TO WIN the attention of girls some young men in Britain might consider lifting weights, flashing their money or buying a fancy motorbike. Not young Maasai warriors in Kenya: they kill lions.
“When you kill a lion you get a lion name, you get respect and you get girls,” said Tumeke Lepos, 47, a tribal elder who remembers killing one of the big cats as a young man. “Whenever you approach any girl from any area you will get that girl.”
For centuries, young Maasai have killed lions to prove their manhood and protect their cattle from the predators.
The ritual killings are partly to blame for the gradual disappearance of the big cats from Kenya, where spears and poison have reduced their population. The Kenya Wildlife Service estimates that in 2013 there were roughly 2,000 left.
Yet Lepos is a reformed killer. Pushing up the brim of his Stetson hat with a fly swat made of cow hair, the elder compares the respect earned from killing a lion to water in a lake that dries up in a drought.
“When you get old, the women aren’t interested any more. They go after the younger men who kill lions. The respect is temporary,” he says, ruefully.
As he speaks, Elijah Tamei, a 19-year-old Maasai tribesman hurls a javelin that sails through the air and lands, quivering, in the grass nearby.
Two years ago, Tamei’s javelin would have been a spear and his target would have been a lion. Yesterday, his goal was to achieve sporting glory — and perhaps impress a young Maasai lady in the process.
Tamei and scores of his fellow tribesmen were competing in the second Maasai Olympics, a sporting event that aims to provide young men with an alternative path to manhood.
On a grassy plain in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, men wrapped in crimson and blue cotton cloaks and women with elaborate beaded necklaces jumped, danced and waved herding sticks as they urged on the athletes.
One of the games’ favourite events appeared to be the throwing of the rungu — a carved wooden club normally hurled at small predators to protect cattle.
From 100ft, Kaitole Kiruti, 23, launched his rungu into a tiny windsock made from a hessian sack to whoops of joy from the crowd. Elephants trumpeted in the distance.
Another popular event — a Maasai-style high jump — involves competitors launching themselves into the air from a standing position in an effort to touch a piece of string with their heads. Money, cows and female admiration are the rewards.
The idea behind the Olympics came in 2008 when a group of Maasai elders arrived at the home of Tom Hill, a Texan entrepreneur turned conservationist who fell in love with Kenya while documenting African rock art in the 1990s.
“They said that 4,000 young men would soon come of age and they would want to kill lions,” said Hill, 61, who has spent 14 years working on conservation projects in the Tsavo-Amboseli ecosystem, an area of more than 1m acres. “The elders wanted an alternative. They realised how important lions are to them.
“Most boys compete for girls: the best quarterback gets the prettiest cheerleader. That’s how it works. So we thought ‘let’s try sports’.”
The games are run by the Big Life Foundation and backed by one of the Maasai’s most famous sons, the runner David Rudisha, who broke the 800 metres world record at the London Olympics.
“Lions are vital for the Maasai. They create job opportunities, they bring in money,” said the softly spoken Rudisha. “The world is changing and the Masai are modernising, lion killing is a tradition we can leave in the past.”
The event’s organisers believe the games and a compensation scheme that reimburses Maasai if lions kill their cattle have helped to boost numbers in the region.
But there are critics of the compensation scheme who say it leaves conservationists open to blackmail by the Maasai.
“The Masai will tell you to pay more and more otherwise they will go back to killing lions,” said Laurence Frank, who has studied predators in Kenya for more than 40 years.
He believes “lion guardians” — Maasai herders trained to warn other herders of lions’ presence — has proved more successful in cutting the number of big cats poisoned in revenge for lost cattle.
“Pastoralists have always killed lions but 100 years ago there were lots of lions but fewer young men with spears. Now there are few lions and lots of young men with spears. It is a real problem,” he said.