Our phones pressed against the window, eyes wide open and speechless, my colleague, Steve Best, and I looked at each other in disbelief at the size and beauty of the landscape. We were nearing our destination, which meant the end of the bumpy ride in our Cessna Caravan.
It had been a two-day journey to get to this location. First we flew from Johannesburg, South Africa to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. With a 10-minute layover, we rushed through the intense humidity and crowded airport to catch our connection to Arusha, where we overnighted before continuing our journey.
The next morning we drove 4 hours north into Kenya to Nairobi, where we hopped on our charter flight that would take us to our final destination, the Maasai Mara National Reserve in the Great Rift Valley, where man was born.
We landed in the Mara on the heels of a spring thunderstorm. Dark clouds and distant thunder warned us another would soon arrive. On a muddy runway, Steve and I unloaded our many bags and cases of camera gear. We were there as cinematographers producing a new documentary series for Outdoor Channel called Carter's W.A.R (Wild Animal Response). Following conservationist and host Ivan Carter, we were in search of stories regarding the human wildlife conflict for which Africa is infamous.
It was ironic that the first man I met after I got off the plane was a Maasai; legendary stories of Maasai tribesmen and warriors poisoning lions is what brought us to the Mara. He was small in stature as his bright orange shuka hung loosely on his body, but his toothy smile and eagerness to help load our heavy camera gear onto the safari truck revealed a confidence developed by living a simple life. He was about my age and went by Danny, short for Daniel; we shared the same first name.
Danny was to be our guide for this trip. As he drove to camp he told us, both in his native Swahili and well-spoken English, what life was like on the Mara. The spring rains had just arrived, and what had been dusty plains just days before, had exploded into a sea of lush, green vegetation. Life was good on the Mara, he explained, as rain brought relief to both the Maasai and the wildlife.
The Maasai are dedicated cattle farmers, and Danny explained to us the "Maasai Pyramid" which ranks, in order of importance, the things of which the Maasai value most. First is their cattle, then grass, then water, and, finally, their family. They rely nearly completely on their cattle for sustenance, as they live almost exclusively off of cow milk and cow blood. Only on special occasions such as weddings will they eat meat from their cattle.
The Maasai live peacefully among wildlife, and do not hunt, fish, or disturb East Africa's flora and fauna. Which begs the question, why do the Maasai have such an infamous reputation of being lion killers? Is it true that Maasai warriors had to kill a male lion as a right of passage to manhood, and wear the lion's mane as a headdress? We would continue our search for answers in the morning.
The skies cleared overnight and we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise the next day. Danny was right, it was a great time for all living things on the Mara, as evidenced by the amount of wildlife happily grazing on the green grass and browsing the acacia trees around our camp.
Giraffes nipped the newest growth off the tallest flattop trees. Thompson's gazelles, plains zebras, and blue wildebeests filled their bellies atop the green carpet that now blanketed the landscape. Elephants used their powerful trunks to break branches off the acacia trees for a snack.
In the area where man was born, I wondered how he could have ever left such serenity. It was a quintessential East Africa morning, and I counted my blessings as I heard lions roar in the distance.
Ah, yes, lions, the purpose of our trip. We met back up with Danny and headed for his village. The goal was to spend time with the Maasai, ask the elders questions about their relationship with lions, and approach the Moranis (Swahili for "warrior") about the rumors associated with their upbringing.
During our drive to Danny's village we passed several other Maasai tribesmen taking their cattle out to graze for the day. The Maasai keep their livestock in a boma at night to protect them from predators, but also out of respect for the wildlife that feed on the plains. It was astonishing to us, however, just how many cattle some of the Maasai had, and how much fence was either in construction, or had already been built. The Maasai are a primitive culture, but it was clear they had adopted some Western farming practices.
During the drive I got to know Danny on a more personal level as well. It was clear that, while we obviously came from different parts of the world, he and I had a lot in common. Danny told me about the passion he has for all animals, and how he went to wildlife school to become a guide. He knew all species of wildlife that live on the Mara, from the biggest elephants to the smallest bird. Beyond that he had a keen understanding of the physiology of each animal and understood how the entire ecosystem works harmoniously. While he doesn't hunt himself, he understood the respect and reverence I have for the deer I hunt 7,000 miles away.
Once we got to Danny's village, Ivan went to work in search of answers. A native of Zimbabwe, he's deeply passionate about Africa and the animals that call it home. We learned of an elder in Danny's village who wore a lion mane headdress. Certainly he would provide some insight on why the Maasai are rumored to be vicious lion killers.
His name was Kuyo, and he greeted us outside of his hut, his warrior spear glimmering in the sun. His face looked like leather, no doubt burnt many times by the scorching Kenyan sun. He was expressionless and unimpressed by our camera equipment. This was a man who had spent his entire life in East Africa, and his trust would not easily be gained.
