Elvis Kisimir is a moon-faced and soft-spoken 31-year-old Maasai with a fondness for lions. That makes him the odd man out in the East African tribe of pastoralists whose conflict with the big cats is legendary.
But Elvis has a vision for the future that’s every bit as large as the history that precedes him. That vision is the Living Wall project — an effort to radically change not just his peoples’ interactions with lions but the very way they think of the animals, which are now critically endangered in the region.
“This work is my life now,” he told me. “I want this area to be an example for the world of a functioning, healthy ecosystem where both people and wildlife live in harmony together.”
A Fierce History
The Maasai are perhaps best known for their coming-of-age ritual in which young morani warriors venture into the bush draped in bright red waistcloths, armed only with spears, to kill a lion as a traditional test of manhood. Nowadays, however, this practice is on the wane. Maasai adolescents — like their peers elsewhere in Africa — tend to be more adept with soccer balls and video games than they are with spears and the ancient art of tracking carnivores through the open bush.
That was certainly true of the young Elvis. Aside from occasionally hearing their roars at night, he had little contact with lions growing up in a village on Tanzania’s Maasai Steppe. His first encounter with the king of beasts came from a video about their social life, which his tour-guide father brought home with him one day.
It was not exactly a case of love at first sight. The big cats appeared scary and alien, a relic of the wild Africa that Elvis and his Christian forebears (his grandfather was one of the first Maasai to be baptized) had presumably left behind them.
Still, his curiosity was aroused. When Elvis asked his Maasai elders about lions, they spoke of the respect with which the species was regarded in their culture: though they were hunted, at the same time lions were deeply admired as embodiments of independence, courage, canny intelligence and majestic strength.
This traditional bond with lions among the Maasai is now fraying. Former Maasai nomads are becoming sedentary, many taking up farming, and the population in the region is booming, with people from other tribal groups moving into their traditional territory. Climate change is also causing inconsistent rainfall, which is drying out the rangeland, forcing the Maasai to search even harder to find forage for their livestock.
These changes have put increasing pressure on the region’s wildlife as well, which frequently finds itself in conflict with humans over limited resources. Lions come into villages at night to kill livestock, and the Maasai retaliate by killing lions, not in the traditional way with spears, but more often with poisoned meat and guns, sometimes wiping out whole prides at a time.
“The lions just don’t roar like they used to,” Elvis says.
More widely, big cats are in crisis throughout Africa. There may be as few as 400 lions left in the whole of West Africa, where much of their historical habitat has been converted into farmland. On the vast savannahs of southern and the eastern Africa, of which Tanzania is a part, their populations have also dwindled — down to an estimated 30,000 from over 90,000 animals 50 years ago.
Elvis worried that if the lions disappeared, the Maasai would be in danger of their cultural identity disappearing too.
In 2010, Elvis interviewed for a job as a program officer for the African People and Wildlife Fund — and that was when he met Mama Simba (“mother lion”).
Mama Simba’s real name is Laly Lichtenfeld; the moniker was given to her by the local Maasai because of her zealous advocacy for the species. Elvis was intrigued by her plan to build new fences to protect the cattle — the corrals made of thorny bushes that many local people used were permeable and difficult to maintain.
Laly proposed building a new kind of fence, made of wooden poles and chain link, that could not be penetrated by lions. But like other Maasai, Elvis didn’t like the idea of using wooden poles, which could rot and would need frequent replacement. Why not use living trees instead, he suggested — like the African myrrh, which the Maasai traditionally use as the outer wall of their family enclosures?
Thus was born the idea for the Living Walls. Over time, Elvis worked together with other Maasai to tweak the design for the fences, reinforcing the gates and digging the chain link into the ground to prevent incursions.
The Living Wall team strip limbs from the myrrh trees in the dry season, let them dry out, and then stick the limbs in the ground and wait for the rains, when the seemingly dead poles sprout to life. Then they affix the chain link to the growing trees. As the tree root systems spread, they prevent honey badgers and hyenas from tunneling under the fence, while the thickening tree canopies prevent lions from getting in from above.
At Peace With Lions
There are now over 350 such livestock enclosures in use, and Elvis’s team of local builders cannot put them up them fast enough to meet the growing demand. The Maasai themselves cover a portion of the cost for the fence on their land, while the African People and Wildlife Fund — for whom Elvis now works — pays the rest. In return, recipients must pledge that they will not engage in retribution attacks. Previously nearly 60 lions were killed annually in retribution attacks in the region surrounding Tarangire National Park; since the fences started being built in 2008, that number is down to 10 or fewer.
Earlier this year, the Tanzanian government received funding from the United Nations Development Program to bring Living Walls elsewhere in Tanzania. Elvis regularly travels to Longido District near the Kenyan border to train people there on how to install them. The idea has also spread into Kenya, where the walls are being built near Amboseli National Park, as well as to Mozambique.
Equally important as building the fences, says Elvis, is educating villagers, and especially the young. Occasionally even now a band of morani ventures out to kill a lion. “When that happens,” Elvis says, “I join them. I don’t try to stop them. But then I start to talk about what amazing animals lions are, and how important they are in Maasai culture. They slow down and listen. Because I am their elder, they pay attention to what I say.”
The young warriors are so intrigued to hear Elvis share his knowledge and passion for lions that they forget they are out to kill one, he says with a chuckle. Eventually they call off the hunt.
“I want to help people to eliminate their fear of living with lions,” says Elvis. “I want them to understand that when lions are healthy the ecosystem is healthy and in balance and the Maasai community is also healthy.”
As this message begins to spread, peace is breaking out between lions and their human neighbors in one small corner of Tanzania.
All images courtesy Deirdre Leowinata