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  • Louisa Willcox

Tale of Two Carnivores: Lions, Bears and BBC's “The Conversation”

[Lion Credit: Ewaso Lions; Shivani Bhalla Credit: Nina Fascione; Louisa Willcox Credit: Louisa Willcox; Grizzly Bear Credit: Richard Spratley]

by Louisa Willcox

I hope one day to meet lion conservationist Shivani Bhalla, a sister in spirit who lives half a world away, in northern Kenya. We are featured in BBC’s global radio program “The Conversation,” where each episode features two women from different countries, who work in similar fields. The show airs as naturalist and filmmaker David Attenborough’s new series “Dynasties” debuts in America. This time the inimitable Attenborough brings the lives of lions, chimpanzees, tigers, painted wolves and emperor penguins into our living rooms and our hearts. Living among certain families or clans over a number of years, the crew was able to capture on film dramatic turning points in the lives of these animals of the sort that most of us will never see.

Dr. Shivani Bhalla is featured in the episode on African lions, a species that she has devoted her career to saving. I had not heard of her work or the new Attenborough series before receiving a call from the London-based BBC World Service radio producer exploring the possibility of bringing Shivani and me together by phone to share our experiences in large carnivore conservation. I don’t know much about lions and less about Kenya’s Samburu culture. Producing a podcast too has made me intimately familiar with the challenges of such an undertaking, and here I was vaulted to the top of the league. Both nervous and groggy at the ungodly early recording hour, I doubted my mind would connect to my mouth.

But as soon as we started to chat, my brain kicked in and the continents between host Kim Chakanetsa, Shivani and me vanished. For the next hour, I felt like I was having coffee with colleagues. The flow was interrupted only once when Kim chided Shivani for clapping – while my reaction was one of delight.

The challenges we face are uncannily similar: protected areas too small for the wide-ranging carnivores that depend on them, mounting human encroachment, and a warming climate. With extremely low birth rates, grizzlies and lions are at the mercy of humans like never before.

I was dismayed to learn that even in Kenya the lion population now numbers less than 2,000 individuals. Having declined by nearly 50% in the past few decades, African lions could become extinct within the next 20 years if current trends continue. In the case of grizzlies, we may have stopped the downward spiral for now, but they are still limited to only 3% of their former range in the lower-48 states, and the future looks ominous.

Don’t Play with the Lion’s Tail

This Bushman’s saying speaks to the challenges of carnivore coexistence. No matter what the species, we humans share a tendency to invite trouble, at times unknowingly. It did not take long to realize that Shivani and I were on a shared journey to help people find alternatives to playing with the lion’s tail. This means careful husbandry of livestock, especially at night. Early warning systems to alert people to the presence of carnivores, such as guard dogs. Preparedness for encounters. For omnivorous grizzlies (compared to strictly carnivorous lions) it’s also vital to keep garbage and human foods out of bruins’ reach.

None of this is rocket science. On the outside, the practice of coexistence can look deceptively simple. Indeed, some may shrug off the work as a fluffy luxury, while others may support the work but have no idea what goes into it.

For people like Shivani and me, the work of saving imperilled predators gives our lives meaning. These animals are intelligent, resourceful, caring and strong in ways we can only admire. For millennia, humans have looked to lions and bears as teachers, mentors and guides. And the more we study these animals, the more they show us how their ecosystems fit together – and the more they surprise, humble and astonish us.

Most people have no clue about the challenges associated with saving animals with big teeth. The drive to kill rather than coexist can be overwhelming, and conflict situations involving property can be as emotional as economic. Coexistence is far more complicated than it seems.

To another practitioner, the ingredients of success resemble the definition of pornography: you know it when you see it. From our conversation and my readings about Shivani’s work (check out her facebook site), I could tell that she has what it takes: a bubbly personality, smarts, courage, good listening skills and social instincts, with a dash of pixie dust.

