How Close Can You Get to a Lion?: Dispatches from Kenya's Coolest Safari

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There are rules for a walking safari, our guide Roelof tells us softly, sternly. The sun beats down on the stiff yellow grass of the Maasai Mara—the part of the Serengeti that spills across Tanzania’s northern border into Kenya. It’s one of the many Africas people like me don’t know by name but recognize instantly: all brush and blue sky, and occasional lone-silhouetted trees.

It’s also hot. Really hot. The big cats—cheetah, leopard, lion—have all taken cover, giving the grazing animals scattered across the plains time to relax.

Maybe it’s because I don’t know any better; or because the guide giving me instruction cradles a rifle in his hands, a band of brassy bullets cinched around his waist. Or perhaps it’s because my friend James and I have another experienced guide, Zarek, walking behind us. But I’m not concerned about safety. Instead of listening to Roelof’s rules, I let my mind wander: I worry whether I’ve brought enough water. I worry that I haven’t read enough about Kenya before coming here. I think about how much I’ve already seen today: a lioness parading her scruffy cubs past our vehicle; loads of giraffe, gazelle, and warthogs; and a troop of elephants converging at a watering hole. I’m absorbed in the little things: looking at the flowers and bird’s nests and giant mounds built by feisty termites, who, I will later learn, can air condition the habitat and rattle in unison to scare off predators.

But Roelof is whispering at me now, so I try to listen. These are the rules I remember: Walk single-file behind the guide with the gun. Whisper; don’t talk. When you sense danger, snap your fingers. When there is danger, listen for instructions. And no matter what, don’t run. Never run.

Two hours later, when my heart is pounding and we’re scrambling up a cliff, it’s this last rule that will prove the hardest to follow.

Most people who book a safari in Kenya head for the Maasai Mara National Reserve—the roughly 580 square miles of protected park a short drive from where I’m standing. The rangers there work hard to prevent poaching of wildlife, and the Maasai—the local seminomadic people the park is named for—are restricted from grazing their livestock there. The result is untrampled land with excellent wildlife viewing. The problem is the tourists: When there are sightings—say, a cheetah feasting on a kill—it’s not uncommon for 30 oversized vehicles, all packed with snapping cameras, to converge on the scene.

I’m here in Kenya because I’m interested in what’s happening on the outskirts of the Reserve. The area where I’m staying is called Mara Naboisho. It’s one of eight or so conservancies that abut the National Reserve to the north. Seventy percent of Kenya’s wildlife live outside of the parks, so migrations of zebra and wildebeest travel through these areas regularly. Or at least they used to. As the Maasai population grew and families started fencing their land, the wildlife dwindled.

But that began to change in the 2000s, when local Maasai came up with a radical plan: Instead of selling their properties to the wheat farms and development projects that were squeezing them from the north, they decided to work with conservationists to band their properties together, remove the fences, and lease the land to responsible ecotourism partners.

It sounds laughably optimistic, but this “community-based conservation” proved to be a surprising win-win. The Maasai could draw income from the leases; conservationists could work to protect the land; the community at large could continue to use the unfenced property for grazing, and tourism partners could run small-footprint camps (Naboisho has seven camps, with space for no more than 120 tourists, across a 50,000-acre reserve). And because the conservancies have essentially doubled the contiguous protected land outside the National Reserve, the animals roam free across a far wider territory.

Meanwhile, tourists like me who aren’t interested in ultra-luxury, colonial-style camps get a quieter, richer safari experience, plus the added satisfaction of knowing that the project supports the local economy. On my many drives through Naboisho, we see a few Maasai men tending to their cattle, but we rarely find ourselves with more than one other vehicle. While walking isn’t allowed at the National Reserve, here in the conservancy we’re not tethered to the car. On foot, human company is even more spare, so you find places that feel undiscovered, like the valley we’re about to enter.

At the start of the walk, James gives me a tip: Keep an eye on the guide’s rifle. Gun in left hand, nothing to worry about. Gun in right hand, be cautious. If you hear it cock, things are serious.

