Jeneria Lekilelei is a finalist in this year’s TUSK Award for Conservation in Africa. Sarah Marshall shares his incredible story.
A tangle of barbed branches loaded with dagger-edged thorns, northern Kenya’s parched, inhospitable terrain isn’t the easiest to explore on foot. “If you want to find lions, you need to think like a lion,” advises Samburu moran Jeneria Lekilelei, as he battles through the bush amidst a jangle of silver pendants and a rattle of rainbow beads.
Historically regarded with fear and persecuted by Samburu people, it’s no wonder these hardy big cats skulk furtively in the dusty shadows. But Jeneria and his team of warriors have only good intentions at heart; they’re hunting to protect rather than kill.
As Field Operations and Community Manager for NGO Ewaso Lions, Jeneria has made it his mission to protect the future of a species in worrying decline. But he didn’t always feel that way.
Twelve years ago, the 30-something (no Samburu is ever 100 per cent certain of their age) met conservation biologist and founder of Ewaso Lions, Shivani Bhalla. At the time, he admits, he needed work and thought the petite fourth-generation Kenyan was “a crazy lady”.
For 18 months, they searched for lions in the West Gate conservancy and surrounding community lands, and by the time they eventually struck lucky, Jeneria was already hooked.
“What changed me is knowing how many lions there are left in Kenya – just 2,000,” he explains, stooping to identify a paw print in the sand. “I started looking at things from the lions’ perspective, considering the problems they are facing.”
Soon the animals became like family members. There was Magalani, the ‘clever one’ who only crept out to hunt at night, and Nanai, a female he wistfully recalls as if describing his first love.
Now he’s eager to share his passion with the community and has risked losing friends and even his life to achieve that goal.
“People thought I was mad. They’d say: ‘What sort of warrior are you? You’re not even circumcised’. For a Samburu, that’s the worst insult.”
But after five years of hard work, he persuaded those doubters to join his Warrior Watch programme, and lion numbers in the area have risen to 50.
“Now we identify where the lions are so people can protect their livestock and we save a lion being killed,” he explains as we drive between manyattas, sharing news with bemused, fresh-faced shepherd boys and elders whose long, dangling ears have received so much information before. Each time, Jeneria listens intently to different versions of the same report as if he’s hearing it for the first time, making people feel their contribution is valued.
Tourism has also helped change attitudes, giving communities another economic reason to keep lions alive. Set in the West Gate Conservancy, the heavenly Sasaab lodge donates money from bed nights and provides employment. The property also helped Ewaso Lions set up their first tented base on nearby land and has developed a close relationship with the project ever since.
Sat in the elegant, open-air lounge watching camels saunter along the snaking Ewaso Ngíro River river, Jeneria looks just as commanding and confident as he does in the bush. Although his work now takes him overseas to speak at conferences, his heart lies in Samburu. Wherever he goes, he proudly wears traditional dress and fills his washbag with twigs from the salvadora toothbrush tree. “I’ve never used Colgate,” he laughs.
Even the protection of lions is inherent to his culture, he insists. People simply need reminding.
“We have always believed a lion roar in the morning is a good sign of hope, and we would never perform a ceremony without the lion skin. Lions are a problem but at the same time they have value. Those beliefs are more important than anything else.”
How to do it
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