Conservation Biologist; 2014 Emerging Explorer
Photograph courtesy Ewaso Lions
Photograph courtesy Ewaso Lions
Conservation biologist Shivani Bhalla, a fourth-generation Kenyan, is working to safeguard the future of Kenya's rapidly declining lion populations. She is founder and executive director of Ewaso Lions, a conservation organization that uses scientific research and community outreach to promote coexistence between people and lions who share habitats. It is the only organization that focuses on lions that live both inside and outside protected areas in northern Kenya. There are now fewer than 2,000 lions in Kenya, and they could vanish within two decades if habitat loss and conflict with humans continues. Ewaso Lions's innovative community outreach programs, which involve young tribal warriors as well as women and children, are helping foster local support for conservation. Her team has dramatically changed local attitudes, and the lion population she monitors has grown to its highest numbers in a dozen years.
Where were you born?
Where do you currently live?
What inspires you to dedicate your life to your work?
My greatest inspiration has been the Born Free books and learning about the work that the Adamsons were involved in. I also followed and read all about Dian Fossey when I was a child and was in awe of her hard work to protect the gorillas.
I was born in 1978 in Nairobi, Kenya. My passion for wildlife developed at a very young age during school camping trips and weekend safaris with my parents. I was fortunate to receive a camera when I was 16 and immediately began taking photos of wildlife in earnest. My enthusiasm for taking photos soon developed into something greater—a passion for and an interest in all wildlife. I also remember spotting my very first cheetah when I was only eight years old, which happened to be in Samburu. I will always remember that first sighting because it confirmed my fondness for cheetahs and big cats in particular.
I also had some great friends who liked wildlife as much as I did. These friendships strengthened my belief that a career in wildlife conservation was possible. I wanted to be a ranger for many years! I realized at a young age that I would devote my life to conservation. I didn't know how it would happen, but it was a dream of mine. I would watch films with conservationists driving around in Land Rovers in the bush looking at wildlife and I hoped it would be me some day. I don't drive a Land Rover—I drive a Suzuki—but I'm basically doing what I have always wanted to do.
I moved to Samburu more than 11 years ago and realized how important and necessary lion conservation was. No one had done any study before on lions in the area and this is when I started my project, Ewaso Lions. Around the time I moved to Samburu, a lioness had adopted a baby oryx antelope, a very unique event. I went on to learn more about this female and to identify the lions in Samburu. It was not long before I realized I would live in Samburu permanently and dedicate my life to lion conservation.
What has been your most challenging, rewarding, or memorable experience in your field?
Working with children has been especially rewarding. Showing them lions for their first time is something I will never forget. We held our first Lion Kids Camp in April 2013 and another a few weeks ago. Of the participants over the years, more than 50 children had never seen a lion. We showed them more than 15! Watching their faces light up and hearing them say they would be so sad if Samburu didn't have lions is what keeps me excited and wanting to continue what I do. I can't wait for the next Lion Kids Camp!
One of Ewaso Lions's greatest achievements to date has been the Warrior Watch program, which we started in January 2010. One of the most neglected groups of people in conservation management in the Samburu region is the moran, or warrior age class. These young men spend more time than anyone in wildlife areas, yet they are rarely involved in decision making when it comes to wildlife conservation.
To address this gap, Ewaso Lions founded the Warrior Watch program in Westgate Community Conservancy. Through Warrior Watch, morans become active within their communities as wildlife ambassadors by reporting on wildlife sightings and issues such as conflict in exchange for a food stipend and educational lessons. This is the first program to actively involve warriors in wildlife conservation in the region. Engaging the warriors instills positive attitudes toward wildlife, with an emphasis on the importance of lions and predators, and this message is spread to other morans in their communities.
One of the best moments was when we launched the program in June 2010, where our five warriors who were part of the program initially met with more than 130 warriors who attended the initiation along with wardens from the region. It was a great day of celebration for these warriors and the first time that Samburu warriors have been engaged in conservation in the region. Since then, in January 2011, we expanded the program and engaged and trained more warriors and we now have 17 warriors engaged in conservation. It was great to see the warriors who started the program in January 2010 train the new ones. Our 2010 warriors can now read and write all the animals' names and much more. They are true ambassadors and it has been fantastic to now see them teaching the new warriors.
Other achievements include watching how my field team has grown over the past few years. Some of them come from remote areas and were new to conservation and wildlife. Now, they are wildlife ambassadors in our area, and speak out about issues related to wildlife. They teach and train others and encourage them to promote conservation. Because of our efforts, the communities in Westgate Conservancy are now excited and interested in lions. They stop us often when we are in the field and ask us about the resident lions we monitor, who have all been given Samburu names. The lions are now famous in the community and it is great to see this.
Our main challenge is at times working in an area where security is a problem. Often cattle raids take place and we need to be extra careful with our own safety. It affects our work greatly at times. One of the main challenges we face is the harsh and minimal field conditions where we work and live. Our camp is pretty rustic! We don't have running water or power, porcupines often plunder our kitchen, and we live in canvas tents whose zippers are always breaking. It's real bush living. We don't have any permanent structures so when the rains hit hard, sometimes our camp becomes a disaster zone! This makes it at times very hard to work.
What's a normal work day like for you?
I normally wake up between 5 and 5:30 a.m. each day. When I am in Westgate, where my camp is located, I leave the camp with my assistant Jeneria to look for lions and other predators. We also conduct transects in some areas and record all the wildlife prey species we see. I normally head back to camp before 9 a.m. and either spend the day working in camp on data or administration, head into the community to have meetings, or conduct community awareness programs. At 5 p.m., we go back out into the field until 8 p.m., return to camp for dinner, and then sleep by 9 p.m.
If I am in the reserves (either Samburu, Buffalo Springs, or Shaba), we are out the whole day, from 6 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., looking for lions. Looking for lions in this region is tough work and often we spend days or weeks without seeing lions or even tracks. But that's part of the challenge. Although every day is different and you can never predict what the day will bring, so I have to always be flexible and ready for changes.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don't have any doubts and be prepared for hurdles. And as much as possible, take a step back and enjoy the success and what you achieve.
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In Their Words
When you give local communities reasons to embrace conservation, people and lions can coexist—and this incredible species can survive.
More About Bhalla's Fieldwork
The Whitley Awards are prestigious international prizes presented to individuals in recognition of their achievements in nature conservation.
In an effort to conserve lions in northern Kenya, Shivani Bhalla founded the Ewaso Lions Project.
As the "eyes and ears of the Bush," Bhalla has enlisted the help of Samburu warriors in northern Kenya to help.