Conservation Hero: Shivani Bhalla
Shivani Bhalla discovered her passion for lions at 8 years old when her parents took her to North Kenya for a trip. As a fourth generation Kenyan, she always knew she wanted wildlife to be a significant part of her life and her desire to save lions in Africa led her to start Ewaso Lions.
When she started the project, she set out to understand why the African lions, once widely distributed across Africa, were now dwindling to such low numbers so rapidly that the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified them as vulnerable.
The African lion population has diminished significantly in the last 20 years with lions currently inhabiting a mere portion of their historical range. The reduction of the African lion population is primarily caused by habitat loss due to human development encroaching on their space, resulting in their current range limited to a mishmash of disconnected areas. This makes it challenging for lions to migrate from one place to another.
Desertification also plays a role. The lack of vegetation for lions' prey to eat has had a domino effect. When there is no grass, the herbivore populations dwindle. The lions struggle to find food and are more prone to attacking farmers' livestock to satiate their hunger. This causes resentment and the farmers often end up killing the lions. The nomadic Samburu of North Kenya measure their social status and wealth by the amount of livestock they have. So when the lions attack their cattle, the resentment can lead to retaliation.
The Ewaso Lions project is a wildlife conservation organization that promotes the coexistence between people and wildlife. They have developed a number of fruitful programs that involve the Samburu tribe, including warriors, women, and children to get them actively involved in protecting lions populations.
Warriors are a group of young men from 15-30 that, until 2010, weren’t involved in conservation decision-making. However, Ewaso changed all that by creating the Warrior Watch where the Samburu act as first responders to the human-lion conflict. They patrol on foot and communicate with farmers when lions are near to keep their livestock safe.
The women also wanted to get involved, so they came together to create the program, Mama Simba (aka “Mother of Lions''), where they patrol the land as well. This program has empowered women to have a voice in lion conservation and provided knowledge and skills needed to improve their lives, reduce their environmental impact, and help coexist with wildlife.
Wanting children to have the same experience she did as a kid, Shivani started a Lion Kids camp program that combines a conservation education with real life safari experiences. Starting in 2013, some of the kids have already transitioned to warriors and want to devote their lives to lion conservation.
Shivani truly believes that lion conservation depends on the coexistence of humans and nature and that the future of the lion is in the hands of the community. If wildlife conservation is to succeed, which is necessary for a balanced ecosystem, then it’s essential to include the people living with wildlife.
In 2014, Shivani was the winner of The Whitley Award that honors local environmental heroes acting on the latest science and leading projects with passion.