In Maasai culture, the protection of wildlife is more than an instinct – it’s an obligation, writes Samantha du Toit.
She’s back. And she’s not shy about it. After months of wandering, our resident leopardess is back in camp. At least, we assume it is the same one. We have not had a close look at her, but her tracks on the paths in the morning have the distinctive rather long middle toe that we have seen before.
We have also been away, travelling to the coast with the family over the election period; this allowed those we work with time to go and vote.
She made her presence known as soon as we returned, grunting loudly in the bushes behind the kitchen on the first evening as we sat around the fire with guests. Much to everyone’s delight, she even let us have a glimpse of her in the distance before slinking off into the bushes by the river. Her vocalisations lasted all night, setting off the baboons and monkeys at regular intervals. In the morning, we discovered she had killed a Grant’s gazelle by the car park, and dragged it into the bushes behind our cottage.
As we sat listening to her, the firelight dancing in front of us, I wondered what the Maasai really felt about her, and indeed her kind. If I were in a Maasai home, listening to the same thing, but fearing for the safety of my livestock, what would I be thinking?
So, the next day on an afternoon walk with the children in tow, I asked Risa and Nixon, our Maasai guides. They said that leopards can be a pest – killing sheep and goats mainly – but they don’t fear them. They regard them as stealthy, secretive and selfish, because they don’t share their kill with other animals; they hide them up a tree. They commented on the strange fact that of all wildlife, only the leopards are not afraid of their dogs.
As we stopped a while to let the children draw funny faces in the dust with their sticks, Risa asked me what clan I was from. At least, did I know what clan I had been given as part of my Maasai marriage ceremony? I said that I thought it would be the same as my Maasai ‘father,’ if I had understood correctly. Knowing the family, he then said, “Ah, then you are from the clan of the hyenas.”
As I wondered if that was a good or bad thing, he went on to explain that all Maasai belong to one of six clans, and that each clan has an animal, or perhaps two, that are associated with that clan. In some cases, the clan’s people were thought to share traits with those animals. More than that, though, it was the duty of the clan to protect those animals in the wild.
Intrigued by this, I asked what the other clan animals were and, to my surprise, they included scorpions, striped-bellied sand snakes, jackals and baboons as well as the more charismatic lion and rhino. The Iliserr clan, Risa said, were linked to the rhino, and frequently used the lack of rhinos in this area as a warning to other clans. We have failed, don’t lose your animals like we have, the elders would warn.
As we turned back towards camp, it struck me again how deep a link the Maasai have with their land, and the wildlife on it and I vowed to find out more about how the clans came to be as they are. But that would have to wait for another time. The sun was setting, the children beginning to drag their weary feet, and the leopardess possibly was watching us from afar. Her success as a secretive species perhaps means that she has never been, and hopefully will never be, in need of the protection of a Maasai clan.
Samantha du Toit is a wildlife conservationist, working with SORALO, a Maasai land trust. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy.