"PRIDE ROCK," Kenya (Reuters Life!) - On a granite massif overlooking parched pridelands right out of Disney's "The Lion King," four traditionally attired Maasai stand, waving a device that looks like a TV aerial.
Olubi Larambe, Bilenanke Sitieyo, Linkena Ngindau and Mokoi Lekanai, all "morans," or "warriors" in the Maasai age-group system, are Lion Guardians, and the tracking device they are using is their weapon of choice in a war to halt the rapid decline of the largest of Africa's "big cats."
"We're hoping to locate Selankay and Narika," explains Amy Howard, a researcher with sister organization, Living with Lions, who provides training on the tracking devices.
The Lion Guardians track a score of collared - and many more uncollared - lions across a swathe of a million acres of community cattle ranches at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, referred to as Maasailand.
The area, with Mbirikani Maasai Community Ranch at its heart, lies between four national parks and is home to a clutch of conservation programs, of which the Lion Guardians is the latest.
Preventing lion killings outside of Kenya's national parks is a daunting task. Some 100 lions are killed in Kenya annually. In the past, those figures might have included ritual killings by Maasai warriors. These days, they reflect a conflict over resources between lions and people.
If the trend continues, lions will be extinct in Kenya within 20 years, according to the website of Wildlife Direct, a Kenya-based organization that facilitates the direct delivery of private donations to conservation groups like the Lion Guardians.
Maasailand is also home to one of Kenya's most effective lion conservation initiatives to date, the Predator Conservation Fund (PCF), which compensates herders when they lose livestock to lions, hyeanas and other predators.
"In the eighteen months before the fund started up, in April 2003, we lost 18 lions on Mbirikani alone. Since then we've lost four, five in the whole area Lion killing has dead stopped," said Tom Hill, an entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist who is the co-founder, together with conservationist and lodge owner Richard Bonham, of the fund.
The CPF, sponsored by tourist ventures like the $1,000 dollar a night Ol Donyo Wuas lodge, removes the incentive for herders to kill predators that might prey on their livestock.
The Lion Guardian program -- begun by lion researcher Leela Huzzah -- takes the compensation initiative a step further. By tracking lions across the Maasai ranges, the Lion Guardians are able to warn communities when lions wander too close to homes and cattle herds, helping to pre-empt conflict that could lead to cattle - and lion - deaths.
Maasai elders, many of whom backed a collective decision to support conservation efforts, credit organizations like the PCF - and more recently the Lion Guardians - with changing perceptions.
"We used to think that if a lion attacked a cow we should track and kill the lion, even if we had to travel far to do it, even if there were many lions. We had to kill them all and we would only be satisfied when they were dead. But after these projects came, we realized a change in our culture could be beneficial," explained Peter Lotubulua, at a watering hole where Maasai herders had congregated with hundreds of cattle, all dreadfully emaciated thanks to a devastating drought.
Lion Guardian Olubi Larambe, a moran barely out of his teens, killed seven lions before he turned Lion Guardian.
"It's a change for the good," he said, showing scars made by lion incisors, on his legs and torso.
The visual allure of traditional Maasai warriors guarding lions has not been lost on safari operators. The Guardians have already become popular with lodge guests who can choose to track lions with a Lion Guardian as guide.
It may seem odd but this new role as conservationists is not actually alien to the Maasai. While their warriors have a well-earned reputation as lion-killers, the crucial historical role of the Maasai in providing Kenya with a world-class wildlife legacy is often ignored.
Traditionally, the Maasai do not eat game. So, for centuries as they roamed up and down the savannahs of the Rift Valley with their herds of cattle, they co-existed with (and by virtue of their fearsome reputation amongst other tribes, protected) larger herds of game - the food source for the predator.
In the past two decades, population growth, land deals that have seen the Maasai lose huge swathes of land to greedy politicians and a switch from a cattle to cash economy have resulted in an increasingly hostile attitude to lions.
For now, however, the Lion Guardians are a bright spot on the Kenyan conservation landscape, attracting media as well as tourist attention. While they are unlikely to dislodge lions and the rest of the "big five" as the country's top tourist draw, the Lion Guardians are reclaiming a place for the Maasai at the heart of Kenya's conservation efforts.
Editing by Paul Casciato