Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Teaching lions and humans to get along

From David McKenzie, CNN and Lillian Leposo for CNN
updated 12:09 PM EDT, Mon October 1, 2012
  • Paula Kahumbu is a Kenyan conservationist aiming to reduce human-wildlife conflict
  • Lion populations in Kenya have fallen drastically in the last 15 years
  • Kahumbu is training lions and educating humans to get along better

Editor's note: African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Paula Kahumbu initially opted for a career in wildlife conservation so she wouldn't have to deal with people.

But working with wild animals in her native Kenya has taught her that it is near impossible to prevent some vulnerable species coming into contact with human communities --- often with damaging consequences.

As executive director of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust and chairman of the Friends of Nairobi National Park, Kahumbu now aims to reduce people-wildlife conflicts arising from these scenarios.

"Africa is the only continent remaining on this planet that still has its full diversity of large mammals," she says. "We can't afford to lose it. We've always been able to co-exist with wildlife."

See also: Uneasy truce between Maasai and nature

Conserving Kenya's wildlife

In some parts of the rural Kenya however the durability of this ancient cohabitation has been tested in recent times.

Reconnecting Kenya with its wildlife

Lions have become a particular problem for farm owners and Maasai tribes, with whom they share the country's vast savannahs, often preying on valuable livestock.

This has led many farmers and rural communities to take matters into their own hands, in some cases killing whole prides they perceive as a threat.

The use of pesticides such as Furadan -- a tablespoon of which costs less than a dollar and is enough to kill a lion -- has become a particularly ruthless way of doing so.

"Kenyan lions have reduced from about 15,000 about 15 years ago to fewer than 2,000 now," explains Kahumbu.

Read related: 'Green Nobel' fights to save Africa's rainforests

"And we know that probably 50 percent of that is attributable directly to the use of pesticides."

Through dialogue and education programs, Kahumbu is aiming to end these practices. She hopes to show rural communities how they can coexist and even benefit from their proximity to lions.

Kenyan lions have reduced from about 15,000 about 15 years ago to fewer than 2,000 now
Paula Kahumbu

"In many parts of Maasai land now what we have are programs where people are rewarded for protecting wildlife. They are rewarded for keeping land open."

"They are trained so that they can participate in conservation. And they are given opportunities to get investors to come in and work with them. I really think that is the solution."

See also: Last of the bush trackers

A constructive and respectful dialogue with communities is highlighted by Kahumbu as a key factor in achieving these aims. But it's not just the human population who have been the focus of her organization's educational efforts.

The Princeton University graduate is also working to train wild lions so they know not attack livestock. She admits such a tactic may sound bizarre but believes it is essential to safeguard the big cat's future in Kenya.

"Lions are very, very intelligent animals. The reason why lions don't prey on certain livestock in certain places is because they get hammered (if they do)."

"There are ways that you can punish lions - and one of them is that you can put rock salt into a shot gun and shoot at them. It's not going to injure them or kill them but it hurts like hell. They're not going to come back because they don't want to have that pain again."

Kahumbu speaks with a passionate conviction on the benefits these training programs have brought.

Yet with more than 75 percent of Kenya's wildlife inhabiting land outside of government protected areas, she admits there is only so much they can achieve on their own.

It was for this reason that in 2007 she decided to join Wildlifedirect, a bloggers network which connects conservationists and publicizes conservation work across the world.

In many parts of Maasai land now what we have are programs where people are rewarded for protecting wildlife
Paula Kahumbu

She has since taken over as the website's chief executive and its popularity has soared.

"Initially all we were doing is raising money - it was every blogger for himself. And what we noticed, what I noticed, very early on is that many of the bloggers were telling the same story."

This observation helped Kahumbu grasp that the blog platform could be used as a network tool for conservationists, helping them stay in touch as well as share their research.

"All of the bloggers who were online on other predators (such as crocodiles, jackals and birds) are now sharing each other's technology and learning from each other and exchanging," she says.

See also: Beauty trumps beast in conservation efforts

The power of communication emphasized by these exchanges has since acted as an inspiration for Kahumbu's latest conservation project --- the creation of recorded oral history of Kenya's biodiversity.

"In my work, especially working with the local communities who are dealing with wildlife on a daily basis - I have been reminded constantly (that) most of the knowledge is maintained in the minds of the elders," she says.

"I hear these people lamenting that old stories are now gone and nobody can tell them. Those elders are not literate - they can't record their stories."

By filming conversations with older tribes people and storing them on the internet, Kahumbu aims to keep this cultural knowledge and experience alive.

She also hopes a new generation of rural Kenyan's will gain a historic perspective on how to live alongside animals such as lions.

"All they (young people) see about wildlife is killing livestock or destroying property," she says.

"(But) through these stories, children are able to actually discover this incredible culture and biodiversity that we have in Kenya and across Africa," she says.

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 7:40 AM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
updated 6:50 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Wed March 19, 2014
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
updated 8:46 AM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
updated 6:26 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
updated 5:34 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
updated 5:16 AM EST, Mon February 17, 2014
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
updated 11:48 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
updated 7:06 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
updated 5:45 AM EST, Fri February 7, 2014
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
updated 6:14 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.