Of Charm and Mama Simba

Attenborough’s episode featuring lions centers on Charm, a mother lioness who, abandoned by the males, has to bear the burden of hunting, feeding and protecting her cubs. With the male guards gone and other large carnivores lurking, how will she eat and keep her babies safe? Charm’s challenge is perhaps not unlike a single mom in Chicago or Nairobi: we relate to her plight.

In northern Kenya, lions are killed largely because of conflicts over livestock that Samburu pastoralists depend on. With nearly half of rural Kenyans living below the poverty line, every cow matters. Although ranchers in Greater Yellowstone also feel strongly about keeping their cows alive, the economics of the situations could not be more different. Here, despite appearances, most ranchers operating in this ecosystem are running cows more or less as a hobby and to maintain certain lifestyle. They can better afford to lose a cow or two.

Lion-related conflicts are exacerbated by the onset of the rainy season. During the dry season, lions’ natural prey, such as impalas and gazelles, congregate near water making them easier prey for lions. When the rainy season begins, the prey become stronger and disperse, making hunting harder. As the lions follow prey, they bump into livestock at higher rates, with predictable outcomes from people equipped with poisons, guns, and less often today, spears.

Conflicts with grizzlies also vary seasonally, often spiking during late summer and fall as bears kick into their hyperphagic feeding frenzy to fatten up before the winter. Conflicts with big game hunters and livestock operators have been increasing over the last 15 years in the wake of the collapse of several key natural foods, cutthroat trout and whitebark pine, due to disease and climate change. To compensate, grizzlies are turning to eating more meat – and are being killed as a consequence at a rate that scientists maintain is unsustainable.

Improving husbandry practices in both landscapes is essential, which means knowing a lot about the behavior of the carnivores. I have written elsewhere about successful coexistence work among Montana ranchers in the Blackfoot drainage, Tom Miner basin, and along the Rocky Mountain Front. Electric fence, bear spray, and carcass composting systems help, but are no replacement for vigilance and responsibility.

Similarly, Shivani and her team are focused on night penning of livestock and reducing prospects of revenge killing after the rare occasions when lions do kill cows. Of particular importance, they are training Samburu warrior societies to collect data on lion and prey locations and movements. One of Shivani’s right hand men, Jeneria, seems to be a walking statin drug in his ability to lower the blood pressure in communities after livestock are killed. Exercising restraint can be every bit as tough as killing a lion with a spear.

I am especially inspired by Shivani’s story about her work with Samburu women who historically have had limited involvement in wildlife conservation. She shared the hilarious moment when two traditional women barged into her camp one day saying: “Shivani, you’re the only woman in this whole group of men and you’re successful, so why can’t we do this work too?” They ended up designing and leading “Mama Simba” (“mother of lions”), a growing network of women who work to build support for the rare cats.

The peripheral benefits are huge too: women are learning to read and have started enterprises that feature recycling and selling bead work. And one leader, Munteli, learned to drive a car after Shivani gave her a few initial lessons on an air strip. Shivani says that while the women were once shy, now “you cannot shut them up.”

Shivani focused more on fencing of livestock kraals, or enclosures, while I talked more about bear-proof dumpsters and garbage. But both of us kept circling back to the cultural context of the work. Though our experiences could not seem more different at one level, we had learned that if communities don’t care about large carnivores and agree to resolve conflicts nonlethally, lions and grizzlies are done for.

In the end, coexistence, and conservation generally, is not fundamentally a technical problem, it is a social and cultural one. David Attenborough put his finger on it: “Many individuals are doing what they can. But real success can only come if there is a change in our societies and in our economics and in our politics.”

The Value of Unbroken Cultural Connections

Shivani and other conservationists in East Africa have the advantage of working with unbroken cultures rooted in a specific landscape. Traditional reverence for lions runs deep. Until relatively recently, hunting a lion with a spear was a rite of passage for young warriors. A Samburu man flaunting the ears of a lion was, well, a dude. The point is that anger about losing a valuable cow can be diffused with ancient cultural pride in lions.

