Leela Hazzah is fighting the rapid decline of lions in Kenya. During her studies Leela realised that the future of lions relied hugely on the attitudes of the local Maasai people. Together with the Maasai she came up with a solution to stop lion killing: the Lion Guardians. Guardians play a traditional role as protectors of their communities, yet retain the close association with lions that is central to their identity. They monitor lion movements, warn pastoralists of lions, recover lost livestock, reinforce livestock corrals, and intervene to stop lion hunting parties. Their efforts have led to tripling of the lion population in the Amboseli ecosystem, one of the few places where lion populations are increasing.
As a child, Leela Hazzah’s father told her stories of listening to roaring lions from the rooftop of their home, something that was no longer possible because lions were extinct in Egypt. This story inspired her to devote her life to lion conservation; she wanted to hear lions roar. During her master study in Conservation Biology, she got involved in a project that was aimed at finding out why Maasai were killing lions and what could be done about it. The topic intrigued Leela, and led to the foundation of the Lion Guardians in 2007, a conservation organization dedicated to finding and enacting long-term solutions for people and lions to co-exist.
“Having worked in Africa for many years, I observed that wildlife conservation has traditionally focussed on wildlife. This approach ignores the irrefutable reality that, at the end of the day, it is the local people who make the decision to conserve wildlife. My long-term vision is to see a network of initiatives based on the Lion Guardians model throughout Africa and beyond."Leela Hazzah
Vision and Approach
The main reason for the rapid decline of lions in Kenya, is because they are killed in order to protect people’s livestock and livelihood. By killing lions, the Maasai warriors gain prestige and honour within their community. The Lion Guardians programme transforms these killers into lion guardians by providing the prestige and honour through employment. The Lion Guardians programme is based on three major components, founded on cultural values of the Maasai communities; conflict mitigation, cultural and social intervention and participatory monitoring. The combination of these techniques lead to a reduction of lion killings and ultimately, it increases the opportunity for co-existence between the Maasai and lions.
"Leela Hazzah shows the importance of understanding the local customs, beliefs and problems in developing a gentle change to indigenous conservation ethics. Africa suffers from the top-down application of Western conservation ideals still being pushed by international NGOs. With little faith placed in governments either, it is only by building up a new African vision of nature that long-term conservation success is likely."Mr. John MacKinnon, International Selection Committee