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Lion King: Berkeley Carnivore Research Works to Halt the Decline of African Predators

September 15, 2009
by Glen Martin
photograph of a lion

In Kenya, it seems everyone has a favorite Laurence Frank story.

In his book, A Primate’s Memoir, baboon researcher Robert Sapolsky recalls encountering Frank in the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya. Sapolsky describes Frank as “Laurence of the Hyenas,” a wild man who stalks through the bush at night, oblivious to danger, using infrared vision goggles to study large carnivores.

Younger researchers remember forlorn, bug-ridden nights bivouacked with Frank in the bush, with nothing to eat but “bait”—a ripe carcass (cow, or an eland or zebra if one is handy) used to lure lions, hyenas, and leopards so they could be snared, fitted with telemetry collars, and released. “Most of the antelope species have fairly tasty meat,” reminisced Frank of his bait repasts. “They’re all bovidae—cows, basically. In Africa, it’s best to remain flexible.”

Frank, a carnivore biologist of world renown and a researcher affiliated with Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, has spent more than 35 years in Eastern Africa studying Africa’s large predators—particularly hyenas. He has been instrumental in investigating female dominance in hyena social systems, and the role of in utero hormones in the masculinization of females.

Laurence Frank

He also is one of world’s top authorities on lion conservation and was among the first field researchers to sound the alarm about the precipitous decline of Africa’s top predators. Frank observes that the continent’s lion populations have fallen from perhaps a million in the 19th century to 30,000 or fewer today. Much of his current work centers on two programs that integrate tribal people in efforts to save Kenya’s remaining lions.

Frank has a scholar’s mien—large, somewhat world-weary eyes framed by heavy spectacles, with thinning, unkempt hair and a smile that is simultaneously diffident and ironic. But he’s tall and heavily muscled, and his slightly protruding jaw twitches when he’s angry—which is fairly often. Despite his continental Jewish antecedents, Frank is fascinated with Scotland, where he got his master’s degree—he drinks mainly phenolic, single-malt scotches such as Ardbeg, and he enjoys the pipe and drum marches of elite Highland regiments as well as old Celtic songs. He speaks in perfectly parsed sentences almost Victorian in their complexity, yet he casually spices his conversation with curses so scabrous they could peel paint. He is, in short, a man of many layers.

I spent several weeks in northern Kenya with Frank a few years ago, tailing after him as he pursued his studies, so I have my own tales to add to the saga. Seeing wild Africa through the eyes of a biologist working the deep bush—so different from the perspective of a tourist shuttled from lodge to lodge in a lorry—made a deep and permanent impression on me.

On one occasion, he received a call from a rancher who had a rabid spotted hyena on his property. When we arrived, we glimpsed the animal, a young male, as it staggered into a brushy gulch. It was slavering and yelping, rolling its head from side to side. Frank took a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with rifled slugs from the back of his Toyota Land Cruiser and walked into the bush. The prospect of confronting a rabid hyena in impenetrable vegetation had little appeal for me, and I held back until I heard the report of the shotgun. On investigating, I found Frank on the verge of tears, standing over the carcass. “I really hate doing this,” he said as he prepared to haul the carcass back to his lab for a necropsy. “Hyenas are such wonderful animals. It’s terrible when I have to kill one.”

The event that, to me, was emblematic of Frank in thought, deed, philosophy, and ethos happened a few days later and involved another rabid hyena reported to us by another rancher. We spent the better part of a morning looking for it, driving through rolling scrub punctuated with acacia trees.

Finally, we came across a lone Turkana tribesman standing by a termite mound, armed with an old wired-together single-shot shotgun. Frank talked to him in Swahili and learned that yes, he had seen a hyena carcass. It was nearby; local herders had learned the animal was in their district, hunted it down, and speared it to death. The Turkana climbed into our vehicle and directed us to the remains of the largest hyena I had ever seen. It was bloating in the fierce equatorial sun. Frank gasped—not in distaste, but in deep appreciation.

