sheep that they shepherd through the Mara plains. 

This dependence on livestock means that many Maasai see lions (who are not opposed to snacking on the occasional cow or goat) as their enemies. A single attack could wipe out a family’s fortune overnight, and so to protect themselves, the Maasai sometimes hunt down lions, leopards, and cheetah in indiscriminate (and illegal) killing sprees that leave scores of rare and beautiful animals dead.

We don’t want wildlife slaughtered, and we don’t want people to lose cattle, either. Fortunately, we believe we’ve found a solution to both problems.

Most predators attack at night, when the Maasai traditionally lock up their animals in enclosures (bomas) made of acacia planks and thorns. Strengthening these bomas (for example, by building them with chain link fencing) may therefore be the key to preventing predator attacks.

The Anne K. Taylor Fund has been working over the past four years to strengthen more than 300 Maasai bomas in the western Mara. To uncover just how effective these predator-proof fences have been, I’ll be spending the next three months living in the Mara, visiting bomas and collecting data on the number of livestock lost to predators.

What we find could mean something big for Kenya, for the Maasai, and for other pastoral communities like them throughout East Africa. Saving livestock means saving lions (and other predators) – and ultimately, preserving the rich wildlife heritage of Kenya.

Alexandra Sutton is a Ph.D. student in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and an Explorers Club Grant recipient. She works with Dr. Stuart Pimm to find solutions to human-wildlife conflict in East Africa. Alexandra can be reached on Twitter as @aesutz, through her blog A Lion’s Life For Me, or by email at Duke University.