Maasai warriors who traditionally used to kill lions to prove their manliness, maintain prestige and protect their livestock, have been steered from the harmful sport.
They now enjoy a replacement sporting feat and have just competed in the Fifth biennial Maasai Olympics, designed to update initiation practices to conserve the predators.
Thousands of spectators in traditional red cloaks and beaded jewellery gathered to watch 160 young Maasai – 120 men and 40 women – compete in a series of events including spear and club throwing, standing Maasai high jump, and sprints.
Maasai elders and Big Life Foundation, a community conservation organization operating in the Amboseli landscape of southern Kenya, came up with the idea as a way to eradicate lion killing from the Maasai warrior culture, historically one of the key threats to lions in Amboseli.
The Maasai Olympics replicates traditional warrior skills in place of the initiation practice of hunting lions as a mark of manhood, strength, and prestige.
Globally, lions have lost 94 percent of their range since the start of the 20th century.
Today there are estimated to be 23,000 lions left: fewer than elephants, rhinos, or gorillas.
The initiative is now in its 10th year and was held at Kimana Sanctuary, a Maasai-owned wildlife reserve 200km (125 miles) south of the capital, Nairobi.
“Lions and the Maasai have lived in an uneasy balance for generations. Many of our elders would have talked with pride of killing problem lions or to prove their strength. But with more livestock and more people, there was a risk that this culture would have wiped out lions in this landscape, which we could not let happen. The Maasai Olympics is about provoking discussion among the warrior generation, who are the future leaders in this ecosystem, that lion-killing is no longer culturally acceptable, and that conserving our environment is how to ensure a sustainable future for these warriors and their families. The Maasai Olympics was an idea from the elders that we helped bring to life and, with other predator protection programmes, it has been extremely successful.”Benson Leyian – CEO of Big Life Foundation.
Over 87 percent of warriors who became aware of the Maasai Olympics reported that the event made them less interested in killing a lion.
Some other 91 percent said it made them more interested in lion conservation.
Another organization, the Lion Guardians, has monitored a six-fold increase in the Amboseli lion population between 2004 and 2020.
That makes it the fastest growing lion population on community-owned land in Africa, an astonishing turnaround following near extinction at the turn of the century.
The reduction in lion killing is also the result of other programs by Big Life and others including Lion Guardians and the Born Free Foundation.
They include building predator-proof livestock pens, paying compensation to herders whose livestock is killed by predators to deter retaliation, and increasing the financial benefits mostly from tourism that Maasai families receive from continuing to protect wildlife on their land.
It started in August 2022, when the four competing warrior villages of Eselenkei, Kuku, Mbirikani, and Rombo engaged in local and regional competitions, culminating in today’s event.
Coming in the midst of a ferocious drought driven by a series of failed rainy seasons, the global effects of the war in Ukraine that has spiked food costs, and the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was a rare chance for people to celebrate.
Mbirikani village were overall winners, and were presented with a prize bull and trophies.
“It’s been a very good day and we’re very excited that so many of our team won, and that overall, we were the winners. We Maasai have been living with wildlife for such a long time, but we often saw them as a threat. This competition has changed that, we see wildlife now like we see our cows, and it needs to be protected because it brings us benefits like tourists who come to spend their money here. We’re able to put our children through school.”Nickson Kupere – Team captain
Joseph Lekato, who successfully defended his title as javelin/spear throwing champion, said: “The Maasai Olympics has really helped change the way that warriors and all people here think about wildlife. You won’t find anyone now in all Amboseliland who wants to kill a lion.”
National Geographic, the Disney Conservation Fund, Chester Zoo, Play for Nature, and Zoo Basel sponsored the Maasai Olympics.
The project coordinator is Samuel Kaanki, assisted by volunteer teachers, sports officials, and coaches whose tireless work has made the project such a success.