KIMANA, Kenya (Reuters) - With ochre smeared on his cheeks, a javelin in his right hand and an intense gaze in his eyes, 18-year-old Maasai Tipape Lekatoo looks ready to hunt lions lurking in the shadow of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro.
But as Lekatoo hurled the javelin deep into the veldt, there was no risk of impaling a lion. Instead, his aim was to win a gold medal at the ‘Maasai Olympics’, a biennial event focused on ending Maasais’ enduring cultural tradition of killing lions.
“If I win, I will spend all the prize money to pay for my university education,” said Lekatoo, a sinewy 6 foot 3 inch warrior who dreams of studying tourism management in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Lekatoo’s first throw of 47 meters won him praise from team mates and whoops from Maasai girls garlanded with garish beads and patterned crimson shukas, or cloaks.
Like many other Maasai boys on the cusp of manhood, Lekatoo no longer believes that following the ancient Maasai ritual of killing a lion is the only way to become a moran, or warrior.
This point has been hammered home over the last two days by David Rudisha, Kenya’s Olympic 800 meters champion and the world’s most famous Maasai.
The Maasais will be the biggest losers if the lion becomes extinct, Rudisha repeatedly told the throng of Maasai youth who are entering the job market where tourism-related work is their best chance of employment.
“Killing of wild animals is not going to benefit us in any way,” Rudisha told Reuters, as zebras and elephants roamed on the horizon.
Atop the vast Maasai community land straddled by the Tsavo and Amboseli national parks, the battle between Maasais and lions that has gone on for centuries nearly ended about a decade ago when lions were brought to the brink of extinction.
Across Africa, the lion population has shrunk from 100,000 a few decades ago to about 25-30,000 today, conservation groups say.
Hunted by young Maasai men and poisoned by herders fed up with predators eating their cows and goats, the lion population dwindled to less than 10 in the Aboseli-Tsavo ecosystem by 2003, said conservationist Tom Hill.
The problem was partly alleviated by a predator compensation fund, set up by Hill’s conservation charity The Big Life, incentivising farmers to stop poisoning lions.
But young men determined to become warriors and win the hearts of Maasai girls kept hunting.
Then in 2008, Hill said a group of Maasai elders turned up at his ranch and told him they wanted “to stop lion hunting as part of the culture” of Maasai warriors.
“That was a stunning thing to hear,” Texas-born Hill said. “That was never even said out loud before.”
Perched under the flat-top acacia tortilis tree, a traditional Maasai meeting place, Hill and the “cultural fathers” of the warriors thrashed out some ideas.
”They said, ‘Don’t most boys compete for girlfriends in the world through sports?’ I said ‘yes’.
Hill added: “That was the beginning of the Maasai Olympics.”
On Saturday scores of young Maasais representing four manyattas - a barrack for warriors aged about 16-25 - competed against each other for prestige, bragging rights and a prized breeding bull for their manyatta.
Besides javelin, events combining Olympic tradition and Maasai culture included the hurling of the rungu -- a warrior clubstick mostly used to scare off jackals -- at a ring-like target some 30 meters away.
The iconic Maasai jumping dance, accompanied by rhythmic chanting as young boys leap in the air, had become the “Maasai High Jump”.
When a warrior from Lekatoo’s Imbirikani manyatta won the 5,000 meters final, and a chance to take part in the New York marathon, his whooping team mates lifted him on their shoulders and danced across the field.
Awed Maasai girls joined the celebration, their jingling ornaments dangling from golf ball-sized holes in their earlobes.
Fiercely proud and historically insular -- as colonial power Britain would testify -- the Maasais only started embracing elements of Western culture a few decades ago.
Today, most Maasais wear Western clothes and even those sporting traditional shukas are likely to have mobile phones next to their rungu. Many warriors have Facebook profiles.
During this period of change, new generations have sought jobs and lifestyles that other tribes in Kenya take for granted. For many, a nomadic lifestyle is no longer enough.
With this has come an understanding tha conservation may be the best way to benefit from the wilderness and wildlife that surrounds them.
“You can’t kill a lion because the lion can support you. The tourists will come to see that lion,” said John Kapande, a 23-year-old warrior from the Rombo manyatta. “That will pay for school fees and help us.”
It is a message reinforced by Daniel Sambu, a Maasai running Big Life’s Predator Compensation Fund.
“David Rudisha didn’t become famous because he killed a lion. He became popular because of his running skills,” Sambu told the young Maasais, advising them to try athletics.
Lekatoo finished fourth in the javelin, missing out on a medal, but snatched silver in the 800 meters, netting himself a cool 15,000 Kenyan shillings ($170).
His manyatta also topped the overall rankings.
“I will need more money (to go to university) but this is a start,” said Lekatoo after Rudisha, the Maasai Olympics patron, hung a medal around his neck.
“We are now going to dance back to our manyatta with our bull.”
($1 = 90.4000 Kenyan Shillings)
Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Ken Ferris