Lion Lights & Big Enemies

“Me and the lions, we are enemies. Big enemies. We can never forgive one other anything.” Richard Turere

Sketch for Lion Light installation by Richard Turere. I note that the sketch does not include the enemy lion, only the cow to be protected.

Sketch for a Lion Light installation by Richard Turere.
I note that the sketch does not include the enemy lion, only the cow to be protected.

Richard Turere is a young Maasai boy who lives on the outskirts of Nairobi National Park, and up until recently, he was responsible for looking after the family cattle. He invented a simple and inexpensive solution to protecting the family’s wealth from lion attacks. Lion Lights, blinking LED lights connected to a small solar-powered battery, are posted on the perimeters of livestock enclosures at night. The blinking lights fool the lions into thinking that there are humans with flashlights patrolling the farm, and the lions retreat. Simple, elegant, effective (at least unless lions collectively figure out the blinking lights aren’t actually moving). The invention, which young Richard put together himself at the age of eleven, has earned him wide recognition and a scholarship to an excellent private school.

When top predators, in this case lions, come into contact with the top predator  human, in the long run it almost always goes badly for the four-legged predator. Richard Turere isn’t trying to make friends with the lions, and my guess is he didn’t set out to invent Lion Lights with an eye towards conservation of an endangered top predator species. Fewer than 40 lions are estimated to currently live within the National Park. Richard’s installation is intended first and foremost to protect only the animal at the center of his sketch above, the cow.

Between the rapid growth of Nairobi, habitat encroachment for agriculture, livestock grazing and settlements, and some poor park planning from the very beginning, the harsh conflicts between top predators and humans in the National Park seem predestined even more so than other places and predators (for example, bears in Switzerland). Lions are one of the top tourist attractions in an economy in which tourism is the top industry, but that doesn’t make much difference to those who live near the lions but who don’t profit from the tourist trade.

Peace accords are easy between friends, or between a protector and a victim.

A nonviolent means of resolution is particularly welcome when it is found between unforgiving enemies.


Habari Network article – Richard Turere

Transboundary challenges – the bear M13

Image: UNECEUnited Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Image: UNECE
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

I’ve talked before about the challenges of transboundary parks  in relation to southern Africa and Yellowstone Park. Wildlife conservation and reintroduction programs  introduced on one side of a shared territorial line can’t always control what happens just across the often invisible lines that we call international or regional borders.

A new case in point is that of the bear reintroduction program that has been working since 1999 in the Trentino region of northern Italy. Between 1999-2002, ten adult bears were captured in Slovenia – which has a healthy bear population – and introduced into the mountain region south of the Swiss border. Over the past decade, these ten individuals have produced around over a dozen bear cubs. Native bears had not been sighted in Switzerland in almost a hundred years. A handful of the Italian cubs, once they had become independent, left Italian territory and wandered into Switzerland. Most of them wandered back into Italy at some point.

Switzerland is a signatory to both the Bern Convention and the Alpine Convention. The  Bern Convention regulates species conservation by imposing restrictions on taking species from the wild and on exploitation. It constitutes a commitment to protect species’ habitats. Particular emphasis is given to endangered and vulnerable species.

The Alpine Convention is an international treaty between the Alpine countries and the EU, aimed at promoting sustainable development in the Alpine area. The aim of this Convention is the long-term protection of the natural ecosystem of the Alps and sustainable development in the area. This aim includes the protection of residents’ economic interests. A guiding principle of the Convention is trans-border cooperation.

Following the culling of bear M13, an offspring of the Trentino bears that wandered into Switzerland in 2011 and then stayed, one of Italy’s largest environmental organizations, the Legambiente has filed formal charges against Switzerland with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg for systematic violation of these international treaties with regards to the bear conservation program – which Switzerland itself agreed to support. Letters have also been sent to the offices of the Bern Convention and the Alpine Convention (Innsbruck) demanding sanctions be placed upon Switzerland for not adhering to strict regulations when it comes to the bear program. “The bear reintroduction program is financed by the European Union, and it is not acceptable for a bear from this program to simply be killed (by unilateral decision),” according to Legambiente spokesperson Antonio Nicolette.

The leadership and communication challenges facing international treaties is well illustrated by the fact that the Swiss Graubünden region – the border region in which M13 was killed by authorities – had to block local attempts to have the entire area officially declared a bear-free zone back in 2007. By default, this goal was achieved with the destruction of M13, but it is probably only a matter of time before another protected bear crosses the border. The culling has received almost universal condemnation in the press.

The goals of the national and international treaties may be clear, but the implementation is faltering at the local and regional level, which is where the bears actually live. And these challenges are shared by many conservation projects around the world.

The Life Ursus Project website.

Spiegel article (2005, in English) on European bear reintroduction programs.

M13 – There will be bear

bearWe had out-of-town visitors with us over the weekend. One of them is a designer/builder, and he brought his two snow-deprived teenagers with him. They did some skiing, and then they used all the snow in our garden to build a 4-person igloo worthy of providing actual shelter. The garden is not the pristine sheet of white it was last week, but we have an igloo. If you let energetic snow-deprived designer/builder families loose in your snow-filled garden, an igloo is practically inevitable.