I laugh. James has been on dozens of safaris and knows the drill. But to me, the gun feels like a formality: Aside from a few birds, we have the valley to ourselves. The only sound I pick up is the soft hum of the whistling thorn acacias.

Roelof and Zarek hear more. Neither is Maasai—Roelof is a blond South African; Zarek is a Kenyan of Punjabi and American descent. But they know this land well and are as enthusiastic about seeing a hyena’s scat (which is completely white from all the bones they consume) as they are to show us the pair of eagles soaring above, teaching a juvenile to hunt. The joy is infectious: I’m an indoor kid, but I’m becoming a convert.

I forget about the gun. My mind is focused on a set of fresh animal tracks in front of me. When Roelof quizzes us on what type of creature it is, I take my best guess: “A big cat?”

“Oh, the biggest!” he responds.

He circles the paw print with a stick and says, “We’ll never see the beast, but you can just imagine...”


Naboisho wasn't the first conservancy in the Mara. But what makes this place so special is how hard the community pulled together to create it. Much of its success, I learn, is thanks to a Maasai man named Dickson Kaelo.

Kaelo is a legend—he’s young and charismatic and has a master’s degree in conservation. He realized early on that to get all of Naboisho’s 502 landowning families to rally around the idea of a conservancy, he’d have to show them the advantages firsthand. He and the Naboisho leaders selected individuals from the community—enterprising women, twentysomething schoolteachers, and other influencers— and toured them through reclaimed lands in Tanzania and Kenya, pointing out how other tribes had used their land.

Dickson also worked with potential tourism partners to spread out job opportunities, so it wasn’t just the Maasai lease holders who were benefiting from the money coming in, but also the people living on the conservancy’s fringes. And, perhaps most importantly, he ensured that the small board that makes all the big decisions on behalf of Naboisho will always be half Maasai.

The campaign took four years, but when the community finally had its chance to sign over the parcels for leasing, more than 400 families gathered under a big tree to make it official. Before long, another 100 families would join them. Now, Naboisho is being held up as a case study in the conservancy world. Arguably even more stunning than this show of unity is the speed with which the wildlife has come back. And that includes the lions.

Because we're talking about lions, I have a lot of questions. I learn that the cats are always crafting new ways to hunt. When wildebeest are scarce, lions in the Mara will work in teams to take down a hippo. In Namibia, where lions prowl the beaches of the Skeleton Coast, they’ll feast on seals and cormorants and even beached whales. In Botswana, they take advantage of the airports, chasing giraffes onto the tarmac so they lose footing and slip. But here in the conservancy, where lions have been coexisting with the Maasai, the creatures mostly keep their distance from people.

Of course, that hasn’t always been the case. A day later, when another guide, Senchura, takes us to meet his father, Sakaiwua Kaleku, I’m still obsessed with the topic. After the formalities—we’ve presented him with a bright red checkered cloth and asked after his wives (three are nearby, tending the dozen or so kids)—he tells us how “the lions used to be everywhere.”

I’ve been waiting to hear about the moran—the period when Maasai boys on the brink of manhood would fight lions and steal cattle to prove their worth to the village. Sakaiwua talks about how bonding his experience was: He and the others saw their role as “the eyes of the community,” constantly keeping watch for the tribe. He said that two of his friends were badly hurt by a lion and that once, during a cattle raid, he had to bandage a bleeding friend with his own clothes, then carry him home— running naked through the night. Sakaiwua was one of the last generations to enter the moran; he’ll be one of the last generations to have multiple wives. He’s advising his own sons to take one wife, maybe two.

When I ask how things have changed, his response is positive. He’s thrilled that the land has been rejuvenated and that it’s being preserved for grazing. The Maasai connection to their cattle is deep. When I talk to one of the Naboisho conservancy board members, Gerard Beaton, he tells me about a sociologist who created a Monopoly-style game to understand Maasai culture: No matter how the points in the game were weighted, or how the rules changed, the Maasai players attempted to hoard all the game’s cattle.

