Maasai warrior hopes to see end to Chinese obsession with rhino horn, ivory (Kenya)


Kate Whitehead, The South China Morning Post 

Date Published

See link for photos. 

A Polygamist’s Son 

I was born in southern Kenya, in 1974, to a pastoralist family. We kept cows, sheep and goats. My father is a polygamist. He has five wives – my mother was the first. Growing up, there were always lots of children to play with. I have so many siblings I can’t tell you how many I have now. Each of the wives had her own house, but the children were free to live in whichever house they wanted. As the wife of a polygamous husband, you must be prepared to take care of the children of other wives.

Growing up in rural Kenya, school wasn’t seen as a priority. People couldn’t understand why you might want to go to school, but I was lucky – my mother wanted to see me go to school. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. It’s not a privileged community as you have here in Hong Kong. The only way to pay the school fees was to sell cows or sheep. There was no other source of income.

The Long Road to School

It took me two to three hours to walk the 10km to school. I had to wake up very early to get there in time. And I had to walk quickly to and from school because this was an area with plenty of wildlife – elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes – you had to keep your eyes open. When you are young, you are fearful, until you become used to them. I soon learned which animals were dangerous. I had some classmates who were injured by wild animals, others killed. Now I’m not afraid. I can walk anywhere. I didn’t go to university. After my O-Levels, I got a certificate in human resources.

Conservation Conversations 

I married at 25. My wife is also Maasai. Our families were friends. There is a traditional way of how a girl can be offered for marriage – her family offers her to my family, and my family and I can choose whether to accept. My wife never went to school. We have four children, two boys and two girls. They are all in edu­cation.

After school, I wasn’t in any permanent employ­ment until I got an opportunity to work with a member of parliament (in Kenya) – that’s where I got the skills of talking to people. I worked there for five years. In 2009, I was approached by a non-profit conservation organisation, the Big Life Foundation. They were looking for someone who is respected to talk to the commu­nity about the human-wildlife conflict in the area. Although I’m not that old, I’m seen as an “elder”. They understand me, I understand them. We are trying to protect wildlife outside the protected areas while the government is focused on the protected areas.

Conflict Resolution 

The area where I live and work is called the Amboseli ecosystem. It is open land between four national parks in Kajiado county (southern Kenya). The conservation areas are not fenced, so you have wildlife moving out of the parks into the community. This leads to conflict – we have predators killing livestock, elephants moving into agricultural areas, sometimes they kill humans. 

The Big Life Foundation has started a programme called the Predator Compensation Fund. We compensate for livestock killed by predators, which reduces the chance of retaliation by livestock owners. The owner calls us and we send in a team to verify the claim and then give them a credit note. Two months later, they are given cash to compensate for their livestock loss. We have other prog­rammes, such as one that offers scholarships to kids from poor families. At the moment, we have 268 students under the Education and Wildlife Scholarship Programme.

Cause and Effect 

Poaching has been reduced to a minimal level because we have about 300 rangers on the ground, as well as informers. Our rangers are not armed, they talk to the community, get intelligence and quickly respond to these activities. As the poaching has decreased, we have seen the human-wildlife conflict escalate, because the animals are now comfortable to move anywhere. When we started (in 2010), we had fewer than 10 lions in the eco­system, we now have about 200. Every time we get a new road, it reduces the size of land available to wild animals. Mean­while, the population of livestock and humans is increas­ing. This leads to more human-wildlife conflict. Our rangers work 24 hours a day to try to minimise that. 

The Price of Ivory 

I visited Hong Kong for the first time in 2015. We walked around the antique shops on Hollywood Road. It was the first time I came face to face with ivory being sold in shops. I almost lost hope. In Kenya, we tell people not to kill elephants, that anyone poaching will be arrested, and then I came to Hong Kong and saw ivory for sale. It’s still happening. Last weekend, we went to an ivory shop in Stanley Market. We have visited schools in Hong Kong and I am always uplifted when I speak to children. Many of them are passionate about animals. I saw a child crying because he didn’t want to see the ivory for sale in a shop. It is the children who will be able to change society for the better.

Sparing the Lions 

The Maasai culture demands that a teenager should try to kill a lion with a spear to show that you are brave and strong, then you become popular and get many girlfriends. When you kill a lion, you are given a new name and there is a big celebration in the village. As a young man, I tried to kill a lion five times, but every time my school reopened and I had to go back. Five times I tried and failed. My boys go to school. They don’t have time for lion-killing. Girls prefer boys who are employed and have money to take them out. They don’t go for boys who kill innocent animals. If young men want recognition, we give them an opportunity to participate in the Maasai Olympics. It has been running since 2012.

For 500 years, the Maasai have had their culture of killing lions for recognition, which is changing. I hope the Chinese will also change their culture of believing that rhino horn is a medicine or that to become rich you need a piece of ivory. If the poaching continues, elephants and rhinos will be extinct in a short time.