“Oh, sweet Jesus,” he said. “That’s the most beautiful head I’ve ever seen. Look at the size of that skull! I simply must have it.” He jumped from the Land Cruiser, fetched a machete from the back, and enthusiastically hacked at the reeking corpse, finally disengaging the head. “It’s such an exquisite specimen,” Frank chortled. “We’re so incredibly lucky.”

The skull would later take its place among a rank of similar specimens in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology—reputedly the second-largest collection of hyena skulls in the world, and one of Frank’s long-running projects. Such collections help establish a taxonomic baseline for various species, Frank explains. Not to mention, of course, that collecting hyena skulls is a simple obsession, one with roots in his childhood. “Collection-based biology was how I got into science,” he says. “I began collecting specimens for the San Mateo County Junior Museum when I was 11 years old.”

James Patton, emeritus curator of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and an emeritus integrative biology professor at Berkeley, says Frank’s hyena skull collection is an extremely valuable adjunct to the museum’s specimen archives. “Our responsibility at the museum is to obtain, house, and make collections like Laurence’s available to the scientific community,” Patton says. He describes Frank as one of the great field researchers of our time—and something of an academic anomaly in that he holds no tenured post at any university, and never has. “He was never willing to sacrifice his time in the field for an academic career,” Patton explains. “His work on hyenas is seminal, and changed the perception of them from skulking scavenger to efficient, deeply intelligent, socially complex predator.”

As to Frank’s personality, says Patton, “like all the significant field naturalists, Laurence is very driven, a severe Type A. People like that don’t get along with everyone, of course—most notably other Type A field naturalists.”

Deep as his interest is in skulls, Frank is even more engaged by living hyenas. It is difficult to conduct detailed physiological and behavioral research on wild hyenas, so with Berkeley animal behaviorist Stephen Glickman, Frank established a colony of live spotted hyenas near Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Their hoots and gibbering are often heard at twilight, resounding across the wooded vales and slopes of the Berkeley hills. Currently, there are around 30 animals in the facility, each housed in a spacious pen. Frank helped raised many of the animals from cubs, and when he gets into the pens with his former charges, he observes, “they go all stupid,” licking his face, nuzzling him with teeth backed up by jaws that could snap his femur like a matchstick, grinning like—well, hyenas. “They’re extremely affectionate and bright,” he says. “Not surprising, considering their complex social structure. In Kenya, some of the old ranchers tell you stories of keeping hyenas as pets. Apparently, you can train them as well as any dog.”

Sadly, in East Africa these days, hyenas—and lions, leopards, and wild dogs—are viewed as vermin by most tribal people and many ranchers. In the past, that wasn’t so much a problem. Africa’s human population was relatively low, there was ample wildlife habitat, and options for eliminating predators were limited. Now hyenas and lions have few places to go that aren’t already claimed by farmers or livestock herders. The means of destruction—firearms, wire snares, and most particularly pesticides used as predator poison—have become far more sophisticated and lethal.

“Poisoning is the worst,” Frank says. “An American pesticide called Furadan has become widely available throughout East Africa. It’s illegal, but you can buy a bunch of it in any little trading post in Kenya for a buck.” Furadan was developed as means of controlling nematodes, but pastoral tribesmen, bedeviled by lions and hyenas killing their livestock, have found the poison to be an extremely efficient predicide. Sprinkle a little Furadan on a recent lion kill, the pride comes back for a nosh on the carcass, and voilà—no lions. The poison also wipes out all the other predators attracted by carrion—jackals, vultures, and hyenas. “Lions, the signature carnivore for the continent, have vanished throughout most of the country. It’s unspeakably tragic.”

