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For lions, human contact a killer

The New York Times | Updated: 2012-09-23 08:01

NAIROBI, Kenya - Cornered by one of my dogs at 6:30 in the morning, the lioness was protecting a trio of 2-month-old cubs in thick bushes at the bottom of my property.

It took 12 rangers and 3 vets from the Kenya Wildlife Service more than six hours to dart her and capture the cubs by hand.

As difficult and exciting as capturing the lions was, a more imposing question now loomed: What do you do with them?

The vision of lion prides roaming endless African savannas, unaffected by people, is a romanticized image that survives in just a few very large protected areas. The African lion is listed as a threatened species, but it is increasingly in conflict with the rapidly growing human population here. How the conflict is managed will determine the fate of the lion in Kenya.

Large carnivores that make their way into urban or suburban areas are often quickly killed by vehicles or people. As the biologist Craig Packer at the University of Minnesota bluntly puts it, "Usually, urban carnivores are encountered as road kills."

My neighborhood, Mukoma Estate, is a partly forested, developing suburb on the south side of Nairobi. It is immediately west of Nairobi National Park, about 116 square kilometers of partly fenced grassland and forest eight kilometers from the central business district of a city of more than three million people. Long-term residents recall lions moving through Mukoma in the past; baboons, warthogs and a leopard still call Mukoma home.

From limited monitoring by the group Friends of Nairobi National Park, Dr. Packer says that lionesses are probably living and having cubs outside the park because there is a large lion population inside it - including a number of adult males that pose a risk of infanticide.

"If lions are indeed at high density within the park," said Laurence G. Frank of the Kenyan research group Living With Lions, "as long as she can get through the fence, she is likely to move the cubs back out. This situation is likely to arise again in the near future, creating an ongoing management problem and continuing threat of someone being killed or injured." So returning the lioness and her cubs to the park was not a solution.

People are advised to not kill carnivores or they will face prosecution. Patrick Omondi, head of species conservation at the Kenya Wildlife Service, told me that captured lions were taken to Meru National Park, about 300 kilometers northeast of Nairobi.

Carnivore biologists collectively cringed. Again, Dr. Packer put it bluntly: "Sending them to Meru is a death sentence."

Dr. Frank said: "Translocating a lion kills it slowly and cruelly, but out of sight. Even if they are released in the center of Meru, the existing lion population will force her to the boundaries, where she will encounter livestock and people at a time when she is desperate to feed her cubs."

Both Dr. Packer and Dr. Frank say the most humane solution for the suburban lions would have been euthanasia. While appearing heartless, it may prove critical to having any wild lions at all in Kenya.

Stephanie M. Dloniak is a science writer based in Kenya.

The New York Times

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