It’s 6am on a cool morning in Kenya’s luscious and green Nairobi National Park. I’ve just rolled out of bed and got ready for the day, sacrificing the morning shower in favour of an extra ten minutes’ sleep, still easing off the jet lag from my arrival in-country a day or so prior. My expedition team – a school group from the UK – are just starting to stretch themselves awake too, presumably still a little overwhelmed by their new environment. We’d transited straight from the airport to our small outpost camp in the heart of the national park and, for many of them, this will be their first taste of expedition travel.
Nairobi National Park is truly stunning. Sitting at about 1500m above sea level, it is considerably cooler and wetter than much of Kenya year-round and its landscape is somewhat peculiar; vast plains of savannah with the prominent city skyline on the horizon. On the periphery of the park, and not separated by fences or artificial barriers, is ‘cultural land’ – in other words, small settlements and lone houses, surviving through subsistence farming and little else.
Think of Kenya and you almost-certainly think of the country’s world-famous wildlife. The mind naturally gravitates to images of elephant, lion, zebra or giraffe roaming free under the hot African sun. A beautiful thought. However, ask a Maasai villager or local farmer what they think of these animals and you may be shocked by their opinion.
“They’re a huge pest,” our camp manager Tony explains, “if you plant a field of potatoes, wait months for them to grow and rest all of your faith in them, you may wake up one day to find an elephant has dug its tusks into the land and uprooted an entire row like a plough in a single sweep.”
The same can be said for lions. As fascinating as they are, they are a predator. Predators need a good, meaty feast. And why bother hunting if just outside the park you can find a herd of fifty goats or thirty cows enclosed in a flimsy chicken-wire and wood ‘boma’ (livestock pen)? It is an easy meal for the taking. Often the lions don’t even need to enter the boma – they simply vocalise their presence from a distance, wait for the livestock to panic and break free, then strike from the shadows.
Following a raid by lions, hyenas or leopards, locals take up arms. They don’t take pleasure in killing the wildlife but retaliation seems to be a necessity. In a country where many people survive on under $1 USD a day a strong cow can be worth $400 USD or a goat about $200 USD. As far as a farmer is concerned, killing the predators is the only solution.
To try and protect livestock, which stops retaliations too, a cheap and simple system has been devised that has already seen a 99% reduction in lion raids on the farms that it has been implemented. LED Strobe Lights, charged throughout the day by a small solar panel, are fitted to the wooden fence posts of the bomas. As soon as day turns to night the lights begin flashing, turning the entire skyline into a scene not dissimilar to a busy Ibiza nightclub! The purpose of the strobes? To convince lions that a Maasai hunting party has been despatched.
“We found that lions don’t fear static light,” David Mascal, a renowned lion expert and joint-manager of the Lion Lights project, briefs us over breakfast. “They will scope out a static light like soldiers conducting reconnaissance on a target then nail the herd, either by raiding or by creating chaos and waiting for the food to run into them. But when the local boys go out on a retaliation patrol they carry torches and bright lights, waving them around, so the lions bugger off as soon as they see flashing or strobing.”
For Mascal the project is mainly about protecting the lions. They are his calling in life and he has dedicated his entire career to their conservation. But what could be a better conservation project than one that benefits the local community too?
“The idea was first devised by a young Maasai boy called Richard Turere. When he brought it to me I couldn’t say no. Now I work in a partnership with another conservationist and a small team, mostly crowdfunded through a facebook page we run, installing the Lion Lights at as many farms as possible. Farmers can come to me to request my assistance and I record any raids they’ve suffered so I can feed back the evidence of the project’s importance to our donors. So far we’ve installed around a thousand sets and displayed a success rate higher than 99%. It truly is a win-win-win situation. The locals are happy their livestock survive, I am happy the lions survive, and the lions can still hunt freely in the park. I even give a twelve month guarantee to the farmers on the condition they don’t tamper with the system – some of them have diverted the solar power into their house to charge their phones then wondered why they’ve suddenly suffered another lion raid.”
On seeing the lights in action right across the horizon at night one could argue that perhaps it is tampering with the natural environment to an extent that animal movement would be harmed or hindered but Mascal assures me there has been no evidence of this being the case in the years that he has been working on the project.
As part of our expedition project work we joined Mascal for a day assembling the system at a farm just a few kilometres walk from our camp. After his briefing we set out on foot whilst he drove the necessary materials over in his truck.
The first stage of the process was to dig a trench around the boma in order to bury the cable. The earth was solid like rock and tough to dig but we had to ensure the trench was at least 30cm deep – as soon as the rains come the fine soil turns into a muddy quagmire and cattle churn it up.
Next, we assembled the lights themselves, fitting them to each wooden post around the boma. Digging had taken most of the morning so Mascal continued to fit the lights whilst I walked my group back to camp for their lunch.
After lunch we returned to refill the trench and trample it down before Mascal demonstrated the finished product. Covering the solar panel with the cardboard box it had come in, the lights kicked into action, strobing about 1.5 times per second. Mascal explained that the system would probably last five years if not tampered with, though possibly much longer if termites don’t get into the wiring (he coats the cables in termite powder to reduce this risk).
Since inventing and patenting the Lion Lights concept Richard Turere has gone onto international fame as Africa’s youngest patented inventor, speaking at TED Talks and featuring in documentaries. David Mascal and partners continue to assemble Lion Lights on an almost-daily basis. Throughout summer 2018 approximately fifteen sets have been installed by volunteers traveling on school expeditions with Camps International, an organisation for whom I have the immense pleasure of working as an Expedition Leader.
If you’re interested in the Lion Lights project you can find more information HERE or HERE. When I find the donation link for the project I’ll attach it here too. Thank you to David Mascal and the entire team at The Wildlife Foundation (alongside Camps International’s Camp Kenya team) for their hospitality.
To see more of my Kenya 2018 expedition photos follow my Instagram right HERE.