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From camel keeper to doctor

Two terrifying yellow eyes stared at eleven-year-old Francis Lesilau. In the evening light they changed colour: green, amber, back to yellow... The lion had just grabbed one of his camels and now turned to number two. For a moment Francis was nailed to the ground, then he ran towards the predator, screaming. The attack would mark a turning point in the life of Francis Lesilau. 42 years later he stands in a white tie at the Rapenburg in Leiden for his promotion ceremony.

The lion and the camel

The two camels were browsing on the vegetation of a dry riverbed. Father had left them behind to provide the family with milk. Because of the persistent drought, father and the other animals had moved on in search of better grazing grounds in the neighbouring counties. And now it was up to eleven-year-old Francis to take care of the two animals. The evening fell and Francis started to get bored. He sat at the edge of the dry river and let the sand slide through his fingers. Suddenly he was shocked by a loud sound. A large lion had emerged from the bushes and jumped on top of one of the camels. He hooked his claws in the back of the camel and in one movement he cut his throat. While the camel was still struggling on the ground, the lion already aimed at the second camel.

Photo: Francis Lesilau

For a few long seconds Francis had been watching stunned, but now he woke up. What was that lion thinking! With nothing but a stick in his hand, he ran towards the predator screaming. Afraid of the big eyes he looked down all the time. Suddenly he was only about 15 meters away from the lion. Apparently impressed by the upcoming boy, the lion left the second camel for what it was. Francis saw his large manes disappear into the bushes. 

The wounded camel did not survive the attack, and that night Francis slept with his mother. Terrified of what had happened that night, but also of his father. What would he say? He had been a useless boy and hadn't protected the animals as he should have done. But when Father returned, he wasn't angry, except because Francis hadn't fled: 'What you've done is extremely dangerous. He could have eaten you!'

To school

‘That was a turning point in my life,’ says Lesilau forty-two years later over a cup of coffee at the Rapenburg. Tomorrow he will officially receive his doctorate here. He explains how he ended up in Leiden. ‘My father didn't want to put his children in danger anymore and sent us to school. That was not customary in our pastoral community. We were nomads with camels and did not value education. Our ambition was to herd livestock and to obtain more camels than other communities. I found school was useless.’

A prestigious job with nice uniforms

But now that there was hardly any camels left, and he was traumatised by the attack, Francis agreed. ‘Father was looking for jobs in the city to pay for secondary education. It was a difficult time, we were poor and sometimes had nothing to eat.’ But in spite of everything, Francis managed to get his diploma. He went to work as a security guard in the nature reserve of Kenya Wildlife Service. Not because I had such a passion for nature, but because it was a prestigious job with nice uniforms and a good salary. It was only during his job that he developed his passion for wildlife. Only then did I understand why that lion came to kill our livestock, and that these lions are also endangered. They are not an enemy.

Lion with a special track and trace collar. Photo: Francis Lesilau


Francis then got his diploma in wildlife management and was looking for a PhD spot. Through a former Kenyan PhD student, he came into contact with Leiden researcher Hans de Iongh. ‘It was during this period in Nairobi National Park that six lions were killed in one night by the local community out of revenge. I wanted to know why these lions had attacked the livestock, the way they killed my camel that night. It was payback time: that one lion allowed me to go to school and to open my eyes. I wanted to find out how I could protect these animals and make the local communities understand them better.’ Nairobi National Park became his field study area.

Lesilau signs the wall in the famous 'Zweetkamertje'

Recommendations and empathy

During his PhD research, Francis investigated how farmers can protect their animals against lions, and conversely, how lions can be protected against people. ‘Our research is special because we also made all kinds of recommendations for the different parties: the government, the wildlife organisations, but also the local communities. We explain that everyone has a certain responsibility and must take action.’ Communities, for example, should not allow their livestock to graze at the borders of a wildlife park, or let small children take care of the livestock.

Lesilau himself still works in the park, even though he travels a lot. ‘I'm very often consulted, as lion expert,’ he says proudly. His own history helps him in conversations with the local communities. ‘I am one of them. They listen to me and because I speak their native language, I know what to say, how to do it or what to avoid saying.’ As an example, he mentions the time he and a master's student met a family whose cow had just been killed by a lion. ‘At that moment, you're not going to explain why lions are useful. You show empathy and sympathize with them. Later you start the conversation. When I look back at my eleven-year-old self, I understand exactly how they must be feeling at that moment.’

Text: Hilde Pracht

CV Francis Lesilau

For his work, Lesilau has received several prizes. In 1996, he was decorated with a Silver Star of Kenya by the president of the country, in recognition of the services he rendered for wildlife protection, conservation and management. In 2000 he also received the Wildlife Conservation Heroes Award by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

Lesilau currently works with the Kenya Wildlife Service as a Senior Assistant Director under National Parks and Reserves in Nairobi, Kenya. Furthermore he is also a member of several national and international committees and institutions dedicated to wildlife.

The promotion ceremony of Francis Lesilau took place on Wednesday 4 December 2019 in the Academiegebouw, Leiden. Earlier an extensive article was published on our website about Lesilau’s research: Lions in the queue for food.


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