Magazine article The Spectator

Wild Life: Aidan Hartley

Magazine article The Spectator

Wild Life: Aidan Hartley

Article excerpt


We are privileged to live with lions on the farm. We hear them most nights. We encounter them frequently. Out walking last month, I sensed four lions the instant before I saw them. Adrenaline raised a mane of goose bumps from my skull to my thighs. I should have shouted and advanced on them and certainly not run away. Instead I became rooted to the spot, hypnotised by their great yellow eyes. After seconds they timidly slunk off -- in Kenya's recorded history honey bees have killed more people than lions have -- leaving me to feel neither scared, nor relieved, but thrilled.

Sixty years ago Elspeth Huxley wrote that all the lions in Laikipia, the ranching plateau I call home north of Mount Kenya, had been shot out. Ranchers exterminated all the lions based on the simple logic that they killed cattle, and because frankly it was fun to kill big cats in a world abundant with game. Farmers even had what they called the 'five before breakfast club', which involved the enthusiastic destruction of entire prides.

Today Laikipia has recovered, with a population of 250 lions. This is greatly thanks to my scientist friends, Alayne Cotterill and Laurence Frank. They have converted many ranchers and nomads into lion lovers. These days we don't lose cattle, because we put them in proper lion-proof bomas at night. In 14 years of ranching I've lost just one cow to a lion and she was blind. By fixing VHF or GPS signal collars on lions, the scientists can track them. Each day the various farms receive emails showing the GPS satellite-plotted movements of collared lions on maps of our plateau.

Collar signals not only inform the scientists about lion behaviour, but they also alert us all when they stray into harm's way. When the lions move out of Laikipia ranches they are more likely to be shot, since there's an AK-47 behind many a bush. Or they are poisoned with a pesticide called carbofuran, which people like to sprinkle on carcasses and is so toxic that it will kill the lion and everything else in the food chain including vultures that die so suddenly they fall out of the sky mid-flight.

Now the collar signals can send the landowner an alert by text message, telling you when lions are entering danger zones so that you can go and chase them back into safe havens. …

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