The bigger problem, says Frank, is that many wildlife species are seen as a threat by East Africa’s tribal peoples. Elephants trample the maize, lions eat the cows and goats; situations that are intolerable for people on the razor’s edge of survival. So for more than a decade, Frank has been working with the tribes and ranchers to develop new strategies for accommodating wildlife—particularly carnivores. He has helped promote lion-proofing bomas, temporary corrals made from thorn bush that enclose cattle and goats at night. His efforts have yielded excellent results: In the northern Kenya district of Laikipia, where most of his work is concentrated, carnivores are doing well. Laikipia, in fact, is about the only place in Kenya where lions are still common, says Frank, outside of a few of the country’s game reserves.

In recent years, Frank and research associate Leela Hazzah have begun a similar program in the Maasailand, the vast, rolling grasslands of southwestern Kenya inhabited by the Maasai, perhaps the best known and most charismatic of East Africa’s tribes. Lions always have been a cultural touchstone for the Maasai, who are a cattle-herding and martial people. Murran (young warriors) traditionally have demonstrated their courage and worthiness for admission into manhood by killing a lion with a spear. To a large degree, that’s still the case. “That didn’t used to be a problem when there were plenty of lions around and relatively few Maasai,” says Frank. “But now things are reversed—the Maasai population is increasing rapidly. There’re more and more murran poking lions with spears, and more and more Furadan spread on carcasses. The lions can’t take it.”

As part of their Maasai project, Frank and Hazzah have initiated Lion Guardians, a program that enlists murrans to track specific lions and give daily reports on the location of the cats, so that cattle and goats can be grazed elsewhere. They also help construct bomas, aid villagers in finding lost livestock, and generally instruct locals about conservation issues.

“They’ve also prevented a lot of lion hunts by calming down angry young men after a livestock kill,” says Frank of the Lion Guardians. “One of the best things about the program is that it keeps the murran associated with the lions. They still gain prestige for interacting with dangerous and powerful animals. They also get paychecks, which further contributes to their standing. Gainful employment essentially is nonexistent in the Mara, and anyone who earns hard currency is respected.”

Frank acknowledges it is difficult changing tribal hearts and minds about lions. The big tawny cats are, after all, supreme predators that view anything on the savanna as a potential meal, including cattle and the people who husband them. Indeed, the website of the Maasai Association, a tribal organization devoted to safeguarding Maasai culture and interests, is outspoken about the right of tribal people to control lions, though it explicitly acknowledges that lion hunting is illegal. Too often, the Maasai claim, the welfare of the pastoral tribes is sacrificed to protect wildlife. “When a lion attacks a cow, the authorities from wildlife and conservationist organizations…bury their heads in the sand,” states the “Human and wildlife conflict” posting at the website. “When a Maasai warrior kills a lion because of killing his cow, the authorities would ferry security personnel to arrest the warrior. In other words, it is acceptable for a lion to kill a cow but not acceptable for a warrior to kill a lion. Lions are considered more important than the Maasai cows.”

The website observes that cattle are essential to the Maasai way of life, and that protection of livestock must remain the paramount concern of the tribe: “If the Maasai people were to abandon their cattle, as suggested by the conservationists, they would become beggars of foreign food aid.”

Frank would not disagree with that assessment. For wildlife to survive, he insists, it must contribute to the economic well-being of tribal people, whether through hunting or tourism or both. The Lion Guardians program can be part of the solution—but it won’t be enough, he acknowledges. Nor is ecotourism sufficient, Frank claims.

So Frank proposes something that has been verboten in Kenya since 1978: big game hunting. “Lions that trophy hunters are interested in shooting are old males with big manes,” he observes. “They’re often in the last months of their lives—they’re slowing down, at the point where either the hyenas will take them or they’ll run into trouble by killing somebody’s goat because they’re too infirm to catch game. A big lion like this can either die in the bush, returning nothing to local communities—or a hunter can kill it.” If properly regulated, hunters would pay tens of thousands of dollars for the permits and the hunt, with some of the money trickling down to the tribal level. “That provides an incentive for local people to keep lions—and other big game species—around,” he says.