Apparently, if you have a single bear in areas unused to bears, conflict is inevitable, even if the bear is just being a bear. I was driving home last night when I heard an interview on one of our local English language radio stations. A bear expert from WWF, Joanna Schönenberger, was talking about M13, currently Switzerland’s only bear, having woken up from his winter sleep. Schönenberger commented on the atmosphere of fear being created by local media around the bear. So, I went and looked up an article, and indeed, the words used (at least in the English translation) are meant to instill a sense of panic and fear. An excerpt:

“The notorious brown bear known as M13 has woken up from his winter sleep but his New Year resolutions evidently do not include keeping away from human beings, and his behaviour means he may not be allowed to live to sleep through another. A couple out walking in the eastern canton of Graubünden on Saturday afternoon were alarmed to find the three-year-old bear following them…he then alarmed a 14-year-old girl who saw him standing on the other side of the bridge. She was treated in hospital for shock. The report by Il Grigione Italiano said the measures taken to discourage M13 from approaching human beings had not worked, and that he had “gone too far”. He should be classified as dangerous and be shot, it said.”

As the WWF speaker saw it, there are two levels of how to deal with a bear. One is based on how a bear actually behaves, the other is what kind of bear behavior people are willing to tolerate. Local officials are setting the bar at people’s fearful level of tolerance, not at how bears really behave. If this keeps up, the bear is doomed. There were several suggestions on how to deal with regular, non-aggressive bear behavior – which according to WWF, is what M13 demonstrates. Learn to make loud noises to warn bears away, keep all trash safely stowed, etc. The measures taken in many places around the world where bears are commonplace.

Now, I’m not sure what kind of realistic future a bear population of 1 has, but this seems to be a good example of how local politics and media can lead or doom larger policy.

Update: Just as I was finishing this post, I got the news* that M13 was shot dead. RIP M13. I’m wondering if the Graubünden cantonal offices – the region in which the bear was located – felt they were avoiding both potential bear-human interaction as well as another season of conflict in the media as well as with federal authorities and environmental agencies. From

“The WWF issued a statement saying that it was “deeply disappointed” by the fact that the bear had been killed. “It is clear that the shooting came too soon – it would have been much better to have stepped up and continued with the deterrent measures,” said Joanna Schönenberger, bear expert at the nature protection organisation. Initial feedback on Swiss newspaper websites was overwhelmingly hostile to the shooting.”

The thing about this kind of destruction, whether it’s of a bear or any other species under protection, is that it’s final. For those who saw the bear as a ‘problem’ animal, the problem is now solved.

Feel like complaining about what happened to M13? Send a note to the Graubünden Office of Forestry and Hunting at

*Contrary to what the article states, M13 was not one of a few bears in the country, he was the only bear. Bears do occasionally wander up from Italy. Currently, however, there are no other known bears on Swiss territory.

Dozy Bear



“Unless that bear can fly, he’s asleep,” according to Alessandro Della Vedova, mayor of Poschiavo, Switzerland. The bear in question is M13, the sole member of Switzerland’s bear population. Rumors of a second bear haven’t been verified by forestry officials. M13, who was classified as a ‘problem bear’ due to his habit of breaking into mountain sheds and raiding anything he found there, hasn’t been seen in months, and there are no tracks around his last known location. He is wearing a GPS tracker, so as Mr. Vedova says, unless M13 has grown wings, he’s dozing somewhere out of sight.

This doesn’t mean he’s out of mind for the locals, who are making preparations for a grumpy and hungry bear once the snow thaws. The town is working together with regional officials, environmental groups and farmers in an attempt to smooth the way for M13 to survive another season in the wild. But just because the bear is asleep doesn’t mean he can’t be useful in other ways. The bear issue has become a popular cause with Italy’s right-wing Liga Nord, just over the border, which purports to speak for farmers whose livestock might be threatened by M13. It may be that M13 is just a convenient means of showing potential voters that the Liga Nord cares about them. People get emotional about large predators in the neighborhood.

If there were ten bears, or twenty or sixty, it might be different. In areas with high bear populations, people learn (or never forgot) how to live with bears.

I was hiking down a ridge in Yosemite with my family many years ago when suddenly a small pack of hikers, two adults and three children, shot past us and disappeared around a curve further down. Moments later, another small pack of adults and children did the same thing. No talking, just sprinting. We turned to see what was chasing them. It turned out to be one last hiker, mother to a couple of the dashing children, who was happily trotting along.

She pulled up next to us and started talking. “That bear has got to be at least a mile behind us now. It’s our own fault – bringing peanut butter sandwiches along for the hike. Rookie mistake, should’ve known better! Got ambushed lakeside by a bear just waiting for dumb tourists like us. We had to throw the backpack at the bear to distract it.” She grinned at us. “Note to self for when we come back next year: No sandwiches in bear country!” And she raced off to catch up with her herd.

M13 has a few Internet pages dedicated to both his survival and demise:

Facebook – SAM (M13) (a pro-bear page), M13 der Bär – Yes to Shoot! (anti-bear, obviously)

A pro-bear petition which is looking to get 5000 online signatures. It’s in German, but can be signed using Facebook or Twitter.

In honor of International Winnie the Pooh Day.