Wildlife guru’s big prize revives Maasai memories

ACP10 Richard Bonham with Maasai and poaching snares
Richard Bonham with a local Maasai who’s retrieved snares put down by poachers

It was great to see the legendary Richard Bonham, co-founder and director of the Big Life Foundation in Africa, being recognised by the conservation charity, Tusk Trust, with a special award presented by  the Duke of Cambridge in London. The prestigious Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa was presented to Richard this week in recognition of his lifetime contribution to wildlife conservation and the Maasai community in Kenya.

Member of the Maasai community at the payday event
Member of the Maasai community at the payday event

It’s not long ago we were skimming the tops of the thorn trees in Richard’s plane, having cadged a lift back to our accommodation after photographing his pioneering community conservation work with the Maasai near Amboseli. He’s a very experienced bush pilot, ironically rumoured to have a fear of heights, which we can certainly vouch for given the number of giraffes we seemed able to eyeball directly between take-off and landing!

ACP19 Maasai couple arriving at Predator Compensation Fund Pay D
Arriving in style at the Maasai predator compensation pay day event

Generously he’d invited us along to witness what must be one of the most colourful and carnival-like conservation projects in the African bush. It was pay-day – a chance to see in action the high point of the innovative predator compensation scheme which has helped reduce human-wildlife conflict and save the local lion population from near extinction.

ACP11 Maasai woman attending the Predator Compensation Fund pay
Mobile phones and beautiful beadwork appear to be the day’s dress code

Like any pay-day the air was electric with excitement. The whole village turned out, even tiny babies and the very old. Some came slowly in the heat on foot, others rocked up flashily on motor cycles. Everyone seemed to be dressed in their best – a wonderful mix of fashionably modern and traditional Maasai styles accessorised boldly with beadwork and the obligatory mobile phone.

ACP08 Maasai claiming payment at the Predator Compensation Fund
Claimants receive their pay out where livestock has been lost to lions
ACP22 Traditional Maasai beadwork on show at the Predator Compen
Everyone is dressed in their finest

The pay-out scheme, devised by Richard, but run by the local community, compensates Masaai livestock owners for the loss of animals that fall prey to lions and other predators – reducing the incentive for herders to take matters into their own hands by hunting down and killing lions. Provided ranchers can prove stock was lost to predators payment can be claimed from the fund.

ACP28 Maasai villagers queueing at Predator Compensation Fund pa
The huge queue outside the payment office is like the first day of the sales
ACP25 Maasai male attending the Predator Compensation Fund pay p
This young Maasai was happy to pose for a picture in his traditional dress

The day was a huge social coming together, a celebration almost, with endless noisy gossiping as you’d expect. Any disputed compensation claims are thrashed out in the shade of a big tree with a jury of locals hearing every case in detail. Richard sat in observing many.

ACP18 Maasai couple arriving at Predator Compensation Fund Pay D
There’s a cool vibe among the young generation – many rock up on motor bikes

With fewer than 30,000 lions remaining in Africa and many lion populations in decline the scheme has so far proved a big success. Running for more than 10 years now there’s been a dramatic 90 per cent drop in lion killing since it began and the local lion population is not only healthy it’s growing. In addition two bordering communities have set up similar compensation schemes with the result that a one million acre corridor for predators has been created.

ACP09 Richard Bonham at the Predator Compensation Fund Pay Day
Richard Bonham ready to catch up with the community gossip on pay out day

The predator compensation fund is just one of Richard Bonham’s many achievements in wildlife conservation that’s been deservedly recognised this week. It’s one we were lucky enough to see first-hand even if only for a day – a day of amazing experiences and exchanges with a remote, shy, but welcoming Maasai community, rounded off by a low-level plane ride over the African plain we’ll never forget… Congratulations Richard!

To find out more about the scheme and Richard Bonham’s work visit www.biglife.org