Among the innovators, inventors, and scientists who presented at a recent TED conference was a 13-year-old Maasai boy who had spent much of his young life defending his family’s livestock from lions.
Richard Turere of Kitengela, Kenya, just south of Nairobi, says he grew up hating lions. “They used to come at night and feed on our cattle when we were sleeping,” he tells interviewers.
Turere’s family lives on the edge of Nairobi National Park, which has the world’s largest density of lions.
At the age of nine, Turere was given the responsibility of looking after his family’s herd of cattle. These valuable animals — the family’s source of meat and milk — were too often taken down by the lions.
By age 11, Turere decided to find a way to protect his family’s livestock, which also included goats and sheep, from falling prey to the roaming lions. At first he tried building fires, but the lions learned to skirt around them and remain in the shadows – still able to hunt vulnerable animals.
Turere soon noticed that while the lions didn’t seem to fear the stationary fires, they were afraid of moving lights; they wouldn’t come near the stockade if someone walked around with a flashlight. After a few weeks of contemplation and experimentation, he came up with an innovative, simple, and low-cost system to keep the predators at bay.
With little to no access to technical information, Turere put together an automated lighting system using LED bulbs from broken flashlights and a car battery powered by a solar panel that also powers the family’s television. These “Lion Lights” are designed to flash intermittently, tricking lions into thinking someone is walking around with a flashlight.
This solution has been so successful that several families have asked for Lion Lights and so far, 75 such systems have been rigged up around Kenya.
Invention saves tourism, too
Tourism is a key in helping support the national economy in Kenya and thousands of tourists visit Nairobi National Park every year to see wildlife — especially lions. But these predators are detrimental to the Maasai tribes around the park, and entire prides of lions have been killed in retaliation for attacks on livestock. In less than a decade, the lion population in Kenya has dropped from 15,000 to 2000. Lion Lights have provided a solution that benefits the tourist industry and park inhabitants.
“This is a solution that was invented by somebody in the community,” said Paula Kahumbu, executive director of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust and chairman of the Friends of Nairobi National Park. “Therefore, the support for it is very high,” she said in a CNN interview.
Kahumbu and her team were so impressed with Turere’s invention that they helped him get a scholarship at Brookhouse International School, one of Kenya’s top educational institutions, where he is now a student.
“A year ago, I was a boy in a savannah grassland,” Turere said in his closing remarks at the TED conference in California. “I saw planes fly over and said I’d be inside one day. I had a chance to come by plane for the first time for TED. My dream is to become an aircraft engineer and pilot when I grow up.”
The audience responded with a standing ovation.
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