That is less the case in the American West, where Plains Indian warriors traditionally donned bear-claw necklaces for similar reasons. Here, European settlers did their damnedest to destroy pre-existing indigenous cultures that held grizzlies to be sacred and understood how the ecological system worked and how people fit in. My ancestors helped commit multiple genocides in a way that did not occur in most of East Africa. In so doing, they replaced traditional connections to land and wild animals with a still-dominant culture rooted in control and violence. Individual rights became more important than collective responsibility. Think John Wayne.

But the ethos of Manifest Destiny is comparatively recent. With the exception of the Southwest, European roots in the American West date back little more than 4-6 generations.

I have been bemused at how reference to “fourth generations” is thrown around at hearings to assert legitimacy, overlooking the fact that Native Americans have been here for maybe 100 times that number. As in: “I am a fourth generation Montana rancher, and my granddaddy worked to kill off the last grizzlies to make it safe for ranching. We don’t need them!”

Few today know the story of the Woman Who Married the Bear – about a woman who fell in love with a man who was, in reality a bear, and gave birth to shapeshifting sons. Still, this story of our connectedness has been told across the northern Hemisphere for perhaps 15,000 years from Greece to Siberia and the Yukon.

American Indians neither gratuitously killed nor, for the most part, ate grizzly bears. They consider them to be relatives. It is no surprise that Tribal people were at the fore of the recent campaign to prevent a trophy grizzly bear hunt and restore federal protections. To them and many others, mounting the head of a grizzly on a wall as a trophy is simply an anathema.

Indeed, the U.S. Endangered Species Act is fundamentally a story about the intrinsic worth of species and the need to prevent harm and extinction. But the law is overlaid on a relatively new culture that still, at root, embodies the ethos of domination, like a saddle on an untamed horse. ESA rodeos can erupt, especially with high-profile species that need a lot of room and place demands on us -- like the grizzly.

Of Courts and Kraals

Our conversation paused briefly when I spoke about my experience with litigation. As with other environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act also protects the right of ordinary citizens like me to challenge the government and corporations in court.

To Shivani and conservationists in other countries, litigation is a bit of a head scratcher. Indeed, a focus on suing the government or corporations seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon, rooted in our fierce streak of independence and deep suspicion of government authority.

If left to the mercy of local white ranchers, hunters, and wildlife managers, we might have no grizzlies left in the lower 48 states – even though our parks and preserves are the envy of the world. That is because of the influence of relatively few powerful bad actors, large corporations bent on developing bear habitat, and a too-often complacent government. Courts have helped level the playing field and curb abuses of power.

Of course, litigation is no panacea in our gun-oriented culture. For example, right after the decision last fall by a federal district court judge to reinstate ESA protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears, we saw a spike in revenge killing of grizzlies, with bear deaths breaking records last year. You can win in court and lose the war.

In the end, people like Shivani and me must rely on good will and pride in native wildlife. We are both seeing progress. In Shivani’s Westgate Community Conservancy area, for example, lions are back after a number of years of absence. In the Northern Rockies, grizzlies are showing up in landscapes near Yellowstone and Glacier Parks where they have not been seen for decades.

Does being a woman have anything to do with success?

The Problem of Silverbacks

Shivani and I work in an arena traditionally dominated by men. She writes: “As a university student I always saw what I call the ‘silverbacks’ – these old men who seemed to be at the top of the field and I thought are we all supposed to work for them? So I stepped out of that silverback thinking… I started with 3000 dollars, a car, a camera and a computer. It’s totally possible!”

I have had my share of silverback superiors too, as had Kim. Both Shivani and Kim laughed at my stories about testifying before state game commissions, mostly white males with antipathy for large carnivores, who sat with their arms crossed eyes rolling. Sisters in an experience as ancient as it is widespread.

