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At Kenya’s Maasai Olympics, warriors trade lion hunting for high jumping

The number of lions in Kenya has plummeted from about 30,000 in the 1970s to just over 2,000 today.

Dozens of young Kenyan Maasai have participated in the fifth edition of the “Maasai Olympics”, a sporting event promoted by conservationists as an alternative to killing lions as a rite of passage for young warriors.

The games, which included spear throwing, track and field and the high jump, were held on Saturday at the Kimana Sanctuary on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro near the Kenyan-Tanzania border.

The competition drew some 160 morans, or warriors, including 40 women, some of whom were draped in colorful sports beadwork.

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First held in 2012, the games were created by Maasai leaders and the Big Life Foundation to replace the community’s “Olamayio” rite, which required boys to fight and kill a lion to demonstrate their bravery and manhood.

The move was in response to a rapid decline in the Kenyan lion population, which has plummeted from an estimated 30,000 in the late 1970s to just over 2,000 today. The Kenya Wildlife Service says the biggest threat to lions and other carnivores is conflict with humans.

“Now we coexist perfectly with wildlife,” said Maasai leader Matasia Nerangas.

“We share the same grazing fields and watering holes with wild animals, and we will benefit more now than before.”

Maasai women dressed in traditional beadwork parade during the social sporting event called the Maasai Olympic Games.
Maasai women dressed in their traditional beads parade during the sporting event dubbed the Maasai Olympics at the Kimana Sanctuary at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro near the Kenya-Tanzania border on December 10, 2022. [Thomas Mukoya/ Reuters]

Craig Millar, director of operations for the Big Life Foundation, said the games helped reduce the danger to the lion population in the area.

“[The] The program has had a huge impact on the lion population and it is one of the few areas in Africa outside of protected areas where the lion population is stable or growing,” he said.

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Games on Saturday included sprints over distances ranging from 100 meters to 5,000 meters (fee 328 to 16,404) and throwing events in which participants used the traditional wooden clubs, known as “rungus” and worn to ward off hyenas, instead of discs.

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In the revised high jump event, participants would leap into the air to try to touch a rope with the top of their heads, like the Adumu dance performed at ceremonies.

The winners of the different events were awarded with medals and cash prizes.

The games are a “good way to preserve our lands,” said Joseph Lekatoo, 30, who has been competing since 2012.

“Now, I’m chasing medals, I’m not chasing lions,” said Lekatoo, who won the javelin throw.

Older Maasai men have also praised the games.

“I killed two lions when I was young,” Pastor Lenkai ole Ngola, 66, told the AFP news agency.

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“But today it is important to protect them, because their number is decreasing and also because they give work to young people,” he said, referring to tourism.

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