I am always searching for stories of women who are making a difference. Women who have found their calling and who are following their passion. I firmly believe that we can all learn and be inspired by these women, and therefore, I am always happy to showcase their stories. Here I would like to introduce you to one such woman and her incredible story.
Wildlife biologist Leela Hazzah has felt a connection to Lions ever since she heard her father telling stories of listening to them roaring as he fell asleep as a child:
“I used to lay there, listening for those same sounds,” she says, “But I didn’t hear anything.” Her father finally told her that the Lions were long since extinct in Egypt. At that moment, she knew that saving lions would be her life’s work — work for which she was recognised as one of CNN’s top ten heroes of 2014.
The 36-year-old Dr Leela Hazzah is helping the Lions of Africa with an innovative solution — by encouraging Maasai warriors to change their tradition of killing lions into a tradition of protecting them. Dr Hazzah founded Lion Guardians in 2007, after research in Kenya for her Master’s degree in conservation biology showed her just how much habitat loss and human-lion contact were affecting the Lions. She also spent a year living with the Maasai to understand their relationship with lions and why they were killing them.
Lions in Africa have been undergoing a rapid decline. Sixty years ago, there were probably half a million lions in Africa, according to Dr Hazzah. However, today, there are less than 30,000 lions in Africa.
For the herding Maasai, however, lions represent a real danger to their livelihood: “Livestock are the core of their culture,” says Leela. “When they lose their cows, they don’t have anything left. So they retaliate, and they kill lions.” The Maasai also admire lions. They dislike them because they eat their livestock, but they also admire them tremendously because they are beautiful animals.
Leela Hazzah’s organisation teaches its guardians the benefits of protecting lions and strategies for minimising the problems lions can cause. The organisation’s guardians help farmers strengthen corrals, hunt down lost cattle, and intervene to prevent lion hunts. Guardians also keep records of “their” lion population for researchers, noting movements, births, and deaths. Being a guardian is a full-time job, and they are also taught to read and write, a rare skill for most Maasai.
The efforts of Dr Hazzah’s non-profit, and the work of the 65 current guardians, has resulted in a dramatic change in the way Maasai view lions and the people who protect them.
“Becoming a Lion Guardian is a rebirth for [the Maasai],” says Leela. “They gain even more prestige than they would have from killing a lion.”
So far, the rate of success has been dramatic. In the Amboseli region in Kenya, 99% of lion killings were stopped either by Dr Hazzah’s Lion Guardians, or the guardians in conjunction with other conservation programs. For Leela, the difference is audible: “When I first moved here, I never heard lions roaring. But now I hear lions roaring all the time.” This was her dream.