Meet Jeneria Lekilelei, a young Samburu warrior who comes from the Sasaab location in Westgate Community Conservancy, Samburu, Kenya. Jeneria started working with Ewaso Lions in 2008 as a Lion Scout and has since taken a substantial leadership role in his current position as Field Operations and Community Manager. Jeneria is a wildlife hero and true ambassador for lions, wildlife and conservation in Kenya. This is his story.
You come from Sasaab village here in West Gate Conservancy. Can you describe what it was like growing up here as a child/young moran (warrior)?
When I was a young boy, I used to herd livestock. Conservation was so unknown to me. I didn’t care about wildlife. I grew up looking after goats, sheep and cows. I would leave the village every day to look after them and wildlife would chase me.
My family is very big, as my father had three wives. My mother had eight children, my stepmother has seven children, and my other stepmother has two children, so it is a very big family.
Has wildlife conservation always been important to you?
Wildlife used to be important to me only because we ate its meat. When I was young, my father would kill a gerenuk and we would eat. As a boy, I would kill dik diks and eat them. I didn’t know about conservation, we didn’t have conservancies, and no one was doing conservation work. Wildlife caused huge problems, killing livestock. Elephants would kill goats and humans if they came across them.
I hated lions so much before. They were not meaningful in my area and only caused problems. Lions still cause problems with livestock now, but I also realize that they give us a lot of benefits. If we have lions here, it is like having gold in this area.
When did you start to develop an interest in conservation, and did anything in particular spark this interest?
Joining the Ewaso Lions team and getting involved in conservation is what changed me. Because of my culture I hated lions because they killed my livestock, but then I changed. Before Ewaso Lions was here, there was no education in the village, which was a problem. Going on safaris to other places where there is conservation also helped me learn.
Traditionally, the role of a warrior – such as yourself – has been to protect your community and livestock from harm. Since lion predation is a significant cause of livestock loss, why have you chosen to support lion conservation in this area?
Before Ewaso Lions, when I knew nothing about lions, I would have said that I hated all predators because of the loss they caused me. With the education that I got from Ewaso Lions, I saw how people could live with predators.
I look at Samburu as part of a bigger picture now. Before, Samburu was my world and I only thought of myself. I didn’t see any benefit from lions to myself alone. Now, I think widely and about what is happening at a larger level. From a conservation point of view, because the number of lions in Kenya is so low, I have seen that there is a reason for me to protect lions. I couldn’t have taught others from my generation if I didn’t know anything about lions. Lions have created benefits for everyone. Children go to school, and many of them would be sitting at home instead. My warriors who had never been to school now know how to read and write. This is because of lions. It is also good for our project to tell people how few lions we have so that my community wants to work harder at keeping the few lions that we do have alive for cultural reasons.
What role do lions play in the Samburu culture?
It is a very important animal. We believe that if lions are present, there will be no bad droughts. When lions roar in the early morning, we think this is a sign of rain and there will be no drought. Nothing else will give us hope during a drought except a lion’s roar.
We believe we came from the same place as wildlife. Some families belong to the Elephant Family, and some families belong to the Lion Family, called “Lparasoro”. A lion roaring sounds like “Lparasoro”. Those from the lion family cannot kill lions.
It is a very important animal in our culture due to all the ceremonies we have in our lives. I also believe without lions, there would be no circumcision ceremonies for the warriors. What would happen if we didn’t have lions during our ceremonies?
Also in my culture, if livestock is killed by lions, it means good luck. We should not be stressed if we lose one to lions. The good luck means we will get more livestock in the future.
If we have four cows for example, we say one is for a predator, one is for a trench, like if a cow falls in a trench and breaks the leg and dies. One is yours, one is to give to someone like a relative who may not have one. This means if either one of these happened, you should not get angry because it is part of your beliefs.
As a warrior you would kill lions to prove your manhood. What has changed now? Do warriors still kill lions for cultural reasons?
Because of education, we don’t kill lions like we did before. Kenya Wildlife Service now brings us skins that they already have to use during cultural ceremonies. People are now seeing the benefit of lions so they won’t kill them, and the warriors have seen that they don’t have to kill lions to show their strength.
What do you see as critical to the success of conservation efforts in this area?
Conservation works when we involve and educate the community. I believe that the major challenge for me was lack of education and not understanding the value for having wildlife. It is important to involve all the different demographic groups within the area to show them successful conservation, to show them wildlife positively, and to give them close-up wildlife experiences so they can understand and love wildlife. Many people will tolerate lions, but I believe some will actually love lions. I was a community member like them and now I love lions. Hopefully a quarter or half the population will love lions like I do.
How did you get involved with Ewaso Lions?
