Rupi Mangat meets the ‘Lion Lights’ boy, Richard Turere, whose simple discovery has changed the lives of many.
When Ted Turner, the founder of the first 24-hour cable news channel, CNN, met Richard Turere at the TED conference in Long Beach, California, this year he was curious to find out more. As Turere recalls, “He joked with me. He was like, ‘how does a small kid come all the way from Kenya to talk about lions?’”
Two years ago Turere was just a regular Maasai kid guarding his father’s cattle on the plains of Kitengela, bordering Nairobi National Park, but things have changed a lot since then. “After my presentation about my Lion Lights, Turner came to me and shook my hand to congratulate me.”
Life on the plains
Growing up on the plains of Kitengela, Richard spoke very little English. Attending the village school until midday, he’d race back to his mother’s home to herd the sheep and goats. At age nine, he’d progressed to guarding his father’s cattle.
“Life was hard,” he recalls. “We spent the days out on the plains with no food except for water, returning home only at sunset.”
And even then there was no respite. “My mother’s home is on the edge of Nairobi National Park with just the river between. The lions came every night. I was tired of them and l did not like them. For me they were just bad animals feeding on my father’s cows.”
For the Maasai, the cattle are wealth and much revered. According to the Maasai all cattle were given to them by God. Until recently, a Maasai moran had to prove his bravery by spearing a lion to death.
Turere’s first few attempts to keep the lions away failed. At the age of eleven, he had tried using a scarecrow and made a fire from cow dung (which, conversely, helped the lions to see their quarry better). In desperation Turere took his flashlight and began to patrol the boma (homestead).
“My father kept calling me in. He said the lions would eat me. I was scared but l couldn’t stand this life anymore. I replied, ‘I can’t let these lions come again. Let them eat me.’”
That night there was no lion attack. Turere repeated the patrol for a few nights with the same result. And that was Turere’s eureka moment. He realised that the lions never attacked when he was out patrolling with his flashlight. Turere’s theory was that lions associated people with moving lights and not with stationary lights.
“So l thought about blinking lights to make the lions think that there were people walking with the lights,” continues Turere. “I thought about the indicator lights from motorbikes and cars. So l asked a guy from our community who worked with motorbikes if he could spare me a few indicator lights from the motorbikes. He just gave the lights to me. My father gave me an old car battery and l asked my neighbours if they had broken flashlights. I got five and put the whole thing together.”
When he switched on the lights that night, no lions came. A fortnight later, Turere’s father took the battery to town to have it charged. This continued for a while until his father bought a solar panel.
Word spread and the community began to ask Turere to install the lion lights around their bomas.
“I told my community that l would install the lights for free if they provided me with a solar panel and a battery. l said they should sell two goats or sheep to raise the money.”
A few months later, three researchers turned up at Turere’s door sent by the area chief, intrigued by Turere’s lion lights. They reported their finding to Dr Paula Kahumbu of Wildlife Direct – and once it was out on the social media, Turere’s lion lights were in the limelight.
Today, Turere is a year-8 pupil on a full scholarship until he finishes ‘A’ level at the prestigious Brookhouse School bordering the western side of Nairobi National Park.
So far Turere hasn’t made a cent from his Lion Lights, but the school is in the process of patenting his invention which is being used in parts of Kenya and Africa with 100% success so far. Meanwhile he is thinking of improving the lights to outsmart the lions before they realize they are being duped.