Maasai youths have substituted traditional lion hunts with a series of sporting competitions to display their prowess and strength. This past weekend, the youth competed in different events in the Kimana sanctuary near Mount Kilimanjaro.
For centuries, Maasai boys were traditionally supposed to battle and kill a lion to demonstrate their bravery and masculinity and attract women. The games, dubbed the Maasai Olympics, involve spear throwing, athletics, and high jumping and were developed as an alternative rite of passage to manhood.
In the recent edition, participants performed sprints on a rough dirt track for distances ranging from 100 meters (328 feet) to 5,000 meters during the competitions.
Other competitions have been modified to reflect local traditions. In throwing events, wooden clubs called “rungus” that are used to fend off hyenas are used in place of discuses.
Similar to the ancient Adumu dance performed at ceremonies, the objective of the high jump competition is to leap into the air and touch a rope with the top of one’s head.
The games were established by community leaders and conservation organization Big Life Foundation ten years ago to substitute hunting with sport as the number of lions in Kenya decreased from about 30,000 in the 1970s to just over 2,000 now.
In the Olympics, young men compete for medals and monetary rewards, and the competitions happen once every two years at the Kimana Sanctuary near the boundary between Kenya and Tanzania on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. This year, about 160 people entered the competition, including 40 women.
According to the Big Life Foundation, there are only 23,000 lions remaining in Africa, and the number is dropping. The government-run Kenya Wildlife Services stated that there are 2,000 or so lions in Kenya, and human conflict is the biggest threat to lions and other carnivores in the country.
Tom Hill, co-founder of the Big Life Foundation, stated that the Maasai Olympics have reduced lion slaughter in the area to almost zero. The Maasai community is now one of the few places in Africa outside of protected regions where the lion population is stable or rising. The Olympics have had a significant impact on it.
Joseph Lekatoo, 30, a competitor since 2012, said the events are “an excellent method to conserve our resources.” The twenty-year-old Esther Sereya concurred and said, “We are learning a lot about the animals.”
Lions are occasionally hunted for killing cattle, and Mr. Hill stated that the foundation has established a fund to compensate herders.
David Rudisha, a Maasai sprinter who holds the world record and is a two-time Olympic champion, has sponsored the competition ever since it began. He stated, “We are holding this event for conservation.”
The games received praise from all the older Maasai men. According to Lenkai ole Ngola, a 66-year-old herder, “I killed two lions when I was young, but today, it is necessary to protect them because their numbers are dropping and also because they generate jobs for young people.”
“We benefit more now than ever before since we share grazing areas and watering holes with wild animals,” he added. Besides the conflict with humans, lions are in danger due to the severe drought that is ravaging Kenya, 40 years after numerous unsuccessful rainy seasons in East Africa.
Instead of receiving medals, the winners of the various competitions are given prizes like cattle, scholarships, or cash.