I was hired as a Scout in 2008. I went to work early in the morning wearing my green uniform and boots. I really disliked this work. I didn’t like wearing a uniform and felt that it kept me from succeeding in my work by pulling me out from my warrior class. I was unable to interact with my peers because they didn’t see me as a warrior, just as a Scout. I really wanted to become a field person. I didn’t know this at first, but as soon as I came to do fieldwork, I discovered this is really what I wanted to do in my life. I wanted to look for lions and sit with them all day.
Was there a key moment that made you realize that you wanted a change?
One day Shivani took me to Shaba National Reserve, where I had never been before. Seeing this new place and then finally finding lions in Shaba made me more then excited. The work was very hard: standing all day in the back of the vehicle looking in every single bush. Finally, we found the lions. It made the whole time I was standing feel like nothing. All of a sudden I was not tired. That really clicked in my mind and realized I wanted to be in the field with lions.
We also went to the Masai Mara and saw a place where the Maasai live. Seeing a population of 100 hyenas and 30 lions in one place was a very good moment for me. I could come back and tell my community, “You guys are joking when you see one lion. Mara has 30 lions in one place”. That was very good.
What does your role as Ewaso Lions Field Operations and Community Manager involve? Could you describe a typical day in the life of Jeneria?
My day-to-day role is to do lion monitoring. This is my favorite work. I locate the lions within our study area and then sit in the vehicle next to them. I like to understand their movements so we can control conflict with humans. Understanding lions’ movements can keep them from being killed by the community. I also work with my warrior team to coordinate their work based on the movements of the lions.
If there is anything to do with the community that is related to the lions it becomes another job of mine. I deal with conflict, hold meetings and much more.
What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Being passionate about lions when I sit with them is very rewarding. I feel like lions are my friends or relatives. I didn’t think I would become like that. Even when I am home and not in the field I am asking about the lions on my phone. I am also very proud of Ewaso Lions, especially seeing how the warriors speak in front of the community about conservation and change people’s views about lions. This is something I did not believe I could achieve.
What do you find is the most challenging aspect of your work?
Dealing with [human-lion] conflict issues is the most challenging thing ever. You have to make sure you are there at the right place at the right time, before people go after the lions and kill them. Or you have to go to a meeting and talk to very angry people who have lost many livestock to lions. People want to kill me then because of their anger. During the drought, it is also difficult to see livestock and wildlife dying. I feel the real struggles of livestock and people.
What has been your proudest moment since you started working for Ewaso Lions in 2008?
I am very proud of myself for identifying individual lions and knowing them all. I am so proud to see how I can go to the community and they will listen to me. Before, I was a random warrior running around and no one would listen to me. Now I can change people’s attitudes towards lions. I am proud of how far I have come. I am also so proud to see how many people I have changed – people who hate lions, who now don’t hate them. Calming down a very angry person and convincing them not to kill a lion makes me happy. I am also proud how we involve all the demographic groups – from not only warriors, but also elders, mamas and kids.
You came up with the idea behind Ewaso Lions’ flagship outreach program Warrior Watch. Can you explain your motivation for this program and its progress since its launch in 2010?
I came up with the idea for Warrior Watch after I saw the challenges we were facing to keep lions safe. A warrior’s job is to protect livestock, and when livestock are killed it’s the warriors who need to respond. The only way we can succeed in protecting lions is to get the warriors involved in conservation decision-making. We can make them ambassadors to keep lions safe.
Since 2010, the program is progressing very well. We have not lost any lions in Westgate since 2010 because of my warriors.
When I was a Scout several years ago, I would never see tracks. Now, the tracks are all over. Lions are now present in Westgate. This is progress. There is a tolerance to lions now. People have accepted it. The message has spread and the warriors have changed people. I bump into a random warrior and he will stop me and say, “There are lions there.”
The role I play in Warrior Watch is to give the warriors guidance. I help them to become like myself. I want them to talk, talk, talk about lions non-stop like I do. I give them the details about why we need lions here. I say to them, “We need to protect lions. Look how far you have come. You can read and write now. Before, there was nothing.” I also coordinate with the warriors based on lions’ movements. Then they can to go to bomas [livestock enclosures] and talk about lions and tell people not to kill lions.
On a number of occasions you have been successful in preventing community members from killing lions following incidents of livestock predation. Can you explain how you have approached conflict situations like this and managed to resolve them peacefully?
The first thing I do is to try to find a way to stop people from going after the lions. You just have to stop them. I say, “We have already lost a cow. We will lose two things if you kill that lion”. You need to build a relationship with the people and understand how they feel when they lose a cow. I see their pain, and I know myself how painful it is.