Shivani and her colleagues have also tackled the “problem of the silverbacks” by creating the Pride Lion Conservation Alliance, a network of women with expertise in large carnivore conservation in East Africa, who banded together to not only reduce competition for funding and media exposure, but also to maximize opportunities for learning from each other. What a cool idea.

Looking back, cooperation and community – feminine traits – are important to success, but that doesn’t mean you need to be a woman. But being more Mama Simba than John Wayne helps.

Killing Gaia

Although the “John Wayne” problem predates Hollywood, it is still surprisingly recent. Hominoids first got upright in Kenya’s Rift Valley perhaps 4 million years ago, but we were nomadic until only about the last 10,000 years -- the evolutionary blink of an eye. The domestication of plants and animals during the Neolithic meant that we had things and places to protect from animals, weather, and other people. We began building walls to keep out “the other.” We told stories about “good animals” like sheep and cows, and “bad animals” like wolves and bears. Today we may seek the wild to restore our souls, but back then “wildeor” denoted places filled with fearful wild beasts.

Before I went into conservation, I thought about pursuing archaeology, working for the British Institute of Archaeology in Greece and Turkey, where the domestication of livestock began. Archaeological records in Europe show that once the Neolithic rolled around, we no longer relied on the feminine principle in the same way. Fat female sculptures, sometimes referred to as the Goddess “Gaia” for Mother Earth, have been unearthed throughout Europe, dating as far back as 35,000 years ago. But when humans settled down to farm, male iconography became more prevalent, as did hierarchical societies. Wilderness shrank. Weapons improved. Men gravitated to the top of social, economic, and religious systems.

But still stories of intimate relations with wild animals survived. What Shivani and other women in conservation are doing, perhaps unconsciously, is breathing new life into ancient stories. Mama Simba and the Woman Who Married a Bear resonate because they tap into the magic of age-old interspecies connections.

Not surprisingly, lions are driving flocks of tourists to Kenya, just as grizzlies inspire record numbers of families to visit Yellowstone each year. Their rarity enhances the fact they are such cool animals.

Old Stories, New Approaches

In Better Angels of Our Nature, author Stephen Pinker emphasizes that over the course of our evolutionary journey, humans have become relatively less violent, affording rights to an ever-widening sphere of people who share different religions, races, genders, even age. Even though more and more of us are peopling this planet, if you are a lion or a bear these changes in human attitudes and behaviors could be good news.

The dangers of large carnivores attacking humans did not come up in our conversation at all although, yes, people are occasionally—rarely—killed by lions and bears. Maybe this is a sign of how far we have come, or maybe it was the sample size of three people. I think gender and education had something to do with it.

Although a recent article on “killer” grizzlies in Ammoland Magazine included 20 comments mostly about guns and which work best to kill a bear – all by guys of course – such stories are not as widespread as they were when I first started this work 35 years ago. Which is a good thing as the human population continues to skyrocket and the planet warms.

Last month, at 92, David Attenborough made an urgent plea for businesses and governments to address climate change at the World Economic forum in Davos, saying: “The Holocene is over. The Garden of Eden is no more. We have changed the world so much that scientists say we are now in a new geological age - The Anthropocene - The Age of Humans.” He called for people to use their unique problem-solving skills in new ways to find practical solutions to climate change, adding that what we do in the next few years will profoundly affect the next millennium. "We haven’t yet applied ourselves to this problem with the focus that it requires."

So true. And, as Sir David and my conversation with Shivani and Kim remind me, we need skilled and conscientious people more than ever inside and outside government, in media rooms and classrooms, on court benches and corporate boards, in villages and cities—all caring about the natural world. We may not be able to resurrect The Garden of Eden, but we can keep this Earth habitable for us, our children, and wild animals. In the end, the spirit of Gaia, nurturing Mother Earth, may help us more than worship of rampant capitalism.

As marvelous as Attenborough’s films are, I pray that the exposure of younger generations to nature is not limited to the screen. Still, I am looking forward to seeing Shivani in action and finding out if Charms and her cubs make it. Onward, Mama Simbas!

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