On a cool, gray morning, Wilson ole Kasaine heads out along a dirt path deep in the savannah of southern Kenya. A red cotton cloth known as a shuka is draped across his shoulders, accented by brightly-beaded jewelry worn to indicate seniority. Soft-spoken and serious, Kasaine pauses to take note of a small tree stripped of its bark by a hungry elephant. The calmness of his gait makes it easy to forget that he's in pursuit of one of the most dangerous — and endangered — predators in the world.
Kasaine is tracking lions — rather, he's tracking one lion in particular. His name is Marti, and he's the real-life Lion King of Selenkay Conservancy.
Sitting in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, Selenkay lies just north of the Tanzanian border. The conservancy is home to the Maasai, a tribe of people widely recognized for maintaining traditional customs, social structures, and a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Conservancy land is shared between community members, most of whom are herdsmen who rely on this open terrain to graze their cattle, sheep, and goats. But because the Selenkay Conservancy is situated right outside of Amboseli, Kenya's second-most popular national park, it's also shared with larger, four-legged neighbors like Marti.
Tracking Africa's largest cat on foot may sound like a death wish, but Kasaine has been doing it for most of his life. Born to a traditional Maasai family, he quickly grew to understand the simultaneous beauty and peril of the savannah wildlife. Living with big game, Kasaine says, forces you to develop a fine-tuned radar of where animals have been and where they might be going. During his 12-kilometer walks to and from school, he learned how to distinguish the paw print of a lion from that of a leopard.
Growing up, Kasaine knew that honing his tracking abilities would help him avoid surprise encounters with the massive megafauna. For many in the community, tracking was mainly a matter of self-protection. But Kasaine likely didn't know that, years later, he would be tracking lions specifically to encounter them — and to protect them. Today he leads a small group of wide-eyed tourists over one of the conservancy's red sandy paths, searching for the lion that has left upon it his massive, unmistakable print.
Each year, tens of thousands of tourists flock to Kenya's national parks to try to catch a glimpse of the "big five": elephants, rhinoceros, leopards, buffalos, and lions. The international draw of these animals means that, on the macro-level, the nation's economy is inextricably tied to the protection of its wildlife. Park fees, lodging, and safari services rake in millions of dollars annually. The tourism industry accounts for over 12 percent of Kenya's GDP and employs more than 300,000 people. Clearly there's more than the environmentally motivated preservation of animals and their habitats at stake. If Kenya's wildlife disappears, so does its second-largest source of income.
Considering the rapid urban expansion and development taking place in Kenya, this isn't unimaginable. In 2016, the Public Library of Science published study showing that many of the nation's most treasured species — including giraffe, wildebeest, and Grevy's zebra — have fallen to less than one-third of their population count from just 40 years ago. The number of lions, too, has plummeted. In 1998, the nation was home to over 15,000; only an estimated 2,000 remain today. Several experts have predicted they could vanish entirely from the country in the next two decades.
Wildlife protection efforts in Kenya have historically consisted of staking out and fencing off land exclusively for animals — and the people who pay to see them — in the hopes of keeping these regions unmarred by human development. But this also meant that the people who had originally lived there were forced off of their land, and into smaller surrounding regions. Once semi-nomadic, communities like Kasaine's are now finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a traditional Maasai lifestyle. Many are selling land to big developers in exchange for cash.
Living on the outskirts of national parks, most indigenous communities are excluded from the economic benefits of the wildlife tourism brought to the very regions they once called home. Tribes like the Maasai find themselves at odds with conservation efforts that have stripped them of their land; less land means there's less grass for their cattle to graze on. When drought hits, they can no longer take their hungry herds into the greener regions now reserved for wildlife, and because wildlife naturally migrates beyond the borders of these reserves, the Maasai are pitted against the carnivores of the savannah who threaten to destroy their livestock — and their livelihood.
In June of 2012, six lions were found dead just outside of Nairobi National Park. Two lionesses, two younger lions, and two small cubs had been speared to death. After wandering beyond the park in search of food, the group of lions had entered a nearby Maasai settlement. A herd of goats left milling outside a local farmstead early that morning provided easy prey for the pride. The lions descended upon the goats, devouring eight in total, leaving only the mangled carcasses behind for the herdsmen to discover.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.