I let them understand that I feel the same as them. People respond to that. After that, I identify the people who might go after the lions to kill them. They may be the people who control the others. Sit with them, look straight in to their eyes and speak to them calmly. Let them understand the general lion situation. They see the tracks of one lion moving round and round and think that these are the tracks of 100 lions. They don’t know that there is only one lion or that we have so few left.
I also tell them how the rhinos are far away now and how we lost them by killing them. Now we pay money to see those rhinos. There are lots of places now named after those animals we have lost, like “Mugur Muny” (rhino dam). I say, “Let’s not lose lions the way we lost the other animals.” I tell them that we only have 40 lions within this whole region. I put all the cultural things together with conservation issues so that they get the whole picture.
I talk as a warrior and as a Samburu so they know that I understand how they feel. They then calm down. I don’t leave them alone after that. Instead, I communicate with them all the time. I call them on phone and make friends with them. They need to know that I still care about them.
You spend a lot of time in the field and monitor approximately 40 lions. Do you have a favorite lion?
Nanai is my favorite lioness. When she was born in 2010, she joined two others, her cousins. The other two were very active and always on a hunting mission or sleeping. Nanai was very calm and she was very beautiful. She is very quiet and never bothers the others. She would follow the rest. I would sometimes feel sorry for her because she was always the last, whether she was looking for food or just walking.
Can you describe your most memorable encounter with a lion(s)?
Wow. There is one. I woke up at 5am and it was during Lguret’s collaring. I went all through Samburu and Buffalo Springs for days looking for Lguret. The vet was there and he said he would leave if he didn’t find the lion. Finally, at 4 pm we found Lguret sitting near the main road. Anytime I pass that area now, I always remember him sitting there. Everyone was tired and exhausted. I stood for hours looking for him.
I also discovered how clever lions are. One day we found male lions, very scared. Normally they are so calm, so I knew something was wrong. After looking closely, we saw blood all over their legs. We followed their tracks back and found they had killed a camel. The lions were scared because they killed livestock so they knew they were in trouble. I learned that lions also know when they make a mistake.
I remember finding Naramat after she had disappeared for many years. I was so excited because we know all the lions and we may miss them for a month or a few weeks, but I’ve never identified a lioness after she disappeared for 3 years.
What was the most difficult moment for you?
When Loirish was killed, that was my worst moment. I had known this lion for so many years and we had been following him. He had become part of my family. When he died, it was like I was missing one of my relatives. Seeing his head burned, I felt like a human being had died. I went to that community who killed Loirish and I really fought with them. That was the negative side of my work. It was something I will never forget.
What do lions mean to you?
Lions are my life. I have given my brothers all my cows to look after back home. Lions are my cows now.
Through your work you have travelled beyond Kenya. What has been your favorite conservation-related experience outside of Kenya?
I have had the chance to visit three countries, beginning with the United States. I didn’t think I would ever go there in my life. It was my first time on a plane, and I didn’t think it would leave the ground because it was so big!
Facing all these challenges in Samburu, you feel lonely. You are stressed by the community, stressed by people wanting to kill lions. Then I met all these people in the US who support me and who care about wildlife. This gave me a lot of strength. I don’t feel lonely anymore because people support what I do.
I met famous people like Jane Goodall who have already passed through these challenges and are still doing conservation work. She is amazing and has been doing this for so long. That’s when I decided that one day I will say, “I have worked with lions for over 50 years”.
I also visited our partners from Niassa Lions in Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique. They work twenty-four hours a day, like us. They go through huge bushes the whole day making sure lions are safe. Exchanging knowledge with the community in Niassa has given me hopes that I will be able to face whatever comes for the lions, because I know I am not the only one.
In your eyes, what do you think has been Ewaso Lions’ biggest achievement to date?
We have achieved a lot. Having lions live safely in the community area is our biggest achievement. Even children and women tell us that lions are moving through the village. We know that people won’t go track and kill the lions.
For Samburus, lions have been such problem animals. To see the community members coming to say sorry when we lost a lion like Loirish was a huge thing. To get a Samburu person to say sorry is the biggest success for me, being a Samburu. It means our work is working.
To be known globally is a big achievement as well. We got the Whitley Award and also the National Geographic Emerging Explorers Award. This means that we are getting recognized internationally for the great job we are doing.
What are your hopes for the future of Ewaso Lions?
I hope Ewaso Lions will exist forever to educate the Samburu people. I also hope we expand to new areas. One of the challenges we face now is in faraway places where there is no conservation. When people from those places come here, we are challenged challenge because they don’t understand conservation. When we expand to other areas, those people can be changed too. And if we expand, then there is hope for lions in all of northern Kenya.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Kennel