The Maasai Olympics are a biennial event making strides to change the Maasai culture of lion hunting for status. Travel with Ker & Downey on a luxury Kenya safari to witness the 2020 Maasai Olympics.
For the Maasai, hunting and killing a lion is a traditional rite of passage and a way to win the hearts of girls. It’s an age-old tradition that has been practiced for centuries. But the once strong Kenyan lion population is dwindling. Forty years ago, the lions of Kenya numbered around 250,000. Today, there are about 35,000.
Every 10 to 12 years, a new generation of Maasai warriors come into being and a group of elders (“menye layiok” in the Maasai language) is selected. They are charged with teaching the new generation of warriors about the traditions and culture of the Maasai warrior-hood.
Concerned about the rate of killing and the diminishing numbers of lions, the current group of leaders in the Amboseli-Tsavo region knew something had to be done. In 2008, with the help of Big Life Foundation, they set out to make a change and eliminate lion hunting from the Maasai culture. Together they came up with an innovative conservation strategy to both educate and provide an alternative way for the Maasai to earn status. The strategy is twofold.
First, educate the Maasai that lion killing is no longer culturally accessible. Likewise, the killing of all wildlife species isn’t acceptable and must be stopped. In addition to the hunting ban, habitat conservation is the preferred way of life in the 21st century. Choosing not to follow the path of conservation could lead to devastating effects for the Maasai, including the loss of their noble way of life, traditional land, and ancient culture.
The second part of the strategy is the promotion of sports as an alternative way to earn status. This biennial sporting event is known as the Maasai Olympics and hinges on the belief that it is better to “hunt for medals, not lions.”
Over the course of two years, the Maasai warriors receive conservation education and sports training. They compete in local and regional events against the other warrior villages in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem. The culminating event is the Maasai Olympics, an ecosystem-wide event that takes place in front of national and international media, celebrities, government officials, friends, family, and tourists. Warriors compete in rungu throwing for accuracy, javelin throwing, standing vertical high jump, 200-meter sprint, 800-meter sprint, and the 5K. In the end, medals, scholarships, and invitations to the NYC Marathon are awarded, but the ultimate prize is a breeding bull for the winning village.
It’s an effective strategy too. Kenya has already seen the killing of lions reduced from forty a year to just one. That’s a win for everyone.
The next opportunity to see the Maasai Olympics is in 2018. Dates are still pending, but you can start planning your safari now. Ol Donyo Lodge sits in the Chyulu Hills, a corridor between Tsavo and Amboseli National Parks, not far from the site of the Olympics. Its location makes it a great option for a luxury safari in Kenya that includes cheering on local Maasai warriors at the games. And each guest that stays at the lodge directly contributes to projects like the Massai Olympics and the anti-poaching and conservation efforts of Big Life Foundation, a partner of ol Donyo Lodge and Great Plains Conservation.