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Recent Laikipia land invasions from a lion's perspective

Consequences of Laikipia land invasions on lions

Two days ago, Thomas heard that a lion had been killed in our study area in Laikipia. After a risky investigation during which time he had to pose as a member of another tribe in order not to be killed himself, he was lead to the carcass, skinned with all parts of any cultural value removed. The lion is likely one of Livingstone’s 3 brothers, or another similar young male from a neighbouring pride. It was impossible to tell from what remained.

You will have seen articles on the land invasions in Laikipia. In short, there is currently a ‘perfect storm’ of political and climatic factors resulting in many thousands of community livestock being driven into the commercial ranch land. It is a complex story with many view-points but today I want to tell it from the lion’s perspective.

The commercial ranch land in Laikipia has long acted as an unofficial protected area for lions and other wildlife. When I first started putting GPS collars on lions in the area, I was most interested in how lions utilised the different land-use types but it was fascinating how little they ventured away from the commercial ranch land. Instead they marked the boundaries of the commercial ranches with their movements; boundaries that had no physical features on the ground and yet lions seemed to understand that on one land-use (commercial ranches) they were safer than on the other (traditional pastoral land). Lions and pastoral people in Kenya have a long and complex relationship which is beyond the scope of this post but usually they rub along OK unless lions kill precious livestock, then they may be killed in response.

Lions can and do survive in traditional pastoralist areas (see important work by our partners in Pride, particularly Ewaso Lions who are our partners in the same ecosystem), but it is not easy – they usually survive in low densities and make all sorts of behavioural trade-offs to survive (see attached paper). The commercial ranch land in Laikipia offers a refuge, where larger more stable prides are able to survive and breed more successfully, replenishing surrounding populations.

This was not always the case. When I displayed some of our lion GPS data to the ranchers, showing how important the commercial ranch land was to all the lion prides, one of the older ranchers stated with a snort that back in the old days lions wouldn’t dare set foot on the commercial ranch land. Back then it was safer for lions in the pastoralist communities, where there were low densities of people and livestock and plenty of wild prey. On the commercial ranches, lions were shot as vermin. If we had GPS collars back then, the vast pastoralist communities would have been full of lion locations, and the commercial ranch land would have been a blank hole, a small island of high risk in a sea of lion habitat. But a lot has changed, numbers of people and livestock has inexorably increased in the communities, pushing natural resources to the limit. And the commercial ranch land has increasingly become a small island of protection in a sea of high risk for lions. Lions seemed to know, not only where the invisible boundaries to their safe island lay, but also the inherent risks of crossing them.

But the boundaries have disappeared, the communities are increasingly coming on to the commercial ranch land. Not normal communities, where a level of co-existence might be found, but huge concentrated herds of 40-70,000 livestock, accompanied by armed and politically incited warriors. This is Armageddon for lions. Livingstone and his pride have changed their movements to survive. Rather than spending most of their time on the open plains where most of the zebra were but now thousands of cows graze instead, they now hug the steep rocky escarpments, and only ventures up onto the plains after dark. This is a compromise of sorts but how long before the wild prey is out competed by the huge herds of cows, and Livingstone and his pride turn to eating livestock instead?

Other lions have not been so lucky. The lion pictured in this post found himself surrounded by a vast herd of community livestock. He stayed still and hidden for a while but when they closed in on him, he panicked and ran at the closest person, no doubt trying to break through. An old man was bitten but managed to spear the lion, and other warriors rushed in and shot the lion dead. I imagine a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid moment. I am not sure where the lion would have escaped to.

The herds of starving livestock and their accompanying people appear endless. But lions are adaptive, like Livingstone they can use the natural refuges available to them to remain hidden during the daytime and forage what they can during the night. More lions will be killed during the land invasions but I remain positive that enough will survive to repopulate Laikipia again after the vast community herds leave, the rains come, the grass grows, and the wildlife recovers. The bigger challenge is how will wildlife and people survive the next storm, with growing herds of livestock and climate change? What will northern Kenya look like from the lion’s perspective 10 years from now?

Today I received another WhatsApp message from Thomas containing more pictures of the dead lion and other shot and speared animals. “Save these on your computer” his message read “to remember a year of drought and killing innocent wildlife”. I make a wish, ‘may it be only a year’.

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