For centuries, the Maasai community in Kenya has practiced a traditional rite of passage that require male initiates to hunt and kill lions. This tradition has been largely blamed for the diminishing number of lions, which have been a major source of revenue for the country’s tourism industry.
In a bid to end this destructive practice, the community, with the help of local and foreign conservationists, has come up with other innovative ways to celebrate the traditional rite of passage, such as the Maasai Olympics competition.
This year’s competition was held on December 10th at Sidai Oleng Wildlife Sanctuary in a colorful event that involved numerous games, including rungu (club) throwing for accuracy, running, javelin throwing, and the high jump. Previous competitions were held in 2012 and 2014.
“In truth, this program is very successful and we are now doing something honorable. We used to celebrate lion hunting but this program has shown us a better celebration,” the event’s official website states.
The winners were awarded with various prizes, including cash, cows, and an opportunity to run in the New York City Marathon.
Innovative Conservation Strategy
For thousands of years, the Maasai community has celebrated the lion-hunting tradition as a way to display the braveness and personal achievement of young male initiates, who are locally known as morans or warriors.
Morans also hunt lions to impress girls whom they view as potential wives. Sometimes they hunt these lions in groups and other times as individuals.
Studies show that the population of lions in Kenya has drastically reduced from 250,000 to 35,000 during the last four decades, with this traditional practice being largely to blame.
This is a major reason conservationists decided to partner with the Maasai community to find safer ways of celebrating this important rite of passage without endangering lions.
Formation of the Maasai Olympics
In 2008, the Big Life Foundation, an international wildlife conservation NGO, partnered with the Maasai community living in the Amboseli and Tsavo wildlife conservancy to establish the Maasai Olympics.
The competition was established with the aim of eliminating lion hunting from Maasai culture. This initiative incorporates Big Life’s warrior conservation project, Menye Layiok, which was initiated in 2011.
Apart from the Olympics, the project also educates local communities on the dangers of killing lions, as well as the benefits of protecting the animals.
“Lion killing is no longer culturally acceptable and must stop now, as must the killing of elephants and all wildlife species. Failure to follow the path of conservation and reap its economic benefits will result in an unsuitable future of the Maasai people,” part of the organization’s message reads.
Among those championing the end of lion hunting is one of the Maasai community’s most celebrated members, David Rudisha, who is the world champion and world record holder in the men’s 800 meters race.
BY FREDRICK NGUGI