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It had been three years since he last saw the lioness they called Naramat in Samburu National Reserve. Jeneria Lekilelei, a Samburu warrior working to protect lions, feared the big cat had been killed by someone who saw her as a threat. Yet here she was in front of him, strolling along her old familiar terrain—and beside her wandered a young male cub, playing in his mother’s shadow.
Seeing her alive reinforced in Lekilelei a strongly held hope: If Naramat and her cub could survive so long outside the protection of the reserve, then other lions might as well. This could be a sign that community members were becoming more accepting of the lions and perhaps even protective of them.
Lion conservation was not always a priority for Lekilelei. In his role as a warrior, he spends many days herding cattle and protecting the community, responsibilities he is happy to have. His enthusiasm for lion conservation was sparked by Ewaso Lions, an organization dedicated to protecting lions in Kenya. “Through them,” he says, “I learned that wildlife is important and having lions in my home area helps people.” Lions not only play a critical role in the food chain, regulating other species such as zebras and buffalo, but they are also a huge asset to the African tourism industry, bringing in travelers from around the world.
But community members have a history of disliking lions because they prey on cattle, which the Samburu people heavily depend on for food. Cattle also serve as a kind of currency or bank in the area’s economy: The number of cattle owned by a family equates directly with their wealth.
Now an Ewaso Lions field officer, Lekilelei addresses lion-human conflicts in the community. He reinforces livestock enclosures, retrieves lost cattle and encourages community members to use guard dogs, noisemakers and lights for added protection at night. Lekilelei also runs several educational programs where he explains the negative impacts associated with the decline of lion populations. “My goal is to support the conservation of lions,” he states. “I want to encourage people to live with wildlife in Samburu.”