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August 5, 2009

Danger Junkies

leela hazzah

Leela Hazzah

Photo Credit: Philip J.Briggs

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Leela Hazzah, 30, Maasailand, Kenya; director of the Lion Guardians Project, a nonprofit wildlife-conservation program

WHAT I DO: I protect Africa's dwindling population of lions from getting speared, poisoned, or shot to death by Kenya's famous Masai tribesmen, who see the animals as a nuisance. So I'll do things like calm angry livestock owners when their favorite cow gets eaten by a lion, to prevent any retaliation. I also help researchers fit the cats with GPS collars that allow us to track them. That way, I can alert Masai farmers when lions are around so the men can dodge danger zones.

MY DIGS: A tree house with a stunning view of Mount Kilimanjaro and a 360-degree panorama of the bush — perfect for watching wildlife and farmers herding their livestock. My dog, Taratibu, an African mastiff, guards my perch from any predators. Sometimes I feel like someone is watching me when I'm up in my tree, and sure enough, it'll be a giraffe.

MAJOR MISHAPS: Being chased by a cross-eyed bull elephant. Getting stranded on the border of Malawi when my car broke down and having to hitch a ride with a lecherous lorry driver. Being airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in Nairobi for an emergency appendectomy.

WHAT I MISS ABOUT THE STATES: Paved roads. Goldfish crackers. Morningstar veggie hot dogs. I grew up in Washington, D.C., but after 10 years on and off in Africa, this is my home.

IS THE BUSH WIRED? Our camp has a limited phone network, which we use to connect to the Internet. But it's not terribly reliable.

WORST PART OF THE JOB: Zero time off, especially since I'm also working toward my Ph.D. here.

BEST PART: Gaining the respect of the Masai. One rainy night, a desperate mother came to my house carrying her sick baby; she begged me to take her to a clinic. My old Land Cruiser was barely working, but finally, after several attempts at hot-wiring, it sputtered to life. We bounced along bumpy, muddy roads for hours until we reached the clinic; two days later, the child was better. After that night, people saw me as part of the community, rather than an outsider.


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