NAIROBI, Kenya — The lioness lay sleeping in the bed of a dark green pickup, her eyes covered with a soft blue cloth, as a veterinarian in camouflage stood over her.
“Ni kubwa!" he said in Swahili: “She’s big!"
She was in fact surprisingly fat, fluffy and young. Surprisingly because she had been living in the suburbs of Nairobi for at least four months, and it was hard to believe she was so fit and healthy.
And hard to believe that she was actually captured. Tranquilizing a wild large carnivore is always stressful, and these were hardly the best circumstances. Cornered by one of my dogs at 6:30 that morning, she was protecting a trio of 2-month-old cubs in thick bushes at the bottom of my property.
It took 12 rangers and three vets from the Kenya Wildlife Service — aided by two Land Cruisers, a pickup and a tractor — more than six hours to dart her and capture the cubs by hand. The small, swarming crowd of onlookers, many taking pictures on their phones, did not make things easier.
As difficult and exciting as capturing the lions was, a more imposing question now loomed: What do you do with them?
The vision of lion prides roaming endless African savannas, unaffected by people, is a romanticized image that survives in just a few very large protected areas. Lions play important roles in ecosystems and bring in millions of dollars from safari tourism, but they are hard to live with and potentially very dangerous.
The African lion is listed as a threatened species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Only 20,000 to 40,000 wild lions remain, in just 20 percent of the historical range of the species.
As the human population continues to grow rapidly here, rates of conflict with lions and other wildlife are growing too. These conflicts are a great threat to carnivores in Africa, and how they are managed will determine the fate of the lion in Kenya.
Unfortunately, we know very little about suburban wildlife in Africa. Large carnivores that make their way into urban or suburban areas are often quickly killed by vehicles or people — leaving no time to study them. Or as biologist Craig Packer at the University of Minnesota bluntly puts it, “Usually, urban carnivores are encountered as road kills."
Packer, the director of the Serengeti Lion Project, a long-running study of lions in Tanzania, agrees with other experts that the best solution for lions like the ones captured in my yard may be euthanasia — despite the lion’s threatened status. The reasons are rooted in geography and fundamental aspects of lion biology.
My neighborhood, Mukoma Estate, is a partly forested, developing suburb on the south side of Nairobi. It is immediately west of Nairobi National Park, about 45 square miles of partly fenced grassland and forest less than five miles from the central business district of a city of more than 3 million people. Long-term residents recall lions moving through Mukoma in the past; baboons, warthogs and a leopard still call Mukoma home.
Successful urban carnivores include coyotes, foxes, raccoons and badgers — smaller animals with generalist diets that allow them to eat just about anything. But lions, weighing 240 to 600 pounds and eating only meat, certainly do not meet these criteria; the Mukoma lions were a direct threat to people, and they killed numerous warthogs, several dogs and goats and two young giraffes.
But it is unlikely that they were lured here by the availability of such prey. From limited monitoring by the group Friends of Nairobi National Park, Packer says that lionesses are probably living and having cubs outside the park because there is a large lion population inside it — including a number of adult males that pose a risk of infanticide.
“If lions are indeed at high density within the park," said Laurence G. Frank of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Kenyan research group Living With Lions, “as long as she can get through the fence, she is likely to move the cubs back out. This situation is likely to arise again in the near future, creating an ongoing management problem and continuing threat of someone being killed or injured." So returning the lioness and her cubs to the park was not a solution.
Human-lion conflict occurs often in more rural settings, and people are advised to not kill carnivores or they will face prosecution. Thus, under pressure to “not kill any lions themselves," Patrick Omondi, head of species conservation at the Kenya Wildlife Service, told me that the captured lions were taken to Meru National Park, about 200 miles northeast of Nairobi.
Carnivore biologists collectively cringed. Again, Packer put it bluntly: “Sending them to Meru is a death sentence."
In addition, lions are highly territorial and do not welcome newcomers.
“The great majority of people are not aware of the true consequences of translocating carnivores and just assume that it is the ‘kind’ thing to do," Frank said. “Translocating a lion kills it slowly and cruelly but out of sight.
Both Packer and Frank say the most humane solution for the suburban lions would have been euthanasia.
While appearing heartless on the surface, the utilitarian act of euthanizing some problem animals for the greater good of the species may prove critical to having any wild lions at all in Kenya.