Up until recently in East Africa, when a young Maasai warrior was ready to take the next step toward manhood, tradition called for him to kill a lion.
But as African-lion populations have declined by at least 43% over the last two decades — leaving as few as 20,000 in the wild — such traditions have proven to be unsustainable. Recognizing this downward trend, Maasai elders sought sustainable solutions.
Working with the NGO Big Life Foundation, the Maasai elders found such an alternative way to mark the occasion of their young boys’ march to manhood in the Maasai Olympics.
Rather than killing a dwindling species, today’s would-be warriors compete in athletic contests that are modeled on traditional warrior skills, vying not for pelts but for prizes.
Every two years since, as Big Life reports, “participating warrior villages select teams and compete in a series of regional one-on-one tournaments leading up to the final, action-packed event with athletic performances, spirited but sporting rivalry, and no dead lions.”
The Olympics comprise six events: three track races (200m, 800m, and 5,000m) and three field events (javelin, high jump, and an accuracy contest in throwing the rungu, a wooden club). To get a sense of how each event unfolds, watch the following video from the first Maasai Olympics, in 2012:
Importantly, emphasis is put on the need to preserve the lion species. A film, “There Will Always Be Lions?”, was produced exclusively for this project, and was shot in the Maasai language, Maa, with English subtitles, and is shown at each Olympics, with discussion groups afterward. The film’s two themes are “First, lion killing is no longer culturally acceptable and must stop now, once and for all, as must the killing of elephants and all wildlife species. Second, failure to follow the ‘path of conservation’ and reap its economics benefits will result in an unsustainable future of the Maasai people. Their noble way way of life, traditional land, and ancient culture will be lost.”
The 4th biennial Maasai Olympics are scheduled for next month on December 15, 2018.