In the thick golden light of a setting African sun, under the speckled shade of an acacia tree, three young lions are feasting on a baby giraffe. The hindquarters are gone; the chest is laid bare. Dry, snapping noises can be heard across the grasslands as the animals crack the ribs of their prey to get to the vital organs. Coolly, with utter confidence, a mature lioness--the oldest of the seven-member pride--approaches. A 3-year-old male tries to scare her off with a snarl, but she lunges at him, baring her teeth and biting at his neck. After a modest show of resistance, he retreats and, in a final display of submission, turns tail and slinks off into the sunset. She takes his place at the kill, tearing chunks from the giraffe's neck. A jackal watches from a distance, hoping for a few scraps when the lions are done. Farther away, by a clump of trees, four adult giraffes wait in vain for their young one to return.
This is no photo op in a wildlife park for tourists on safari. This is Mugie Ranch, a commercial livestock operation in Kenya's Laikipia district, about six hours north of Nairobi. Some 14,000 sheep and 1,000 cattle graze here on the open grasslands, tended by 200 ranch hands. Barely a mile from the feasting lions, herders are bringing cattle and sheep into their nighttime pens, raising clouds of red dust. The herders whistle at their dogs, which are on the alert for lions--and for leopards, which go to the nearby water hole at night to feed on antelope and gazelles. On the plains of Africa, predation is a prominent part of the daily rhythm of life.
Livestock owners around the world generally kill predators, but the 45,000-acre Mugie Ranch is trying something new. It is part of the Laikipia Predator Project, run by wildlife biologist Laurence Frank of the University of California, Berkeley, who is seeking better ways for big cats and humans to coexist. Adapting techniques from Masai tribesmen, who have herded cattle amid predators in this region for centuries, he is teaching ranchers to build taller, stronger bomas--traditional livestock pens made of thorn branches--to stop night-time raids by lions. When the herds are let out to graze during the day, they are accompanied by guards, some armed with rifles, which they fire into the air to keep the lions at a distance. Frank has calculated the cost to the ranchers for each lion on their property, including the guards' pay, the dogs, the extra fencing and the inevitable loss of some livestock: it comes to $350 a year per lion. On its property, Mugie has 10 lions, which have begun to attract tourists, as Frank hoped. If the big cats bring tourist dollars to Mugie Ranch, then both humans and lions come out ahead.