Behind the Scenes Visit to National Geographic and the Ewaso Lions Project

Whirlwind visit to National Geographic Headquarters in DC – October 26, 2012

After the success of our September Fundraiser for the Big Cats Initiative, Evan and I were invited to get a “behind the scenes” tour of the National Geographic Society which would include time with Luke Dollar, the Development Office team, a special tour of some of the Nat Geo Archives and the opportunity to spend time with one of the BCI grantees.  We headed down to DC on the morning of October 25th and had a few hours to play tourist around town.  I hadn’t seen the White House in years and Evan and I laughed that it is actually smaller than it appears on television.  Television really does make everyone and everything look bigger than they really are!

The next morning we met Luke Dollar, who manages the Big Cats Initiative at the Society.  We learned that the Big Cats Initiative (“BCI”) was, coincidentally, marking its 3rd Anniversary that day.  They run with a very lean team supported by the larger National Geographic infrastructure.  Luke teaches undergraduate students at Pfeifer University and graduate students at Duke.  He has been involved with carnivore research for years and his role at BCI focuses on the conservation grants, working with the grantees and other field-based aspects of the BCI mission which is to safeguard and restore big cat populations and the ecosystems they inhabit. It is the Duke team of interns that serves as BCI’s academic engine and I believe they are the ones who do the heavy lifting of the assessment data.  BCI was created as a result of Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s work and passion for and on behalf of the Big Cats and was built on three pillars: (1) Assess (Ongoing Mapping and Population Assessment), (2) Protect (BCI Grants Program facilitates action to ultimately expand conservation), and (3) Communicate (leveraging the reach, breadth and power of National Geographic to really CAUSE AN UPROAR around the world).  The BCI visionaries acknowledge that they do not have all the answers to solving the Big Cats’ crisis, but what they do have is the power to fund solid “on the ground” projects run by experts in the field.  The first year focused on lions.  The second year, cheetah projects were added and in the third year the research was expanded to include snow leopard and tigers (in India, Asia and Russia).  The first grants were awarded in March 2010.  To date, 33 grantees are working on the ground in 16 countries to make a difference and over $800,000 has been awarded towards this work.  Evan and I were impressed with the research process and the level of experts that are devoting their time and attention to the Initiative.

We also had the opportunity to meet Shivani Bhalla, one of BCI’s grantees who is responsible for the Ewaso Lions Project based in Northern Kenya (    The Ewaso Lions Project is a community based project which we have discovered is a common theme among the grantees.  These projects need to benefit the big cats AND the human communities that live amongst them –  they promote the co-existence between wildlife and people.  Kenya has a growing human population and it is estimated that there are probably only about 2000 lions left in the country.  Researchers estimate that about 100 lions are lost in Kenya each year – the biggest reason being Habitat Loss (huge lion ranges have disappeared).  A corollary to the Habitat Loss is Retaliatory Killings as lions are killed in retaliation for the loss of livestock.  Shivani said in the North, lions are many times shot or speared, while in the South they can also be poisoned.

Shivani and her team are currently monitoring 45 lions in the area, which is a significant multiple of the number from five years ago.  A single lioness, named by the villagers, Magilani (may not have the correct spelling here) for “the Clever One” was a driving factor in changing the villager perspective on the area’s lion population.  The villagers became so concerned about this particular lioness that they were willing to give her a cow.

The researchers know that for the best chance of success they need to enlist the community to help provide the solutions.  Some men in the Samburu community were interested in becoming scouts and warriors.  The Warrior Watch Program is Ewaso’s main ambassador program.  In exchange for providing wildlife help, the Warriors asked to be educated.  What started with five warriors has now grown to 16.  The Samburu Warriors are learning to read and write in English and Swahili while providing the Ewaso Lions Project with weekly data feeds on the predators.  Each Warrior is provided his own camera trap.  The Warriors are also responsible for digging water holes (in 2009 Ewaso was dry for nine months).  Since that time there were floods in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Shivani was very proud to report that since April 2010 there have been no further retaliatory killings!  She noted this is extraordinary – especially in Kenya.

Shivani and her team have also been very active in support the education of the children in the area.  Northern Kenya gets very little support from the government and when they first started there was only one school book for every six students – this ratio has now become 1:1.  She believes that the future of conservation is in the hands of these little kids.  To date, they have also taken over 200 students on safari with the intention that they can learn to appreciate the wildlife for what it potentially offers them (“Kenya Kids on Safari”).

Future Action Plans at Ewaso include an (1) Elders Watch (this entails incorporating the Elders into the greater conservation effort as it is the Elders who are responsible for the decision-making process), (2) starting a “Lion Watch” program in January 2013 which includes enrolling tourists into assisting with taking pictures and sharing “their data” via smart phones.  Ten guides have already been chosen to help educate and work with this program, and (3) expanding the current Warrior Watch program.

When Shivani was asked – “Is there a future for lions in Northern Kenya?”, Shivani responded with a resounding, YES!

We look forward to staying in touch with Shivani and hopefully visiting the Ewaso Lions Project ourselves in the near future.

Before we left we also had the opportunity to briefly meet Dr. Amy Dickman who heads the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania.  More about Amy and her work in my next post!


3 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes Visit to National Geographic and the Ewaso Lions Project

    1. laholzwarth Post author

      We were still in Africa when this aired but am looking forward to seeing it via my iPad. We were at Duba Plains which I know is where they shot at least some of the segment and so have pictures of the same lions! Just got back yesterday and am still catching up.

  1. Bill Condaxis

    fantastic to hear of so many people with resources committed to the preservation of these priceless creatures … thanks for all you have done and are doing !


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