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FACING THE LION: By Maasai Warriors

Disclaimer: Maasai Association does not promote nor support lion hunting practice. Our purpose here is to educate the world about Maasai culture and traditional believes about lion hunting. Lion hunting was symbolically a rite of passage of the past.

How did the Maasai warriors hunt lions? 

Facing a lion in the African savanna was an experience of a life time. From that day your life would change forever. Hunting a lion was traditional, fun, and dangerous. The question is, why did the warriors hunt lions?

The following are some of the cultural reasons, strategies, and tools used by the Maasai warriors on lion hunt. 

Lion hunt was a traditiona and historical practice that played an important role in the Maasai culture. The practice was different from trophy hunting; it was symbolically a rite of passage rather than a hobby.

Why did the Maasai warriors hunt lions?

The Maasai tribe saw lion hunting experience as a sign of bravery and personal achievement. In the past, when the lion population was high, the community encouraged solo lion hunt. However, over the last several years, due to the decline of the lion population, mainly because of rabies and canine distemper virus, the community adapted a new rule that encouraged warriors to hunt in groups instead of solo lion hunt. Group hunting, known in Maasai as olamayio, gave the lion population a chance to grow.

According to Maasai customary laws, the warriors were not allowed to hunt a lion, suffering from drought, snared or poison. The Maasai believed that female lions are the bearers of life in every species. As a matter of fact, it was prohibited to hunt a female lion-- unless the lioness posed threat to livestock or human life.

The Maasai well understood that lions are important to the savanna's ecology. For that reason, the Maasai took extra caution when it comes to lion hunt. The Maasai warriors did not just go out and hunt lions because they can. The rules were there and were followed by every warrior.

Lion hunting experience allowed the Maasai warriors to show off their fighting ability on a non-human target. At the end of each age-set, usually after 10-15 years, the warriors would count all the lions hunted, then compared with those hunted by the previous age-set. The purpose was to compare the number of lions hunted between previous and current age-set.

Hunting a lion in a group 


Empikas ( lion hunting delegation) planned for lion hunt a few days before. The planning was done in a secret manner. No one in the community, other than the warriors, should know about the day for lion hunt. The practice was so secret that Ilbarnot (junior warriors) from the same age-set were denied information regarding the lion hunt. Senior warriors feared that junior warriors would immaturely leak out information to groups that opposed to lion hunting practice. When a warrior spread rumors and found guilty, his colleagues would punish him in the form of beating. In addition, the betrayer would be looked down upon by age mates for years to come.

Solo lion hunting 

It was not easy to hunt a lion alone. However, many Maasai warriors did it. Solo lion hunting required confidence and advance hunting skills. A warrior must be passionate about the game. Unlike group hunting, solo lion hunting usually happened at random; for example, when the warrior was out herding cattle.

Lion hunting journey

The lion hunting journey started at dawn, when elders and women were still asleep. The warriors sneaked out of the village in order to avoid discouragement from elders and women. The warriors would meet at a nearby landmark, for example, a tree, hill or rock. From here, the warriors departed to a predetermined area, where lions were most likely found. The warriors usually located lions by tracking them using footprints, animal droping and/ or vultures..

A few minutes before departure, the warriors must go through a sorting process that seperate junior warriors from senior warriors. In the warrior tradition seniority have the decision making powers. Ilmorijo (senior warriors) must select a group of qualified comrades with elaborate hunting skills. The selected group was considered mature, strong and capable to face a lion. The group was known as Ilmeluaya (fearless warriors) who were ready to die or live.

Ilbarnot (junior warriors) who were disqualified were sent back home for rest. Not every warrior would accept to return home. Rejection of junior warriors often triggered a fight between junior and senior warriors. The warriors fought each other with clubs, sticks and shields. Junior warriors would always lose the fight; even though, it was still worth a try.

Also the fight between junior and senior warriors would trigger major conflict among senior warriors, when a warrior from the dominant group would defend a junior warrior from his clan or family. This situation often pushed the decision making process into extreme. Group dynamics was treated as part of the learning process.

The rejects, junior warriors, are commanded by senior warriors to keep the lion hunting information confidential, until their colleagues return home from hunting. Also, there have been cases whereby senior warriors forced junior warriors to give up their spears and shields. This was an insult to junior warriors, as extra weapons were not necessarily needed to hunt a lion. One spear was sufficient to bring a lion down. The attitude of forcing junior warriors to give up their weapons was a measure to encourage them to be a little more responsible.

