The “Lion King” that came from China: A Conservation Story in Kenya

Author: Katherine Zhou; Translator: Riley Peng @ Animal Dialogue

Dear friends: You might remember Lion King, everyone’s favorite childhood movie, in which a lion cub named Simba later becomes the king. Our story also revolves around a Simba who protects his pride – but not quite the same Simba.

Who is Simba?

Simba, or Qiang Zhuo, has been the chief scientist at Nature Guardian and founder of Mara Wildlife Conservation since 2010, when he started working in the conservation field in Kenya. He is the first Chinese to register an NGO in Africa. Guarding the Pride, his new book written based on his personal experience, has already been published by SDX Joint Publishing Company in 2017. Lately, Lionheart, a documentary produced by A+E Networks starring Simba, aired on the American History Channel in Asian regions; its Chinese version also subsequently premiered on Beijing TV Documentary Channel. As the documentary is being screened around the world, Animal Dialogue invited Simba to share with us his experience with lion conservation in Africa.

Simba was invited as the only Chinese to participate in the 2017 WCN Wildlife Conservation Annual Conference. @Nature Guardian Wildlife Conservation Research Center

“Wildlife Conservation in Africa is not for Chinese”

Qiang Zhuo fell in love with Kenya as soon as he landed his foot on this land. He decided to change his name to Simba, which means “lion” in Swahili, the same name as the Simba from Lion King. In 2010, Simba arrived at Kenya to pursue his dream of wildlife conservation. At first, he thought wildlife conservation would mainly involve conducting research on the lifestyle and habits of wild animals. Many NGOs from America and Europe (especially Germany and Britain) had bases in Kenya, so he didn’t think much and simply wanted to find a job in one of these conservation organizations, so that he can acquire a stable income, as well as to learn how conservation works, coming from a non-biological background. However, he quickly discovered the difficulty of this road for a Chinese. In many people’s impressions, Chinese people who came to Kenya came either to open up businesses and restaurants, or to sell rhino horns and ivory. Very few people believed that there would be Chinese that also care about wildlife conservation, and the yellow-skinned Simba was never welcomed and accepted by American or European NGOs in Africa.

Since he couldn’t tread the conventional road, Simba started utilizing other means of exploration—he decided to make friends with the local indigenous people from the Masai tribe. “They like British soccer, so I played soccer with them during the day and watched the English Premier League with them in the evening. They like electronic devices, so I sent them flashlights, electronic watches, lights, and the like. Later, I also helped the Masai Mara National Preserve gather funds for creating programs.” His time living in tents outside cattle pens made him deeply realize the hardship of such kind of life and work. Friendless in a foreign country, how could he earn his place in wildlife conservation, a field previously unvisited by any Chinese people? Fortunately, after his effort and hard work, both the Masai people and the lions began to slowly accept him. Contrary to his friendlessness seven to eight years ago, many influential international scientists and wildlife conservationists are now his friends.

Simba and patrolmen @ Nature Guardian Wildlife Conservation Research Center

The Third Road in the Oman-Kenya-Yemen Natural Preserve

Simba told us that over the past century, there were mainly two modes of conservation in Africa. One is government-directed, which entails having the government establish preserves, develop the tourism industry, and equip hotels with basic amenities. The government also sells park tickets and collect taxes from hotels as revenue. The second type is research-oriented, which involves American and European universities and NGOs sending researchers to Africa to study the wild animals and local ecology. In this route, many researchers would return to their native countries to publish their research paper or finish their degrees at the conclusion of the program. To Simba, both modes share the same shortcoming. “The local communities don’t really benefit. They are merely spectators, not the beneficiaries.” As a result, neither of these two methods could effectively conserve wildlife species, the number of which has been steadily decreasing, and so has the habitat. Simba concludes“the third road” of pursuing wildlife conservation from his conservation experience in many African countries . He pointed out that, “in order to resolve wildlife problems, we need to first resolve existing problems regarding humans.” His “third road” is termed community-based by many conservationists, in which the locals can also derive benefits from conservation. “The problem with wildlife conservation actually has to do with the land. It is only through asking people to retreat and return the land to the animals, while simultaneously providing these people with sustainable profits, that we can solve the problem at its roots,” he said.

In the Kenyan region where Simba is staying, the Masai people originally herded many cattle and sheep, which graze differently from local wild animals. They usually lift up the root, which harms the grassland ecosystem, making it impossible for wild animals to survive or displacing them. As a result, draughts also occurred more frequently, depriving humans and other animals of drinkable water. Establishing wildlife preserves became the urgent and only solution at that time. In 2005, British Jake persuaded 100 Masai households to concede part of their land to establish what is now the Oman-Kenya-Yemen Preserve. Two to three years after the preserve had been built, wild animals began to return, the vegetation slowly started recovering, and the draught was also under control.

Simba and his Masai brothers patrolling the preserve @ Nature Guardian Wildlife Conservation Research Center

In the past, the locals’ only source of income came from selling the meat provided by their cattle and sheep. After the establishment of the preserve, the sources of their income diversified. Rent paid to each household and employment opportunities (50 job openings, including 18 for patrolmen and hotel staff) provided by the preserve both became reliable sources of income. Wildlife conservation organizations even invested to help locals carry out the building of basic amenities. Their donations enabled the local people to have clean water sources, renovate their school buildings, hire more teachers, and build churches. When the locals realize they can derive economic benefits from it, they naturally agreed with the wildlife conservation work on their land. In the past, they often killed lions in revenge when lions ate their livestock. Besides hunting and killing lions, they would often poison the livestock the lions hadn’t finished eating, so that when the lions returned to finish their meals would be poisoned to death. But now the locals’ income sources are no longer limited to livestock farming, they became more lenient towards lions and other wild animals, for they realized the preserve can provide them with reliable economic income. Farmers now live outside the boundaries of the preserve also safeguard the preserve. As soon as they detect any suspicious people entering the preserve, they would report to the patrolmen. In the Oman-Kenya-Yemen Preserve, “instances of poaching have begun to decrease.”

