Lion tracking in Maasai culture
Tracking is an art and an age-old tradition which can be very addictive. Lion tracking is usually inspired by boundless curiosity and ultimately the burning desire to find a lion. Whilst tracking, it is imperative to remain alert to every detail of your surroundings; from the dirt trail to the sky above, a paw print on the ground, or the calls of carnivorous birds, the environment is filled with clues and signs. A keen tracker is able to interpret these clues and, more often than not, successfully follow and sight a lion.
Lions frequently travel on livestock/wildlife trails, riverbanks, dirt roads or around waterholes so this is where a seasoned tracker is likely to start looking for paw prints or pugmarks. Like a signature, paw prints have consistent shape and size and can be used to confirm a lion’s sex, age and even identity. For instance, the paws of a male lion are squarer and bigger than a female’s. Furthermore, unlike other predators, claw marks are not visible on the paw prints of all cats including lions.
Once a tracker has spotted paw prints and is on the trail of an animal, there can be no greater satisfaction than to follow the clues and signs in the environment until he has a visual of the particular species he is tracking. But to achieve this is no easy task. The tracker has to construct exactly what took place several hours before he came along simply by observing the tracks on the ground. Through his observations he also has to surmise the probable direction in which the animals have ventured after they left that particular spot.
While some tracking skills can be developed, some individuals have an innate ability to read their surroundings and follow the signs till they spot the animal they have been tracking. Here in Maasailand, being a good tracker can define an individuals standing in the community. Usually, a seasoned tracker is a warrior of great repute and someone the entire community would revere.
Of all the animals that the Maasai track, the lion is probably the most well known. The lion is one of the most beautiful, enigmatic and majestic animals in the world. And although lions bring many problems to those that live with them, Maasailand also shares these feelings of wonder and respect. Lions elicit reverence for their grace and independent nature; they also trigger fear when they come into close contact with people and livestock. In the past, successfully tracking and spearing a lion was a valuable act and proof of bravery amongst the Maasai. It carried with it prestige, status and respect in equal measure. But time has changed and the concerted efforts of different stakeholders especially within the Amboseli ecosystem is bearing fruits and slowly changing the tide. Direct benefits accruing from wildlife has brought about a positive attitudinal change, which carries with it a glimmer of hope for the future of wildlife species including the lion. In fact, over the last three years, there has been a significant increase in the lion population around the group ranches of the greater Amboseli ecosystem. Through programs such as Lion Guardians, Maasai warriors are now able to use their natural inborn tracking skills to protect lions instead of harming them, while at the same time helping to protect their communities from confrontations with predators. In zones where Lion Guardians patrol, the art of tracking is very much alive, albeit, for a completely different purpose!
Having many friends from the Maasai community, they surely must be concerned about the sharp drop in numbers of lions to be found in Kenya. I recently visited for 3 weeks and saw one male in Amboseli – no other big cats at all. Therefore tracking would be one thing to go, apart from this majestic symbol of Africa. Recently in Human Planet we saw a small group of Maasai cutting off a section of a pride of lion’s prey, firstly having shooed away some 12 lions!! This I feel sent out a wrong message – lions are just pussy cats and it is okay and easy to do this and nothing was even said about the possible threat of people contracting anthrax. Reply would be welcomed.