When the senior warriors return home with a lion, a one-week celebration would take place throughout the area. Women from various villages would embrace and hug the warrior that speared the lion first. The warrior would receive Imporro, a doubled-sided beaded shoulder strap often given to a victor. The warrior would wear this ornament during the milk ceremony, meat ceremony, etc.

The success of lion hunting brought excitement and gratitude to the entire community. The achievement was perceived as individual bravery. The community honored Olmurani lolowuaru (the lion hunter) with much respect throughout his lifetime. The hunter would also receive a nickname, for example, Miseyieki, from his colleagues. Miseyieki means no one will ever dare to mess with him. When the warriors attend ceremonies in other communities, they would praise their colleague through songs and dance.

Where did the Maasai warriors find lions?

The lions were abundant throughout Maasailand. Their typical hideouts were grassy plains and deep in the forests. The lion search ranges from 20 minutes to 10 hours. The Maasai warriors must chase a lion with rattle bells and make him upset. This chasing game irritated, angered, and forced a lion to face the hunters. Another successful lion hunting method was to force a lion to leave a kill. Any of these methods would provoke a fight with a lion.

Recommended safe environment when hunting a lion 

Fighting a lion inside the woodland savannah can be extremely challenging and dangerous. The lion is very smart and can maneuver through the bushes faster than a human being. As a result, the Maasai warriors preferred to fight lions in the open plains. By doing so, the warrior gave a lion a chance to fight. Lion hunting was all about challenging another creature without cheating. Facing a lion in the open savanna was a remarkable challenge.

What did the Maasai do with a dead lion? 

The Maasai do not eat game meat. They strictly depend on cows, sheep, and goats. Three products are used from a dead lion: the mane, tail and claws. The mane is beautifully beaded by village women and given back to the hunter. The mane is won over the head, only during special ceremonies. The mane helped warrior from far areas to identify the toughest warrior.

After the meet ceremony, when a warrior became a junior elder, he was obliged to throw away the lion mane. The warrior was required to sacrifice a lamb, oil the mane with sheep oil and dispose it in the wilderness. This sacrificial event was done to avoid bad spirits. The mane has special spiritual attachment to the warrior. It was a must for a warrior to honor the mane.

The lion tail was stretched and soften by the warriors, then hand it over to the village women for beading. The warriors would receive the tail back when the beading was done. The warriors would keep and guide the lion's tail in their manyatta (warriors' camp), until the end of warrior hood. The lion tail was the most valuable product in the practice of lion hunting. After graduation, a group of warriors would come together and pay their last special respect to all the lion tails collected during moran hood. The lion tails were thrown away after the eunoto ceremony.

How did the Maasai warriors pursue a lion tail?

The way of pursuing the lion's tail varied from section to section. For example, in Ilkaputiei section, when a lion was hunted, the warriors had to wrestle in order to get the tail. The tail goes to the strongest warrior. In Ilkisonko section, the tail went to the warrior who first speared the lion.


Tools and requirements

The lion hunting game was about group and individual commitment, strength, goal and dedication. The game was based on your personal background, environment and culture. The warriors did not need to attend a gym, nor a rifle for lion hunting. All you needed was one spear and one shield. Many warriors have been lost to lions. At the same time many lions have been lost to warriors.

Note: Kindly do not try ideas, strategies, and tools shared in this chapter. Information given here is not a manual for lion hunting. Instead, the information shared here is for learning purposes. Once more, lion hunting was an activity of the past. With the rise of conservation groups in the Maasai region lion hunters have been converted to become lion guardians. Local problems requires local solutions.




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Facts about lion hunting by warriors

Imagine having a lion three meters away from you! Hunting a lion with a spear and shield is an experience of a lifetime.


Although lion hunting was an activity of the past, lions are occasionally hunted when they attack Maasai livestock. Cattle are central to Maasai livelihood.

Imagine losing your bank account to a scanner?

Losing cattle to lions is a tragedy to a Maasai family. Maasai income comes, solemnly, from the cows. Therefore, protecting the cows from lions has always been a matter of grave concern to every Maasai.

With compensation for cattle killed by lions, the warriors have been leaving the lions alone. A share of revenue generated from game reserves in Maasai land could only improve the situation.

Lions are not currently endangered but their life remain uncertain, not because of the warriors but because of rabies.

The practice of lion hunting and other wildlife has been banned in East Africa. Unless, of course, if you are wealthy enough to join the Western Hunters Club who pay an enormous amount of money to hunt lions for trophy. Otherwise, lion hunting has been outlawed in East Africa.