Sakaiwua welcomes the tourists because he knows Naboisho is being saved for future generations. His kids will be able to live here if they want instead of taking jobs in Nairobi. But what makes him proudest is that all of his children are going to school. Because Senchura has graduated from the guiding school at the conservancy and is employed at one of the camps, he’s able to fund an education for his brothers and sisters.

As we continue our walk, Roelof and Zarek tell me that this year’s tourism numbers are down. They blame the hysteria over ebola, even though the virus was contained in western Africa, thousands of miles away. One family told Roelof their travel doctor refused to give them shots, explaining that they could get the same experience at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

But what I see is nothing like Disney World. The four of us have this valley to ourselves, and it all feels so still. I try to absorb everything. I feel the silk of a wolf spider’s web. I crush wild jasmine and take in the scent. I learn that certain types of acacia thorns are strong enough to puncture a car tire.

And then, as we’re walking down a slope, the snapping starts. Zarek is quickly clicking his fingers to get Roelof’s attention. He’s just seen a dik-dik dart across the opposing hill, and when he trains his eye on what it’s running from, he spots a young male lion, about 30 meters away from us.

It sees us. We stand motionless, and I smile at our luck. The lion, muscular but still growing into his frame, looks unsure of what to do. Then he moves up the hill and disappears into the brush.

Just then a second lion emerges, this one bigger, with a full mane. He pauses, staring right at us. Then he starts walking our way, and as he does, a third lion, hidden in the bush, roars. I don’t remember everything that happens next, but I know the gun shifted hands. I know Roelof pushed me and that he whispered forcefully, “Go, go.”

We move quickly. Zarek scissors a path, I follow close behind—laughing but also a little panicked. I start wondering if I’m breathing too quickly or too loud. The thorny branches that I’d carefully avoided before are now clawing at my pant legs, but I’m thinking about speed, not comfort. Still, this is fun.

When we finally stop, Roelof and Zarek are serious, but unshaken. They say that the lions look like they’ve just eaten. The guides could also tell the animals had wandered over from the National Reserve—they weren’t accustomed to seeing people on foot. The second lion—the one that was pursuing us—never made it close enough to be a problem; the concern now is about the first lion. He’s young and skittish, unpredictable. And he’s still lurking somewhere up the hill, in the direction of our camp.

As we trudge out of the valley, Roelof in front with the gun in his right hand, I’m fully on edge: Every sound is startling; every shrub feels suspicious. We walk purposefully as Roelof and Zarek chart a path unlikely for a lion to take, but my heart is racing.

It’s only when we finally reach the valley’s lip and can see the plain before us that my anxiety lets up. Later that night, nerves further calmed by gin and tonic, I ask Roelof how close he thought the lion was.

“About 20 meters,” he says. “So, when do you shoot?”

“10 meters,” he says. “And you only really get one shot.”

A few hours ago, that knowledge would have terrified me. But here, in the glow of the campfire, it feels comfortably distant. It’s already a story I can imagine telling friends over drinks after I get home.

Safari-goers like me will always evangelize their experiences. But will enough people visit the conservancies to sustain this project? In Maa, a Maasai language, naboisho means “coming together.” Along with the Maasai and the wildlife and the conservationists, Naboisho needs a steady stream of tourists to survive. That stream has slowed in the past few years, and if it doesn’t improve, camps will close and local jobs for Maasai men and women will disappear. The wildlife may disappear, too.

So the brainstorming on how to diversify the income has begun. There’s talk of a “beef scheme” to brand and sell Maasai beef to supplement the economy. There are questions about whether some farming on this land would affect the wildlife.

But even as Naboisho’s partners worry, they continue to dream big: They’ve already identified another chunk of leasable properties that would complete the circle for a secondary wildebeest migration. As they describe the scene—the massive herds, this restored land, an even greater Maasai community that will benefit—I sense the urgency. I so want it to be possible. And if just a few more people can come here and experience this place the way I have, maybe it will.