By Elvis Kisimir, African People and Wildlife Fund
*Originally posted on National Geographic Cat Watch on September 11th, 2014
“In a few years to come, the world will only see the rare lion spoor on the sandy soil. If the wind blows, then even those spoor will go.” One extraordinary Maasai warrior shares his message for the world about the future of big cats. Elvis Kisimir experiences the full extent of familial responsibility while pursuing a career in wildlife in a story about how early exposure ignited a passion that transformed into the protection of lions and rural livelihoods in Tanzania. He tells his own tale of his metamorphosis from a young schoolboy who is scared of lions to the head of Human Wildlife Conflict Prevention for the African People and Wildlife Fund, and a Disney Conservation Hero.
My name is Elvis Kisimir. Born in Loibor Siret, and a Maasai by tribe, I love people, wildlife, and nature.
During my life I have experienced many changes in both the community and the environment that I live in. My father was a primary school teacher, and my mother was a nurse working at the health centre in the village of Emboreet who used to fly with doctors to different areas of the Maasai Steppe. When I was a young kid, sometimes if I cried, my mother would tell me, “Stop crying because the lions are behind the house.” I would stop crying immediately because I thought the lions might break into the house and take me. At that time the lions were very many, and I would hear them roaring almost every day: in the evening, at night, even early in the morning. When I met with friends to play together we always asked each other if everyone had heard the lions roaring in the night.
In 1991, my father stopped working as a primary school teacher. He took some courses on tourism and was employed as a tour guide at one of the companies in Arusha. During that time he worked very hard because he liked his new job, so I would see him a few times a year at most. I started boarding school at Simanjiro Primary School in Emboreet, and some days I would see him, in a big tourist truck or a Land Rover, stop by the school before going on to Tarangire through the Loibor Siret ranger post.
In December of that year, when the school was closed for Christmas, my father bought us a television. Most of the movies he bought were about wildlife because he wanted to understand more about these animals, as this it related to his new job and he wanted his children to see how various wild animals lived. The two movies that I won’t forget are Masai Mara and Londolozi, and some of those images have stayed in my mind until now. In the Masai Mara film a girl was nearly killed by a lion when she went out to play tennis, but she was rescued by people from the house – this was the flashback that I had when my mother would tell me that the lions were behind the house waiting to break in and take me. I would sit close to my father and ask him many questions, so I came to understand many things concerning wildlife. When I asked about the girl in the Masai Mara film, he told me,“My son, this is not reality. We are living together with wildlife in our environment. You always hear lions roaring at night. They are not bad creatures unless you disturb them. According to our tradition, you can be harmed or even killed by lion if you are cursed by your clan. You are a man, and in a few years time you will become a warrior, son!”
I learned many things from my father — this was the starting point of my dreams. There was a hope in my life that one day I would be like him.
In 1998, my father decided to make Narakauo his main homestead, 15 kilometers from Loibor Siret centre. According to the Maasai tradition, the eldest son has the greatest responsibility in the family. I was the only son to my father, so I had to work hard to make sure the family was fine. I completed my high school education in 2006, after which I took over some of my father’s responsibilities, making it very difficult for me to go for further studies. The next year I got married, and here you can imagine that I needed to work very hard because the responsibilities were mounting in my day-to-day life.
In 2010 I was employed at the African People and Wildlife Fund heading the Human-Wildlife Conflict program for the organization, which has headquarters in Loibor Siret. I saw as the realization of my dreams because I had already created trust in the locals I worked with, which is very important to me. During the time I have been working under Dr. Laly and Charles, I have learned many things concerning wildlife and environment in general, and I want to thank them for all they have showed me by becoming a good local conservationist.
What I have found surprising and amazing in my work experience is when you find different reactions to incidents of human-wildlife conflict. You can find that 20 goats or sheep have been killed by hyenas and the owners don’t take immediate action, but if one juvenile lion has killed a single calf, immediately you find people gather together from different age groups. Everyone wants to listen, and it is a time when each person shows the rest how much he knows about lions. The lesson here I learned is this: The lion is the most important creature in the Maasai tradition.
There was one day in a conversation with Dr. Laly when she said, “If you hear lions roaring, fighting for territory, that means things are balanced: rainfall, grasses, breeding…” This idea made me think back to the time when I was around 12 years old and lions were roaring almost every day in our area, the rainfall was enough for everything that needed it to survive, and many areas were still wild, with not as much human activity as nowadays.
I have discussed this with some of the adults and elders in the communities I work in, and they agree, saying, “At that time lions were everywhere. Every year we would get enough rainfall, and we didn’t have to sell cattle to buy maize because we had a lot of milk to fill ourselves, with the livestock eating well and breeding every year.”
So my message to my fellow Maasai and the world in general:
“In a few years to come, the world will only see the rare lion spoor on the sandy soil. If the wind blows, then even those spoor will go.”
The meaning of this message is that for the small number of lions we have now, for locals and the world in general, if we are not serious about protecting them, we are going to lose all of them. Avoid conflicts with them, and don’t shrink their habitat by developing human activities in their territories. If we do that, hopefully in a few years to come the new generation will both hear and see the king of the Maasai Steppe roaring.
Lastly, if there are no lions, there are no warriors. Your lion is my lion. Let’s preserve lions for the generations and generations to come.