It is no coincidence, Frank says, that wildlife is in steep decline in Kenya while it is doing well in neighboring Tanzania, where regulated hunting is permitted. “People are economically invested in wildlife in Tanzania,” Frank says. “At one time, it was the same way in Kenya. No longer. In Kenya today, game is viewed as a threat, a pest, or both. I understand the impulse to ban big game hunting, and I understand why it happened in Kenya. But the ban didn’t address the real issue—which was poaching, not regulated hunting.”

But while Frank thinks that regulated hunting can be an effective conservation tool in East Africa, he emphasizes that lion hunting must remain proscribed in Kenya for the foreseeable future. The downward spiral in lion numbers has become so steep, he says, that any pressure on them would be excessive. “There are a few areas in Kenya where there could be limited hunting of some species like buffalo and antelope,” Frank explains, “but lions are in such bad shape that they would need to recover substantially before any additional killing could be contemplated. If lions recovered significantly in a large area, I would support very limited hunting, with all the proceeds going to local people. But right now, there is [no place] in Kenya where any lion hunting could be ecologically justified.”

Frank’s position puts him at odds with animal rights groups such as Born Free and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, organizations that wield considerable influence in East Africa, particularly in Kenya. A recent legislative push in the Kenyan parliament to reauthorize regulated hunting was defeated, in large part due to efforts by animal rights advocates. Frank was upset by the failure of the initiative. “I agree that the primary reserves in eastern and southern Africa—Kruger, Okavango, Selous, Serengeti, Tsavo—must remain sacrosanct,” he says. “But there are vast areas of land between the preserves where game was once incredibly abundant, and where it has now disappeared because it has no value to the agrarian and pastoral tribes.”

“When wildlife has value to tribal people, they will exert great effort to preserve it, because doing so is in their self-interest,” Frank insists. “The Maasai don’t necessarily want to wipe out the lions—but they have to be given real reasons for accommodating them, considering the threat lions pose to their livestock. We can give them those reasons by two things: allowing regulated hunting, and making sure that at least a significant portion of the money that comes into the country from foreign hunters stays in tribal hands.”

I was happy dur­ing my first 20 years in Africa, trying to fig­ure out the female spotted hyena’s pseudo-pe­nis. But …when the world is dying around you, you have to do some­thing.

Will Travers, the CEO of Born Free, says he respects Frank—even if he doesn’t always agree with him. “I sign on to much of what Laurence says, but I part with him when it comes to his unswerving support of the consumptive use of wildlife,” Travers said. “For many people in Africa, the subsistence take of game may be a matter of survival—obviously we can’t condemn that. But trophy hunting is another matter entirely.”

Travers disputes Frank’s claim that the tribes can derive significant income from trophy hunting. “The governments get some of the money, but most of it goes to the hunt companies—in East Africa, generally German or French,” claims Travers. “Very little of it actually gets down to the local level.” He said Born Free is involved in a program in northern Tanzania that—like Frank’s Lion Guardians—employs Maasai tribal members. “They use a simple system to collect data on game populations and their movements, which tribal leaders then use to establish wildlife policy on tribal lands,” Travers explains. “So far, most have decided trophy hunting should be banned. They agree with us that wildlife doesn’t have to be killed to invest it with value. We’re helping them establish infrastructure based on ecotourism that includes lodges, as well as clinics and schools. Profits from the lodges go directly to the community.”

Frank remains unconvinced that ecotourism can save the continent’s remaining wildlife. Though there have been some hopeful developments in recent years, the general trend for Africa’s game remains downward—particularly for his beloved carnivores. Yet he feels driven to do what he can, and that means enduring all the frustrations implicit with a career in conservation biology. “I could’ve remained a research biologist,” he says. “It would’ve been far less stressful. I was happy during my first 20 years in Africa, trying to figure out the female spotted hyena’s pseudo-penis. But when I saw how fast everything was disappearing, it seemed irresponsible to simply satisfy my academic curiosity. When the world is dying around you, you have to do something. Whether or not it makes a difference, you have to act.”

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