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Maasai warriors swap killing lions for collecting trophies in ‘Olympics’

Maasai warriors who traditionally killed lions to prove their prestige and protect their livestock on Saturday, December 10, 2022, competed in the 5th biennial Maasai Olympics, designed to update initiation practises to conserve the predators.

Maasai Olympics
Javelin throw emulates traditional warrior skill of spear throwing. Photo credit: Big Life Foundation

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 organisation operating in the Amboseli landscape of southern Kenya, came up with the idea as a way to remove 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% 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.

Benson Leyian, CEO of Big Life Foundation, said: “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.”

Research found 87% of warriors aware of the Maasai Olympics reported the event made them less interested in killing a lion and 91% said it made them more interested in lion conservation.

Another NGO, Lion Guardians, has monitored a six-fold increase in the Amboseli lion population between 2004 and 2020, making 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 programmes by Big Life and others including Lion Guardians and the Born Free Foundation, including 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.

Beginning in August 2022, the four competing warrior villages of Eselenkei, Kuku, Mbirikani, and Rombo have 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. Team captain Nickson Kupere said: “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.”

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, Samuel Kaanki, and the volunteer teachers, sports officials, and coaches were also recognised for making the project a success.

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