Simba concludes that the key to success is to unite the interests of the wild animals with the interests of the locals. At the same time, we need to leave as many job opportunities to the locals as we can, “let the locals manage other locals, and not make them feel like they are being bossed around by foreigners. We need to let them be the masters of their land.”

Simba was invited by his alma mater Sichuan University to give a speech to encourage college students to follow their dreams @ Nature Guardian Wildlife Conservation Research Center

When it comes to unavoidable cases of lions attacking livestock, the Oman-Kenya-Yemen Preserve has its own solution. Previously, when resolving conflicts between farmers and predators, they often adopted the “compensation method”—if the livestock animals of farmers were killed by predators, wildlife conservation organizations would provide farmers with financial compensation proportional to their loss. In Kenya, however, this solution is not ideal, because when farmers realized they could acquire more stable income under the “compensation method,” this method became counter effective, encouraging farmers to keep more cattle and sheep.

Without the compensation method, how can we prevent lions inside the boundaries of the preserve from roaming outside the boundaries and killing the farmers’ livestock? Simba explains, “If we help locals build fences, lions would not be able to hop over the fences to attack cattle and sheep. Moreover, we can determine the area of the fences so that the locals would gradually decrease the number of livestock they own and diversify their income sources.”

Simba and Simon, the chief patrolman of the Oman-Kenya-Yemen Preserve, near a lion fence @ Nature Guardian Wildlife Conservation Research Center

In addition to “using an economic model to satisfy selfish interests,” we need to attend to another area requiring crucial changes—education. Many wildlife conservation organizations narrowly define “education” as teaching the next generation about wildlife conservation. The “education” Simba refers to, however, is cultural and humanitarian education. Education can enable locals to learn more survival skills, broaden their horizons, and become more inclined to pursue an urban lifestyle. Simba elaborates with an example, “It’s like how when I was younger. My hometown was very far away from big cities, so all the kids long to live in big cities.” “Going to big cities” is the best way to alleviate the threat rapid border population growth poses to wildlife conservation.

Simba and his daughter observing wildlife habitats on the African Savanna @ Nature Guardian Wildlife Conservation Research Center

Moreover, women’s education is equally important. In the past 20 years, Kenya’s population size has nearly doubled—from 20 million to nearly 50 million. However, in democratic countries such as Kenya, only self-devised family plans can control its population. Whether such plans can be realized depends on the education and income level of its female population. “Within any country in the world, the higher the status of women, the lower the birth rate.” The higher the status and income of women, the more say they have in how many children to give birth to.

He Came to Africa to Earn More Respect for Chinese People

Simba’s experience with wildlife conservation has become quite widely known within China, but many Chinese people still don’t understand why he would go to Africa to protect other countries’ animals as opposed to stay in China to protect Chinese endangered animals. Simba responds that his dream is to motivate Chinese communities from all over the world to contribute to wildlife conservation and make people from other countries respect Chinese more. Simba says, “The ability to earn respect from others depends not on your purchasing power, but on how much you can contribute to the world.” Chinese people constitute approximately one-third of the world’s population, but their donations and volunteer work constitute about less than 5%. Thus, he insists on motivating Chinese people worldwide to contribute to global wildlife conservation, to preserve wildlife habitats, and to prevent wild animals from extinction. Truly meaningful things are difficult to carry out, but someone has to do it. As soon as one person has started something, more people will follow.

Simba’s conservation efforts have attracted even the attention of the production team of A+E Networks, who invited him to star in Lionheart, a documentary based on his conservation experience. The documentary is named after the English monarch Charles I, famous for his bravery. This name is quite suitable for Simba, who courageously came to Africa on his own. The History Channel, which has always produced documentaries about history and culture, has chosen natural and wildlife conservation as its topic, and selected a Chinese as its main character. Simba thinks this reflects how “concepts such as environmental protection and wildlife conservation can acquire international approval, and might be the only areas where international consensus is attainable.” This also demonstrates how, as a Chinese doing wildlife conservation in Africa, his story is unique.

The promotional poster for the documentary Lionheart @The History Channel

Lionheart depicts Simba’s life very comprehensively. In daily life, he also often encounters conflicts seen in the film, because wildlife conservation requires him to become the enemy of illegal farmers and ivory and rhinoceros horn merchants. But Lionheart can be said to be an exception. Before this, the Western media often perceived Chinese people in a prejudiced way. “For instance, when a Chinese is arrested for illegally selling ivory, they would write, ‘Chinese people are doing another bad thing.’ They wouldn’t even bother writing that person’s name, generalizing one instance to accuse all Chinese people. I strongly disagree with what some media outlets do.”

In order to rectify this prejudice, after beginning his wildlife career in Africa, he goes to America each year to give speeches and participate in events. Surprisingly, he discovers that many Americans are willing to change their opinions, not obstinately holding on to one’s prejudice. He believes that the effort he has invested throughout all these years in wildlife conservation has altered many Westerners’ prejudice against Chinese people.

China’s CCTV has invited Simba to participate in the production of the documentary @ Nature Guardian Wildlife Conservation Research Center

Lastly,  Lionheart is finally being released on for mainland China viewers. We hope his story will inspire more Chinese people to care about wildlife conservation.

One thought on “The “Lion King” that came from China: A Conservation Story in Kenya

  1. I’m glad to hear and see he is doing this. Many view all Chinese as bad because of their greed and ignorance. Let’s not forget the bullshit views on medicinal uses for Rhino, tiger and such. I hope he changes the views of his people’s minds.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s