Lion Guardian games and awards sounds like a fun activity. Who came up with the idea and what has it meant for the program as a whole, particularly the Lion Guardians themselves?
Leela: The Lion Guardian games evolved as a way to reward the Lion Guardians for a successful year in which no lions had been killed in Lion Guardian areas. It also served the purpose of solidifying the Lion Guardians feeling of belonging to a team of like-minded warriors all working towards the same cause.
Through the games the Lion Guardians are able to realize that they are not alone in the struggle to protect lions but they have a brotherhood that they can rely on. At the games, not only do the Lion Guardians get to compete against each other in sports, but they get to tell stories about “their” lions whose territories extend through several Lion Guardians’ coverage areas. The Lion Guardians also talk about the games in their community, which helps to strengthen the communities’ positive attitudes towards the program.
Leela with Lion Guardians. LGs have embraced technology as a tool to track and protect lions.
Photo courtesy of Philip Briggs.
Can you tell a story about Lion Guardians that you’re particularly fond of?
Stephanie: There are so many stories… It warms my heart when they take such pride in their new skills and I see them showing off like the story I told above about them tracking in town.
"These previous lion killers are now delighting in the birth of new cubs because these lions aren’t just lions to them anymore, they are individuals. And the Guardians celebrate victories and successes with the lions."
Other heart-warming occurrences are when we’re out tracking and I’ll tell the Guardians that I suspect one of the lionesses we follow is with cubs, and then when we find the lioness and see the tiny cubs for the first time, the Guardians do what I call the cub dance. They jump up and down and dance like little kids – it is hilarious and heartwarming and to me is the essence of community conservation.
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If another group working on human-wildlife conflict had one lesson to learn from Lion Guardians, what lesson do you hope would resonate?
Leela: Conservation approaches cannot be developed over night; when developing your program you need to take your time and truly understand the local context (culture, values, motivations behind a targeted behavior, etc.) as this will allow for a more sustainable and organically developed program to surface and succeed.
What does conservation mean to you?
Leela: It means innovation, acceptance, and a hopeful future.
In all of your years of studying conservation biology and human-wildlife conflict, what is one lesson you didn’t learn in the classroom that you wish you had?
Stephanie: I wish more conservation biologists were taught how to listen to and communicate with local communities. Local people are the ones who share their landscape with wildlife and bear the costs of living with them. So it is essential to listen to their problems, their concerns, etc. and attempt to empathize with their situations. Every story has two sides – it’s important to understand both. One of the most important tools for a conservation biologist is being a good communicator and open to ideas from anyone and anywhere. Some days I feel the role of biologists working in conservation is primarily to be an interpreter between the humans and the wildlife
What percent of your job is conservation science and what percent is social science?
Leela: I don’t really see the difference between the two. To me conservation is a blend of social science and natural science…though I often say that conservation is 90% people-centered and 10% species.
What should be taught in conservation biology that isn’t?
Leela: It would be very useful if conservation biology classes put more focus on human dimensions, politics, and economics rather than solely on the biological components.
What advice do you have to offer to conservation biology students looking to follow their dreams and make a difference in the field?
Leela: The conservation field is growing and we need new innovative ideas. Don’t reinvent the wheel, think outside the box. Investigate all the possible causes for what is creating the conservation problem, not just the dynamics of the species being affected
Do you remember the first time you saw a lion in the wild? What was your impression?
Stephanie: I remember it like it was yesterday – I was radio-tracking with Laurence; we were on foot and we had two males come out at us. My first sighting of a lion was a face to face, on equal ground. I remember thinking how big and powerful they seemed, yet their eyes showed fear and uncertainty. One male took a step towards us, and then they both turned and quickly ran off. I was of course exhilarated, but yet sad – sad that such dominant creatures were so scared of scrawny humans. At the same time, I knew it was for the best – lions should be scared of people and they should run away as fast as they can.
You work with one of the world’s most powerful carnivores. Have you had any close calls with lions? Have you put yourself in a situation that in retrospect you realize was too dangerous?
Stephanie: Danger is relative – I fear crazy drivers more than lions!
To me, what is most important about working with wildlife, or any animal, is to remember they are not humans and do not see the world like we do. I constantly try to see the world from lions or hyenas perspectives.
One aspect of my work with the Guardians is tracking, traditional spoor tracking. When a Guardian calls in fresh lion tracks, either Philip or I respond and with the Guardian we track until we find the lion(s). This means hours of ‘nose in the dirt’ tracking – you become so focused on following the tracks, that you forget to look up and sometimes we literally bump into the lions. When a low growl erupts from the bush in front of you, it’s time to retreat slowly & steadily back to the vehicle.
Which aspect of your work do you find most challenging and why?
Leela: Logistics, funding, politics, and program management
Which aspect of your work do you find most rewarding and why?
Leela: I love to see the positive change in people’s attitudes towards lions. Also it has been great to see the lion population stabilize and know that the Lion Guardians have played a significant role.
You are happiest/most fulfilled when…?
Leela: When I am in our tree house in Eselenkei looking out at Mt. Kiliminjaro and can hear a lion roaring in the distance, or find the lions’ footprints traveling through camp. Also seeing the transformation of an avid lion killer become a Lion Guardian, who risks his life to save lions, is one of the most incredible experiences.
Stephanie: I am most fulfilled after a successful day in the bush, tracking with the Guardians. If we get to see lions and see them doing well with cubs, etc. we’re all happy and many times on the way home, the Guardians sing. There’ll be a car full of Guardians and some of their warrior friends (usually shyer as the experience is new to them) and they’ll all burst into traditional Maasai songs as the sun is setting on Kilimanjaro, there is lots of laughter and joking…. It’s magical and satisfying. Also, after a successful lion capture – watching the Guardians handle the lion gently when it is immobilized, they help me change the collar & take measurements, and then, I reverse the lion and after a few minutes we watch the lion walk off into the night. The Guardians love it because they get to touch the lion, be close to it but it is alive. It used to be killing a lion was the only way they could get close to and appreciate lions.
If you were not a conservationist, what would be your second dream job?
Leela: A forensic detective or an FBI profiler.