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Quarters for Conservation: Lion Guardians

Third in a three-part series on the 2018-2019 Quarters for Conservation programs at Zoo Atlanta.

Representing strength and courage, the lion has served as one of the most commonly recognized animal symbols in human culture since the time of the Roman empire. Unfortunately, in just the last 50 years, the lion population has decreased by almost 50 percent. An apex predator that once roamed almost all of Africa, as well as parts of Europe and Asia, has been reduced to only 17 percent of its historical habitat range and is absent from at least 26 African countries. Threats causing this quickening decline include illegal poaching, habitat loss and conflict between humans and lions.

Lions live in groups called prides, which are composed of related females and one dominant male. They are the only truly social big cat species, and typically occupy grassland and savanna habitat. The large decline in habitat availability causes lions to have to travel between fragmented areas either on the search for food or other breeding individuals. While on these searches, they commonly come into conflict with the pastoralist communities who are native to the area. Not knowing the difference between a wild prey animal and one who is depended on for livelihood by a farmer, lions will occasionally prey on domestic livestock. As a result, many lions are killed each year in retaliation for livestock depredation.

Since its founding in 2007, Lion Guardians has been dedicated to identifying and enacting long-term conservation solutions that allow humans and lions to coexist. Operating from their core site in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem of Africa, the program monitors an area of close to a million acres of African terrain. They pride themselves on creating a conservation model that is scientifically and culturally driven, as well as transferable across areas and predator species.

Historically, conservation programs have focused on the animals at risk, without incorporating the native people with whom they share a home. Lion Guardians believes that the fate of the lion lies in the hands of those who live alongside them. They implement this belief by recruiting young Maasai and other pastoralist warriors, and teach them the skills they need to prevent human-lion conflict, monitor the lion populations in their area, and help their own communities live alongside large predators. These Guardians use their knowledge of the land to locate lions and prevent conflicts before they can occur.

By blending science with indigenous culture and knowledge, the Lion Guardians’ use of participatory monitoring prevents an average of 50 lion hunts per year. While monitoring areas for lions, the Guardians also help to reinforce an average of 300 homesteads (to prevent lions from being able to prey on herders’ livestock) and locate an average of 15 lost herders and children annually. Prestige and honor within their community, traditionally awarded for lion hunting, is a benefit of becoming a Lion Guardian. The strength and continued success of the Lion Guardians program is drawn from their use of traditional knowledge and indigenous culture rather than an attempt to change a culture completely. Warriors who once hunted and killed lions are transformed into Guardians and protectors who are showing their communities the value of protecting and coexisting alongside this iconic predator.

I am so excited that Lion Guardians was chosen as one of the projects for Zoo Atlanta’s 2018-2019 Quarters for Conservation funding year. By supporting this program, you are helping to equip the Guardians with the tools they need to effectively mitigate conflicts between people and wildlife in their area. This not only helps the lions, but also helps the communities who live with them by providing employment and methods to avoid conflict in the future!
Danica Wolfe
Swing Keeper I, Mammals, and Quarters for Conservation Champion for Lion Guardians

Photo copyright Philip J. Briggs

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