Meet the heroic conservationist saving lions

Shivani Bhalla leads a Kenyan project focused on resolving conflict between local communities and lions, an enormously challenging task when the big cats kill livestock.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 18 Nov 2018, 22:17 GMT, Updated 20 Jan 2021, 10:51 GMT
Shivani Bhalla tracking lions using GPS, with Samburu Warriors.
Shivani Bhalla tracking lions using GPS, with Samburu Warriors.

The headline figures are deeply troubling. The population of African lions has declined by 90% in the last 75 years, and there are now fewer than 2,000 of the big cats in Kenya.

There is, fortunately, a glimmer of hope in Ewaso Nyiro Ecosystem in northern Kenya, thanks to an award-winning initiative led by Shivani Bhalla, founder and director of Ewaso Lions.

The project focuses on community-based conservation and research to resolve conflict between humans and predators, and is one of the very few areas where lion numbers are on the rise.

We caught up with Shivani, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2014) as she arrived in London to to join the Whitley Fund for Nature in celebrating its 25th anniversary. 

At the prize giving, Sir David Attenborough praised the Whitley Award winners for having “huge energy, huge passion, and huge knowledge.”

A lion rests by a watering hole. Shivani Bhalla realised that lions in northern Kenya were solitary, rather than living in prides.
Photograph by Shivani Bhalla, Ewaso Lions

When did you first become interested in wildlife?

SB: I always knew I wanted to do something with wildlife. It was a childhood passion - I used to go on safari with my family all around Kenya. When I was eight years old I spotted my first ever cheetah, and it happened to be in Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya, and I’ve obsessed with cheetahs ever since then.

So why the focus on lions?

SB: I moved up to Samburu about 17 years ago wanting to do some research on cheetahs, and I drove around for three months and did not find a single cheetah! But what I ended up seeing every day were lions, and what was most unusual was that I kept seeing solitary lions, or in twos and threes. When I was growing up and going on safari with my dad, I’d see prides of lions, so I knew that something was a little bit unusual, and I realised that no one knows anything about lions in northern Kenya, they had never been studied.

What did your early research reveal?

SB: I realised very quickly that the lions were in serious trouble, and that their solitary nature was because they are just struggling to survive. They have adapted to live alone.

A lion in the Samburu National Reserve, Kenya.

Is this only an issue for lions?

SB: I use lions as a flagship to protect all the carnivortes of northern Kenya, taking care of all the other species that use the same landscape. We do monitor the other carnivores, especially when we’re talking to communities about human-carnivore conflict.

What form do these conflicts take?

SB: When a lion kills a cow or camel there is so much anger and resentment within the local community because they have lost their livelihood. That cow or camel is like their bank, and that is why lions are often shot in retaliation.

How do you resolve this?

SB: We come in with an approach that says, “we really understand where you are coming from.” My team of Samburu Warriors has lost livestock themselves to carnivores, so they really understand that feeling of loss. They empathise and talk with that livestock owner, and this can be for days. They then discuss how they can stop the livestock from being killed to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Empathising is the hardest part of our work, because tensions are very high and people are very angry. This is where my team is so incredibly skilled in conflict transformation. They can calm that person down and stop the retaliation.

Samburu Warriors survey the north Kenyan landscape.
Photograph by Tony Allport

What are the solutions?

SB: It’s about looking after livestock better. None of these landscapes is fenced, which is great because it means wildlife is free to roam and communities are free to roam with their livestock. We try to ensure livestock is better protected – the older livestock owners do a better job of looking after their animals during the day, which is actually when most of the livestock is killed.

How do you persuade local communities to respet lions?

SB: The communiites we work with have lived with lions for generations. Wildlife and lions are a strong part of their culture. We use culture as the number one reason. If their culture is preserved the wildlife will be ok. Lions are an indicator of a healthy landscape – you need carnivores and herbivores to be in balance within this ecosystem, as it has been for generations, but it gets so much harder when there is so much pressure on people to change their culture, with so much development coming in.

Do you get scared working close to lions?

SB: The sense of danger has never been about proximity to lions, our sense of danger is always about people. In northern Kenya it can be a little bit unstable. I am lucky that I’m with Samburu warriors. We get very excited when lions come through our camp.

It's not lions but humans that pose danger, says Shivani. These two lions are in the Ewaso Nyiro area of northern Kenya.

Where else could your approach work?

SB: Our overall model of community-based conservation is very transferable within pastroralist societies. The project is rooted with in the community and culture itself. On the education side of things we have developed a ‘Lion Kids Camp’. We bring children from all over Kenya to learn about lion culture and really be immersed in it through a really fun, interactive way. Some of our games have been replicated with penguins in Argentina, cheetahs in Botswana, and saiga antelope in Uzbekistan.

How have you worked with National Geographic?

SB: National Geographic has been a great partners of ours since 2010 when we were awarded one of the grants from the Big Cat initiative. They have done a short film with our warriors, and we are very grateful for the partnership. It’s not just the funding that keeps our warrior programme going, it’s also the media side of things which has helped spread awareness of the situation the lions are in; and emphasised that this is a Kenyan project done by Kenyan people because it’s so important to them.

Shivani Bhalla, the field team and members of the local community.
Photograph by Tony Allport

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