In Swahili, Ivan began asking him questions, mainly about his headdress.
"Where did it come it from? How did you get it? Did you kill the lion to which it belonged?"
Kuyo told us that he did kill the lion to which the headdress he was wearing once belonged.
Ivan asked him if tradition is what prompted him to kill the king of beasts.
He replied that the lion was actually the aggressor in this situation. He showed us the scars on his neck, back, and the back of his head as he detailed the attack. He had taken his cattle out to graze one morning, when the lion attacked him from behind. Before the lion was able to bite his neck, Kuyo was able to roll over, grab his spear, and thrust it in the lion's chest killing it.
Kuyo now proudly wears that lion's mane as a headdress, but it's more of a status symbol than a "trophy." Yes, it's an unfortunate that the lion was killed, but in this case it was simply a Maasai cattle farmer fending for his life, no different than any other man would.
Our search for answers continued. Kuyo was helpful, but did not provide the definitive answer we were looking for. In his situation, he was doing what all Maasai men do the day he was attacked, simply watching over his cattle.
Ivan then wanted to question a Morani. Maasai are renown for their warrior spirit, and it's said that young Maasai warriors must kill a male lion to become a man. Danny summoned two Moranis from a nearby village.
They arrived proud and full of bravado. Unlike other members of the Maasai, they had long, braided hair that went down past their shoulders, and their shukas were elaborately decorated with colorful beads. Impressed by their confidence, I stuck out my hand to introduce myself in their language.
"Jambo (Swahili for hello)," I said.
The bigger one eagerly grabbed my hand and forcibly pulled me off balance. I looked at him confused, but he smiled back at me ear to ear. He pulled me off balance again. It was a game, a test of strength.
The goal was to pull the other person off balance. We both settled in, locked hands, and resumed competition. Neither one of us was much stronger than the other, but in the end I was able to pull him off his base. He, his Morani companion, and Danny were all surprised by the outcome. Moranis aren't used to losing, and they were all impressed by my skills.
I failed to mention to everyone watching that I was wearing boots and he was in sandals, and that may have had a say in the outcome.
After the games, we got back to business. Ivan questioned the Moranis about whether or not the rumors were true that they must kill a lion to become a man. Both proudly boasted that they were Maasai warriors, and would never be afraid of a lion, but that right of passage is no longer practiced anymore. Instead, Moranis are gifted a small herd of cattle from their village, and forced to leave for at least a year before returning home. If they return from their walkabout with the same number of cattle they had when they left, then they become a man. Again, it was clear that the health and safety of their cattle, every Maasai's livelihood, was number one priority, not killing.
A passionate conservationist, Ivan was still looking for answers to the Maasai lion conflict. Having spoken with two Moranis, and an elder, it was, however, clear that the Maasai value their cattle far more than anyone from the Western world could ever understand. He asked Danny for his opinions.
Danny reinforced what Kuyo and the Moranis had told us, that the Maasai respect the lion immensely and the practice of killing a lion out of tradition no longer exists, and they only kill lions to protect their cattle. Still, why so many reported killings, Ivan asked?
Danny, a passionate wildlife enthusiast, and conservationist in his own right explained it simply, "The Maasai that are killing the lions do so because they are not educated. They do not understand the value the lion brings to the Maasai and the world."
He went on to state that the Maasai that are killing the lions are poisoning them because the lions are killing their cattle. When Ivan asked why he thought this was happening Danny replied, "There are too many cows and not enough wildlife for the lions to eat, so they eat the cows instead."
And there it was, the answer to the lion-human conflict of East Africa. Not the lion, not the Maasai; habitat loss and destruction is the culprit. As more and more habitat is converted to agriculture cattle replace prey species the lions are accustomed to, resulting in lions killing cattle. In turn the Maasai, simply trying to protect their livelihood, as any man would, poison entire prides of lions.
When asked about a solution Danny replied, "Education."
During the time we spent with the Maasai shooting for Carter's WAR, we became immersed in their culture. They're very proud people who have modernized themselves with the 21st century, while remaining faithful to many of their traditions and customs.
We spoke to an elder that nearly lost his life to a lion, and Maasai warriors whose spirit and bravado transcends cultural barriers and language alike, yet neither were aware of the human / lion conflict occurring in their own back yard. It wasn't until we questioned Danny, an educated Maasai and ardent conservationist, did we receive answers to our questions.
I was grateful for the time I got to spend with Maasai, and even more so that I got to meet Danny. Since he doesn't have e-mail or Facebook, we exchanged bracelets, one from my world, and one from his, so that "we would always be in touch."
It's ironic to me, that in the land where man was born, I met a man so much like myself. We're named Daniel. We're both 26. We're both passionate about animals. And we both have "big smiles!" And together, I think, we made a positive impact, no matter how small, on the future of East Africa's lions.