By Susan Daugherty
National Geographic Emerging Explorer Shivani Bhalla enlists locals to save lions.
The lion cubs are hungry, their mother even more so. With virtually no natural prey—gazelles, buffalo, or other grazing animals—left in her dwindling Kenyan habitat, the lioness approaches a herder's homestead in search of livestock.
She's successful, so tonight her family will eat. But will the herder retaliate with a gun, spear, or poison the next time she encroaches?
It's a conflict that plays out every day on the African savanna, one that conservation biologist Shivani Bhalla says may help wipe out lions in Kenya. (Videos: "The Serengeti: Life on the Plains With the Vumbi Pride.")
As habitat loss drives more lions into areas inhabited by people, provoking revenge killings and driving the animals to the brink of extinction, Bhalla says the cats' survival depends on finding a way for them to peacefully coexist with humans.
Over the past 20 years, the number of lions in Kenya has dwindled to fewer than 2,000. If the trend continues, the animals could vanish from the nation within two decades. Their plight reflects that of lions in broader Africa, where they have disappeared from more than 80 percent of their historical range, declining from an estimated 450,000 animals in the 1940s to only about 20,000 today. (Related: "Africa's Lions May Be Deemed Threatened in U.S.—Will It Help?")
In an attempt to turn the trend around, Bhalla started an organization with a novel mission: turning local people from lion killers into lion protectors. Ewaso Lions, founded in 2007, takes its name from a river that begins on the the slopes of Mount Kenya. (See "Q&A: Explorer Shivani Bhalla Helps People and Lions Coexist.")
Among the primary targets of the group's work are young warriors of the Samburu people, who patrol huge distances each day to ensure the security of villages and livestock—and who are responsible for many lion killings. (See "Samburu Warrior Graduation.")
"Although these warriors live in the bush and have vast information about wildlife activity, no one had ever asked them to be part of conservation efforts," says Bhalla, a fourth-generation Kenyan.
For her, taking the conservation movement out of parks and other protected areas and into local communities is key to the lions' survival. "Conventional wisdom says there is no hope for lions outside protected areas," she says. "I've seen exactly the opposite."
Bhalla's conservation career began in Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya, a relatively small area where the wildlife also includes leopards, cheetahs, zebras, giraffes, and elephants. (Read "Family Ties: The Elephants of Samburu" in National Geographic magazine.)
"After six months I realized that most problems with lions don't happen in protected areas," she says. "So I packed up and moved to an area surrounding the reserve, where people and carnivores share the landscape."
Today, Bhalla lives and works in the Ewaso Ngiro ecosystem, which links the lions of northern Kenya with one of the last stronghold populations in the south. It's one of the few areas in Kenya where lions persist outside protected areas. More....