A Ruaha male lion in his prime. Photo © : Sasja van Vechgel.
The Serengeti, the Congo, the Okavango Delta: many of Africa’s great wildernesses are household names, however on a continent that never fails to surprise remain vast wild lands practically unknown to the global public. One of these is the Ruaha landscape: covering 51,800 square kilometers (20,000 square miles) of southern Tanzania’s woodlands and savannah, Ruaha contains the largest population of elephants in East Africa, over 500 bird species, and a wealth of iconic top predators, including cheetah, hyena, wild dogs, leopard, and—the jewel in its crown—10 percent of the world’s lions. But that’s not all, one of Africa’s least-known and secretive tribal groups, the Barabaig, also calls Ruaha home. Creating harmony between this fiercely-traditional tribe and top prowling carnivores has become the passion of UK conservationist, Amy Dickman.
“It is vast —larger than Switzerland—and is centered around Ruaha National Park, which at over 20,000km2 is the biggest National Park in Tanzania and one of the largest in the whole of Africa,” Dickman, the director of Ruaha Carnivore Project and a National Geographic Explorer, told mongabay.com in a recent interview. “The landscape also includes several Game Reserves and village land—the Park is unfenced and the surrounding human-dominated land actually represents very important seasonal wildlife habitat for many species. […] Despite its huge global importance […] though, Ruaha is very poorly known and has received very little attention either from tourists or researchers.”
In fact, when Dickman was first sent to Ruaha—after conservation work in Namibia—she had not heard of it. What she found was astounding however: some of Africa’s biggest populations of carnivores (not to mention elephants). However she also found that growing local tribal communities, including the Barabaig, not only viewed carnivores as pests and competitors, but also saw the Ruaha National Park as robbing them of land and resources.
Amy, a staunch vegetarian, accepts a gift of meat from a Barabaig warrior. This was the first time that the Barabaig had invited RCP to one of their gatherings, so was a breakthrough moment for the project. Photo by: © Ruaha Carnivore Project.
“Large carnivores are not easy to live with—they kill people’s livestock and sometimes people themselves. The loss of livestock imposes serious economic costs on local people (the majority of whom live on less than $1 per day) and also has significant cultural and social costs, as cattle are very important cultural assets in these pastoralist communities. Unsurprisingly, people therefore try to kill carnivores by poisoning, snaring and spearing them,” Dickman explains. “They can be very effective at this—in 2011, dozens of lions were killed in just a few villages close to the Park.”
It quickly became clear that Dickman and her team were going to need to work closely with the Barabaig, but the tribe proved secretive and hostile. In the beginning one Barabaig man was even beaten for speaking to Dickman’s team. However, persistence eventually paid off.
“One day, we helped them search for a lost Barabaig girl out in the bush. With our team’s help, she was found alive and well […] after three days, and that event seemed to break down some of the last remaining hostility with the Barabaig. They then invited us down to their traditional meeting in the bush—probably the first time they had done that, especially with a white person there—and we all got to talk more openly and honestly about lion killing and its role in the community,” Dickman says.
The team also discovered that there was a long-standing cultural aspect to the lion-killing.
“Over time, [the Barabaig] explained that when they killed a lion they cut off that right paw and wore the claw on their arm as a kind of trophy. They were then entitled to travel around other Barabaig households (often across the country) and were rewarded with gifts of cattle for their bravery. Young men could acquire up to 20 cows this way, and at $200 each that represents an extremely important source of wealth in such a poor area. These killings are not solely cultural—they often take place straight after a carnivore attack on livestock, so that was important too—but they helped us understand the complexity of what was going on.”
The Ruaha area is one of only four places in east Africa with a cheetah population of 200 or more adults. Photo by ©: Sasja van Vechgel.
After establishing dialogue and eventually trust, the Ruaha Carnivore Project has moved forward on a number of initiatives: they have built tough bomas (predator-proof enclosures) to keep livestock safe from predators at night, shown educational DVDs about wildlife, and taken tribal leaders and other community members into the National Park to see and learn about it for the first time in their lives. They approached the community to see what benefits they would like to see from living more peaceably with carnivores and have since stocked a clinic, started a scholarship program, provided school supplies, and subsidized vet care for livestock. In addition, the Ruaha Carnivore Project has worked with Panthera and the Lion Guardians program in Kenya to train young Barabaig warriors to be paid to monitor lions instead of killing them.
“Critically, we constantly stress the fact that these benefits are not coming just because the project is ‘nice’, but specifically because there are large carnivores on village land,” she explains. “The villagers could kill all the carnivores if they wanted to, but in that case there would be no need for the project to be there and our benefit programs would cease—it is very important that that link is made. Our latest in-depth survey showed that over 70% now recognize some benefits from the presence of carnivores and other wildlife (compared to under 25% four years ago).”
Why is this work vital? For one thing, lions have been decimated over the last 40 years, and Ruaha represents the world’s second biggest surviving population. In 1975 around 200,000 lions were believed to roam Africa, today the species is down to less than 35,000. Many populations have simply been exterminated while others have been shrunk down to surviving only in well-protected parks, sometimes living out their lives in completely fenced-in protected areas. One could certainly pose the question: if lions vanish in Africa, what will be next? What chance do any species have?
Photos taken by lodge staff and visitors will be used by RCP to age and identify individual animals. Photo by: © Mwagusi Safari Camp.
“Big cats like lions have really played a big role in the human psyche—if you think about it they have adorned everything from early cave paintings to national coats of arms, and for millennia they have been both feared and admired by people,” notes Dickman. “I think it is terrifying that given that long, long history with humans, we now stand to potentially lose most viable populations of these animals within the next couple of decades. It is a huge responsibility for our generation, so my initial fascination with these animals has now changed to include a real passion and commitment to do whatever I can to help conserve them.”
Dickman says this is no reason for despair, but instead for action.
“Although the challenges are huge, I think there is no point just feeling that it is all hopeless and giving up—if we do that, then we really have lost the fight,” she says. “I think the work around Ruaha has really shown me that there can be successes in the face of daunting odds, and even though that is a small success story, it gives me hope that it is not all doom and gloom.”
In a September 2013 interview, Amy Dickman discusses why the Ruaha landscape must be conserved for future generations, how her team has won successes in the effort to build better relationships between local tribes and predators, and how technology broke down the barriers between her team and the Barabaig.
AN INTERVIEW WITH AMY DICKMAN
Cattle denote wealth and prestige for pastoralists such as the Barabaig. The loss of cattle by depredation is the main driver of lion killings on village land around Ruaha. Photo by ©: Andrew Harrington.
Mongabay: What’s your background?
Amy Dickman: I am from the UK and was have been fascinated by animals for as long as I can remember. I considered becoming a vet, but was really interested in wild animals, particularly big cats, so I decided that I wanted to become a zoologist and work in Africa. I did an undergraduate degree in zoology, a Masters in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, and finally a PhD in the drivers of human carnivore conflict around Ruaha. I am now the Kaplan Senior Research Fellow in Wild Cat Conservation at Oxford University’s WildCRU, and set up the Ruaha Carnivore Project in 2009 under that Fellowship.
THE RUAHA LANDSCAPE
Mongabay: Will you tell us about the Ruaha Landscape? What makes this place so spectacular?
Amy Dickman: The Ruaha landscape is one of the most amazing wild places left in the world. It is vast—larger than Switzerland—and is centered around Ruaha National Park, which at over 20,000km2 is the biggest National Park in Tanzania and one of the largest in the whole of Africa. The landscape also includes several Game Reserves and village land—the Park is unfenced and the surrounding human-dominated land actually represents very important seasonal wildlife habitat for many species. The landscape supports some of the most important large carnivore populations left in the world, including over a tenth of all the worlds remaining lions, one of four big cheetah populations left in East Africa, and one of the few remaining viable populations of endangered African wild dogs. Despite its huge global importance for these species, though, Ruaha is very poorly known and has received very little attention either from tourists or researchers.
Mongabay: Why do you think Ruaha is so little known compared to say the Serengeti or the Okavango?
The Ruaha landscape includes Ruaha National Park, which at more than 20,000 km2 is Tanzania’s largest national park. The Ruaha landscape supports one of the largest remaining elephant populations in Africa, with about 25,000 elephants within the Park boundaries and at least 15,000 in other land-use types. Photo by ©: Marcus Adames.
Amy Dickman: It always surprises me that so few people know of Ruaha, given its beauty, its wonderful lodges and how incredible its wildlife populations are. However, I think the reason for this is that the Ruaha landscape is quite remote, and until recently it’s been relatively difficult to access it as is a long drive from the main cities where tourists arrive. However there are now daily flights from Arusha and Dar es Salaam and that has made Ruaha much more accessible, so hopefully more people will begin to be aware of this amazing landscape. In fact, Ruaha was just highlighted by the National Geographic Society as one of its top winter destinations so it’s certainly becoming more on the radar, which will be great for the local people and the local tourist industry.
Mongabay: How did you end up working in Ruaha?
Amy Dickman: This is actually quite ironic, as initially I didn’t want to work in Ruaha—mainly because I’d never heard of it! I had always dreamed of working in the Serengeti and after several great years in Namibia with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, I was lucky enough to meet Sarah Durant, who runs the Serengeti Cheetah Project. I went to the Serengeti with her and had an amazing time, with cheetahs climbing on the car, cold gin and tonics at night, and a great group of people—it was truly the dream! However, when we talked about me doing an MSc and possibly a PhD under Sarah’s supervision, she pointed out that there were too many researchers in the Serengeti and promptly banished me off to southern Tanzania, to the wilds of the Ruaha landscape. I was slightly bitter for the first few months, with no access to cold anything, let alone gin and tonics, and very few other researchers around. However I soon realized that it was actually an amazing opportunity, and my PhD and eventual Fellowship enabled me to start the first targeted carnivore conservation and research project for Ruaha. Therefore, I am always grateful for Sarah for seeing that opportunity, and not allowing me to be distracted just by the promise of icy cold drinks!
Mongabay: What are the advantages of doing conservation work and research in a little-known region?
Amy Dickman: For all my moaning about warm drinks, there are actually some great advantages to being in a very understudied area. There are less politics to contend with and fewer fears about standing on other people’s toes, and because everyone is just starting out, people seem very willing to help one another and collaborate. It is also very exciting to get the opportunity to provide the first detailed information on large carnivores in an area as important as Ruaha. In terms of conservation, the very limited engagement that local people had with conservation meant that it took a long time to build up trust and good working relationships with communities, but I think that process always takes a long time anywhere.
A female cheetah and her three nearly grown cubs feast on an impala in Ruaha National Park. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
Mongabay: What draws you to big predators, most specifically big cats?
Amy Dickman: I am not sure what it is about big cats that draws me to them, but I know that I’ve always been fascinated by them, ever since a very young age. I think there is something about their sheer beauty, power and ferocity that makes you realise how impressive they are and how important they have been in the whole of human history. Big cats like lions have really played a big role in the human psyche—if you think about it they have adorned everything from early cave paintings to national coats of arms, and for millennia they have been both feared and admired by people. I think it is terrifying that given that long, long history with humans, we now stand to potentially lose most viable populations of these animals within the next couple of decades. It is a huge responsibility for our generation, so my initial fascination with these animals has now changed to include a real passion and commitment to do whatever I can to help conserve them.
Mongabay: What are the carnivores that you work with in Ruaha and what is threatening them?
Amy Dickman: The carnivores I work with in Ruaha are specifically the lion, leopard, cheetah, spotted hyena and African wild dog. Although there are good populations within Ruaha National Park, due to its huge size, these animals are threatened by intense conflict with local villagers who live around the borders of the National Park. This village land provides vital seasonal habitat for Ruaha’s carnivores, so we need to conserve them in the greater landscape rather than just within the borders of the Park. However, large carnivores are not easy to live with—they kill people’s livestock and sometimes people themselves. The loss of livestock imposes serious economic costs on local people (the majority of whom live on less than $1 per day) and also has significant cultural and social costs, as cattle are very important cultural assets in these pastoralist communities. Unsurprisingly, people therefore try to kill carnivores by poisoning, snaring and spearing them. They can be very effective at this—in 2011, dozens of lions were killed in just a few villages close to the Park. There is also a cultural element to the killings—young men are seen as brave if they kill lions, and are awarded with cattle and prestige within the community. To resolve the situation, we needed to work very closely with the local community to try to understand their problems, reduce the attacks from large carnivores, and provide benefits from carnivore presence rather than from killing them.
Mongabay: What are you learning from your research on the big predators here?
Amy Dickman: So far, due to the urgency of the conflict situation, we have focused mainly upon that rather than ecological research. However, we have done camera-trapping and found some interesting results—for instance, the village land was very important for wildlife, particularly large carnivores, and more species were recorded per 100 camera-trap events there than within the Park. Interestingly, however, carnivores seemed to shift their activity patterns on human-dominated land, with a peak of activity in the middle of the night, while in the Park they were more active throughout the day.
Mongabay: What has your camera trap data shown you so far?
A spotted hyaena investigates an RCP camera trap. RCP’s camera trap data is providing the first information on the presence and density of carnivores in the Ruaha landscape. Ruaha supports a globally important population of spotted hyaenas. Despite being disliked by many people, these are fascinating carnivores and also need conservation investment. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
Amy Dickman: In addition to the trends mentioned above, our camera-trapping has also allowed us to build the first predictive maps of carnivore presence across the Ruaha landscape. This will allow us to predict likely areas that people will come into conflict with large carnivores outside the Park, and therefore best target our conflict mitigation strategies. This is particularly important, as the mapping has shown that most of the important areas for large carnivores are close to the Park boundary, so conflict is likely to be a big issue. The camera-trapping also allowed us to demonstrate that striped hyaenas definitely occurred in the Ruaha landscape, which was uncertain before as it is the southern edge of their range. We shared these data with the Tanzanian authorities, and our data are now being combined with other data across East Africa to allow more detailed mapping of carnivore presence across this important region.
Mongabay: There’s been a lot of studies and news recently about the global decline in lions. Why is Ruaha so important to global lion conservation and how is the population faring?
Amy Dickman: Yes, lions have undergone a striking decline over the past 20 years or so, with their numbers perhaps halving in just two decades, and this has been highlighted in various articles recently. It is great that it is getting attention, as I think people have this assumption that just because you see lions in lots of TV programs and on safaris, their security is somehow guaranteed. This is absolutely not the case—lions were thought to number perhaps 200,000 as recently as 1975, but they have dropped to less than 35,000 today. In addition, they have disappeared from over 80% of their historic range and only 10 ‘stronghold’ populations remain. Ruaha is extremely important as it is one of those strongholds, and has the second largest population of lions left in the world (after Selous, also in southern Tanzania). We are not sure how the population is faring as we have not had the resources, attention or time to examine Ruaha’s lion population in detail yet, but this is something that the Ruaha Carnivore Project will be looking at over time, and sharing that information with the authorities and other interested people.
Camera-shy Barabaig. Photo by ©: Andrew Harrington.
Mongabay: Much like the Ruaha landscape, the Barabaig are little-known to the outside world. Will you tell us about this tribe?
Amy Dickman: The Barabaig are a tribe that actually has quite a lot in common with the Maasai (and in fact the groups are distantly related), but unlike that very famous tribe, they are virtually unknown in the Western world. They are part of the Datoga group of people, who dominated large areas of northern Tanzania in the 18th century, but were forced out of much of their original homeland by the Maasai. Although the Serengeti and Ngorongoro areas are now strongly associated with the Maasai, the Barabaig actually used to occupy that area, but surrendered it to the more powerful and numerous Maasai over 150 years ago
There around over 100,000 Barabaig in Tanzania, and they are traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists, but are increasingly diversifying into agriculture. However, as with the Maasai, cattle retain a particularly important position in Barabaig society, providing both a cultural and existential focus—all cattle are named, branded and their pedigrees memorized. The Barabaig are one of the poorest pastoral groups in East Africa, and usually have fewer livestock than other groups such as the Maasai.
The Barabaig are known to be proud warriors, with young men traditionally having to prove their bravery by killing ‘an enemy of the people,’ which traditionally (and scarily!) was either a person from another tribe, or a dangerous animal such as a lion or buffalo. This tradition of killing people has (happily!) become little more than an interesting part of their history, but the killing of lions and other dangerous animals is still important for young men to gain prestige and was one of the major cultural issues that we had to deal with around Ruaha.
The Barabaig often have tattooing and scarification around the eyes as a symbol of identity, and tend to be looked down upon by other Tanzanians who often judge them as primitive. People from other ethnic groups often disparagingly refer to them as ‘Mang’ati’, which is derived from the Maasai words for ‘the enemy.’ The Barabaig have gradually been moving further south in Tanzania, but are relatively poorly accepted in new areas, as they tend to be secretive and hostile, and do not engage much with other tribes—they often conflict with farmers over land issues, and with the Maasai over cattle rustling. We work with lots of different tribes around Ruaha, including the Maasai, Hehe and Sukuma, but the Barabaig were of particular interest as they seemed to be doing far more lion killing than other groups.
Mongabay: What are some Barabaig traditions that you found surprising on your arrival in Ruaha?
Ruaha Carnivore Project Director Amy Dickman and Community Liaison Ayubu Msago with Barabaig warriors. The little-known Barabaig tribe are traditional pastoralists, and it was vital to work closely with them to reduce both cultural and retaliatory lion killings. Photo by ©: Pat Erickson.
Amy Dickman: Before we really engaged with the Barabaig, we often found lion carcasses in the bush that were intact apart from the right front paw, which had clearly been cut off. This was very strange to us and for over a year no-one had a good explanation for it, although everyone said that most of the lions were being killed by the Barabaig, so we knew that we needed to talk to them about it. However, it was extremely hard for us to gain trust with the Barabaig and discuss anything like that with them, so we just had to take it all very slowly. We built our tented camp in a village dominated by the Barabaig, and tried to talk with them about wildlife and the issues they had with lions, but they were very antagonistic as they feared we wanted to stop them killing lions—which, to be fair, was totally true! They refused to engage with us, and one man who tried to come and talk to us was beaten up in the village as a punishment. After well over a year, we were beginning to despair of making progress on the lion killings, but then we happened to put up solar panels in order to charge our laptops. Bizarrely, this ended up being the link to the community that we needed—these fearsome warriors suddenly emerged from the bush with their cell phones for us to charge!
This allowed them a legitimate reason to visit our camp, and gradually they stayed for longer and began talking to us. Over a long period of time, we built up trust with them, and one day, we helped them search for a lost Barabaig girl out in the bush. With our team’s help, she was found alive and well (although very dehydrated and scared) after three days, and that event seemed to break down some of the last remaining hostility with the Barabaig. They then invited us down to their traditional meeting in the bush—probably the first time they had done that, especially with a white person there—and we all got to talk more openly and honestly about lion killing and its role in the community. Over time, they explained that when they killed a lion they cut off that right paw and wore the claw on their arm as a kind of trophy. They were then entitled to travel around to other Barabaig households (often across the country) and were rewarded with gifts of cattle for their bravery. Young men could acquire up to 20 cows this way, and at $200 per cow that represents an extremely important source of wealth in such a poor area. These killings are not solely cultural—they often take place straight after a carnivore attack on livestock, so that was important too—but they helped us understand the complexity of what was going on. Once we had built enough trust with the local community for them to share this kind of information with us, it was much easier to work with them to really understand the reasons for lion killings and think about whether we could work together on strategies that would reduce attacks, conflict and carnivore killings, while still providing benefits for the local community.
Mongabay: The Barabaig have long been accustomed to hunting big predators like lions. How do you work with the tribe to mitigate traditional hunting in the region?
In November, RCP hopes to begin satellite-collaring lions to collect much-needed data on lion movement on village land in the Ruaha landscape. Photo by: Mwagusi Safari Camp.
Amy Dickman: A lot of the carnivore killing was linked to three things—retaliation for attacks upon livestock, dislike of the Park because people do not understand its role and feel it restricts their activities, and the need to get direct benefits from carnivores in some way (i.e. by killing them). Therefore, we did several things—we worked with villagers to reduce carnivore attacks, took them into the Park so they could learn about it first-hand and meet Park staff, provided jobs for the warriors so they could benefit from live lions, and also developed wider community benefit initiatives.
The jobs for the warriors came through an important partnership with Panthera and Lion Guardians, an organization that has worked on similar issues of Maasai killing lions for cultural reasons in Kenya. We worked with these partners and the local Barabaig community to start a Lion Guardians program in Ruaha, where young warriors would be employed to monitor and track lions, and would keep their jobs for as long as there was no carnivore killing in their area. This program was developed slowly with full community participation, and allows the warriors to get regular income and buy cattle without resorting to killing lions. It also provides them with prestige in the community, as they learn to read and write, and get opportunities—for instance, they recently went to Kenya and competed with the Maasai in the Lion Guardian Games, which made them extremely proud and gives them real status and added appreciation for their new roles.
Mongabay: The Barabaig often lose livestock to predators. How has Ruaha Carnivore Project been working to stop this predation? What are the best measures you’ve found to keep big carnivores away from local people and livestock?
Amy Dickman: Yes, losing livestock to carnivores is a major problem for the Barabaig and the other villagers in the area. We have been working hard to reduce this, because attacks often create the incentive for young men to go out and spear lions—or, worse, go out and poison a carcass that can kill many carnivores as well as other threatened species such as vultures. Firstly, we employed and trained 10 ‘conflict officers’ in local villages, who monitored hundreds of households so that we could learn about the patterns and causes of attacks. We soon learned that about 65% of attacks happened at night when livestock were in poorly-constructed thornbush enclosures called ‘bomas’. Therefore, we went and learned some methods from colleagues at the African People and Wildlife Fund, and received grants from National Geographic Big Cats Initiative and other partners to predator-proof the bomas at a heavily subsidized rate. We strengthened the bomas with heavy-duty chain-link fencing and reinforced the entrances, and have found that this is 100% effective at preventing attacks, so that is something that we are very keen to pursue. Dealing with daytime attacks is a little harder as there is no cast-iron method for protecting grazing stock, but we have worked with Cheetah Conservation Fund and the Taronga Conservation Society of Australia to start a livestock guarding dog program around Ruaha. This involves placing traditional breeds of guarding dog with the stock and seeing if it reduces attacks—we don’t know how successful it will be yet, but at least we will be closer to seeing what does and does not work for resolving this problem.
Mongabay: How do you turn carnivores from a net negative to net positive in people’s lives?
Maasai men, women and children gather for an RCP DVD showing. DVD nights are an excellent venue for talking to villagers about how RCP can help them protect livestock from predators as well as see a benefit from the presence of carnivores. Photo by: Andrew Harrington.
Amy Dickman: This is the absolute heart of the matter—even if you prevent all losses, people are still not going to want large carnivores around unless they see a direct and important benefit from their presence. It is also vital that those benefits are the ones that will be most appreciated by the local communities, rather than imposed from outside. Therefore, we asked all the villagers to vote on which benefits they would most like to see from carnivore presence, and they selected healthcare, better education for their children and access to reliable veterinary medicine, because they lose more stock to disease than predation. Therefore, we have been working on all these—we helped equip a local healthcare clinic, and have started a scholarship program so that pastoralist girls and boys can receive funding to go through all four years of secondary school. In addition, we started the ‘Kids 4 Cats’ program, where international schools ‘twin’ with local village schools and provide around $500 a year of funding, and the project uses that to buy books, pens, desks and other vital material for the village schools. Lastly, we have worked with local veterinary officials and are providing access to subsidized, high-quality veterinary medicines for people who have invested in a predator-proof boma—this reduces their losses to both predation and disease, so is a very important way of improving household economic security. In addition to the jobs provided through the Lion Guardians program, these initiatives have been really making a difference to local villagers. Critically, we constantly stress the fact that these benefits are not coming just because the project is ‘nice’, but specifically because there are large carnivores on village land. The villagers could kill all the carnivores if they wanted to, but in that case there would be no need for the project to be there and our benefit programs would cease—it is very important that that link is made. Our latest in-depth survey showed that over 70% now recognize some benefits from the presence of carnivores and other wildlife (compared to under 25% four years ago)—this is still not enough to outweigh all the costs at an individual household level, but shows we are moving in the right direction.
Mongabay: What role does education play in your work?
To help villagers see a benefit from carnivore presence, RCP ‘twins’ village schools with schools in the United States and United Kingdom. The U.S. and U.K. schools raise money for much-needed supplies for the Ruaha schools. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
Amy Dickman: Education is a hugely important part of our work, in many ways. People are often unaware of the particular importance of the Ruaha landscape for carnivores and why we might care about their conservation, and often have little knowledge of the role and importance of the Park, and the most effective techniques for identifying and preventing carnivore attacks. We address all these things through educational DVD nights in the local schools and villages, which are extremely popular. In addition, we take people every week into the National Park, to enable them to see and learn about wildlife in a first-hand, non-threatening way. The vast majority of people have never been into the Park and have never seen species like lions when they were not posing a threat, so these are very valuable visits—76% of people said the visits made them more positive towards carnivores, 99% said they were more positive towards the Park and everyone said it made them more positive towards the project.
Mongabay: How important is it to create trust with local communities when working in conservation?
Amy Dickman: Like in any relationship, trust is fundamentally important. The communities have to know that you are really willing to listen to their point of view and then do what you can to improve the situation. Sometimes we can’t do much, and sometimes we don’t know if what we try will work or not, so we have to be very open with people about what we are doing and why, and just communicate very honestly with everyone involved. Luckily, we have an amazing Tanzanian team who are great at listening to and working with the communities, and that has been a huge part of our success so far.
Mongabay: Given the size of the Ruaha landscape, and how little attention it has received, will you tell us about your wider team?
Mwagusi Safari Camp’s game driver Moses captured this gorgeous photo of a leopard resting in a tree. To supplement its research on carnivores in and around Ruaha National Park, RCP provides drivers for various lodges with digital cameras and GPS units to record carnivore sightings during their daily travels. Photo by: Mwagusi Safari Camp.
Amy Dickman: Yes, our work would be impossible without the efforts of a lot of people, both within Tanzania and outside. The field team currently comprises four full-time Tanzanian research assistants, three people developing the Lion Guardians program, one trainee mechanic and our camp cook, and they are all incredibly hard-working and dedicated to the overall success of the project. I always feel that it is slightly unfair that I get to go and give lots of talks about the project, and see the interest from people all over the world, while the rest of the team rarely get that kind of recognition, or the chance to see that their very hard work is generating attention far beyond Ruaha. That is one reason why I was so pleased when Ayubu Msago, our Community Liaison Officer, was recognized as one of Disney’s 2013 Conservation Heroes—Msago has worked for decades in conservation, and even risked his own life to single-handedly save a villager from the jaws of a lion, and it is great to see that kind of dedication being recognized at an international level. However, the whole team deserve recognition—they live away from their families, working extremely hard every day in harsh conditions to save carnivores, and I am so proud to have them as the core RCP team. I try to do what I can by helping to advance their careers, and over half our Tanzanian research assistants have now been enrolled in further education through the project, so eventually I hope that they will be the ones going and talking about the project and generating more support for it.
However, the team is much bigger than just the field team—obviously, our work depends on lots of less-glamorous aspects such as fund-raising and general program support, so we get amazing help from a whole range of other sources, such as our funding partners, Oxford University, Lion Guardians and other colleagues, and some volunteers. People often ask me how they can get involved with the project, and although unfortunately it is very hard to join the field team (it is hard to get foreigners on the research permit), there are lots of valuable ways to become part of the wider team helping to conserve carnivores in Ruaha.
Mongabay: When did you know that your organization and the Barabaig had really achieved a partnership?
Amy Dickman: As mentioned above, we were thrilled when they first invited us down to speak at their traditional meeting, as that was a real breakthrough for us. There have been some other really high points as well—for instance, at a village meeting recently, some of the village women stood up and castigated the men for trying to kill carnivores, as the women were seeing real benefits from the clinic and school programs and recognized that without the carnivore presence they wouldn’t continue in the same way. Most excitingly, though, we just heard of an attempted lion hunt in one of the villages, and instead of rewarding the men involved, the Barabaig community fined them cattle instead. This came directly from them and was not even suggested by us—but to see lion killing going from being rewarded in the community to being punished by the community was real evidence for us that it was a true partnership and they were really engaged in our conservation work.
Mongabay: What is on the horizon for the Ruaha Carnivore Project?
Intense conflict with local people is one of the primary threats facing lions in the Ruaha landscape. Photo by © : Pauline Salta.
Amy Dickman: The project has been established now for 5 years, and has been working with the communities for four years. We have already seen huge changes in our core area—attacks have decreased, more people now recognize benefits, and—most importantly for us—carnivore killings have dropped by over 80% in our core villages. However, we have started small because this requires very intensive work and we are only a small team—we currently work in 10 villages and work intensively in 3. Over the next 5 years, I would like to see us expand our work to all 22 local villages and be working intensively in at least 6 villages, so that we can have success across a wider area. We want to do more ecological work—for instance collaring large carnivores—so that we can really understand their movements on village land, which will allow us to target our conflict mitigation even more effectively. We need to test more methods for reducing attacks, and further develop and extend our community benefit initiatives. Most importantly, we need to continue to build capacity so the Tanzanian staff can play an increasing role in project leadership—we have already invested in significant staff training, with over half of our research assistants helped into further education, but I would like to see them take on MSc and eventually PhD studies so they can be future conservation leaders. However, all of this requires money—so for me, I see lots of grant writing and fund-raising talks and trips in my immediate future! I think we have a great team and a good model, though, so I am confident that we can expand and have even more success in this globally important area, with real benefits for both local communities and large carnivores.
Mongabay: Given habitat loss, conflict, prey decline, and climate change, how hopeful are you for big carnivores in Africa?
Amy Dickman: Unfortunately, I think you would have to be fairly delusional to think that it looks like a positive outlook. It is interesting that the day that I am writing this is apparently ‘Earth Overshoot Day’, i.e. the day of the year when we have used the renewable amount of natural resources for the whole year, so are now in ‘overdraft’ and acting unsustainably—worrying when we are only 34 weeks in! It is undoubtedly a very alarming and urgent situation, and I think everyone—from individuals to governments—needs to take responsibility for it and do all they can to live in a more sustainable way. However, although the challenges are huge, I think there is no point just feeling that it is all hopeless and giving up—if we do that, then we really have lost the fight. I think the work around Ruaha has really shown me that there can be successes in the face of daunting odds, and even though that is a small success story, it gives me hope that it is not all doom and gloom. I know there has been lots of debate recently about whether we should just fence in the few remaining large populations of lions, but I think that would be a mistake. I think we need to strive to maintain large landscapes and really engage local people and all other stakeholders in wildlife conservation—it is hard and takes a lot of time and effort, but we have already seen changes in our area and I think it is the most sustainable long-term option.
Mongabay: How can people help the big carnivores of Ruaha?
A curious Barabaig boy checks out one of RCP’s camera traps. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
Amy Dickman: People can help in multiple ways. The most obvious one is to donate money to help the project, and for US donors one of the best options for this is through the Lion SSP site. In the UK and other places, donations can be made through Oxford University, by clicking on the Ruaha Carnivore Project link.
However, we know that not everyone has any money to give, but they can help a lot in other ways. It helps just to raise awareness about the need for large carnivore conservation, or suggest to a local school that they might want to get involved as a Kids 4 Cats twin school. There will also be ways that people can get involved, for instance by helping us identify species that we camera-trap, so please just keep updated with the project on either our Facebook site or on our website.
Basically, anything that people can do would be really valuable—these amazing species are in real trouble today, and even small actions can really make an important difference.
SOME PHOTOS BELOW SHOW GRAPHIC CONTENT OF HUMAN-WILDLIFE CONFLICT
Two male lions attempt to take down a buffalo in Ruaha National Park. The Ruaha landscape supports the second-largest populations of lions left in the world. Photo by ©: Micol Farina.
RCP Senior Researcher Monty Kalyahe stands in front of a boma (livestock enclosure) reinforced by RCP staff for a Maasai family. RCP’s reinforced bomas thus far have been 100% effective at protecting livestock from depredation. Photo by ©: Jon Erickson.
An RCP conflict officer investigates an incident where lions killed cattle at a Barabaig household. These events have serious economic and cultural costs for pastoralists, and often result in retaliatory killing. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
Removal of a lion’s paw usually indicates that the lion was killed for cultural reasons. Barabaig warriors take a lion’s right front paw as proof of their kill, so that they can be rewarded with ‘zawadi’—gifts such as livestock from other Barabaig—for killing a lion. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
A trio of dead goats resulting from an overnight depredation in a boma (livestock enclosure). This kind of attack can impose very severe costs on poor households. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
Amy Dickman investigates the carcass of a poisoned male lion. In the villages around Ruaha National Park, poisoning is a common method of retaliation against carnivores for attacks upon livestock. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
An RCP camera trap captured this pride of lions drinking at the Mwagusi River in Ruaha National Park. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
A heavily-pregnant lioness which was poisoned after attacking cattle in the bush. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
The Ruaha landscape is home to the third – largest population of endangered African wild dogs left in the world. Photo by ©: Peter Coppolillo.
A snared leopard on Ruaha village land. Snares are used less frequently than poisoning and spearing to retaliate against depredation, but carnivores are frequently caught in snares intended to catch wildlife for bushmeat. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
Barabaig warriors typically guard the family’s cattle while they graze in the bush during the day, and will attempt to spear large carnivores if they threaten the stock. Photo by ©: Andrew Harrington.
A camera trap at Mwagusi Safari Camp catches a group of thirsty yellow-collared lovebirds. Over 500 bird species are found in Ruaha. Photo by: Ruaha Carnivore Project.
Mwagusi Safari Camp’s game driver Moses shot this photo of a spotted hyaena sharing a giraffe carcass with a group of white-backed vultures. Photo by: Mwagusi Safari Camp.
Mwagusi Safari Camp provided RCP with this photo of a well-fed male lion in Ruaha National Park. Staff and visitors at various lodges in and around Ruaha are very helpful sources of photos of and data on carnivores for RCP. Photo by: Mwagusi Safari Camp.
(07/25/2013) A new study published in Biology Letters finds that contrary to popular opinion, cheetah don’t overheat during hunts. But their body temperature rises after successful hunts due to stress than another predator may seize their prey.
(07/15/2013) Fences are not the answer to the decline in Africa’s lions, according to a new paper in Ecology Letters. The new research directly counters an earlier controversial study that argued keeping lions fenced-in would be cheaper and more effective in saving the big cats. African lion (Panthera leo) populations across the continent have fallen dramatically: it’s estimated that the current population is around 15,000-35,000 lions, down from 100,000 just 50 years ago. The animal kings are suffering from booming human populations, habitat loss and fragmentation, prey decline, trophy hunting, and human-lion conflict.
(05/22/2013) Famed anthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey has proposed a possible solution to the hugely controversial Serengeti road: build an elevated highway. Leakey made the remarks during a conference at Rutgers University on May 14th, as reported by Live Science. The Tanzanian government’s plans to build a road through the remote, northern Serengeti has come under both environmental and international criticism, as scientific studies and leaked government reports have found the proposed road would hugely hamper the world famous migration across the plans.
(04/18/2013) Koos Hermanus would rather not give names to the lions he breeds. So here, behind a 2.4-meter high electric fence, is 1R, a three-and-a-half-year-old male, who consumes 5kg of meat a day and weighs almost 200kg. It will only leave its enclosure once it has been “booked”‘ by a hunter, most of whom are from the United States. At that point the big cat will be set loose in the wild for the first time in its life, 96 hours before the hunt begins. It usually takes about four days to track down the prey, with the trophy hunter following its trail on foot, accompanied by big-game professionals including Hermanus. He currently has 14 lions at his property near Groot Marico, about two and a half hours by road west of Johannesburg.
(03/20/2013) For a long time male lions were derided as the lazy ones in the pride, depending on females for the bulk of hunting and not pulling their weight. Much of this was based on field observations—female lions hunt cooperatively, often in open savannah, and therefore are easier to track at night. But new research in Animal Behaviour is showing that males are adroit hunters in their own right, except prickly males hunt alone and use dense vegetation as cover; instead of social hunting in open savannah, they depend on ambushing unsuspecting prey.
(03/18/2013) African lions (Panthera leo) living outside of protected areas like national parks or reserves also happen to be studied much less than those residing within protected areas, to the detriment of lion conservation initiatives. In response to this trend, a group of researchers surveyed an understudied, unprotected region in northwestern Mozambique called the Tete Province, whose geography and proximity to two national parks suggests a presence of lions.
(03/06/2013) In order for dwindling lion populations to survive in Africa, large-scale fencing projects may be required according to new research in Ecology Letters. Recent estimates have put lion populations down to 15,000-35,000, a massive drop from a population that was thought to be around 100,000 in 1960. The worsening plight of lions have pushed the researchers to suggest what is likely to be a controversial proposal: fence the top predators in.
(02/04/2013) They languished behind bars in squalid conditions, their very survival in jeopardy. Outside, an international team of advocates strove to bring worldwide attention to their plight. With modern genetics, the experts sought to prove what they had long believed: that these individuals were special. Like other cases of individuals waiting for rescue from a life of deprivation behind bars, the fate of those held captive might be dramatically altered with the application of genetic science to answer questions of debated identity. Now recent DNA analysis has made it official: this group is special and because of their scientifically confirmed distinctiveness they will soon enjoy greater freedom.
(12/04/2012) African lions, one of the most iconic species on the planet, are in rapid decline. According to a new study in Biodiversity Conservation, the African lion (Panthera leo leo) population has dropped from around 100,000 animals just fifty years ago to as few as 32,000 today. The study, which used high resolution satellite imagery to study savannah ecosystems across Africa, also found that lion habitat had plunged by 75 percent.
(12/04/2012) Few of the world’s ecosystems are more iconic than Africa’s sprawling savannahs home to elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and the undisputed king of the animal kingdom: lions. This wild realm, where megafauna still roam in abundance, has inspired everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Karen Blixen, and David Livingstone to Theodore Roosevelt. Today it is the heart of Africa’s wildlife tourism and includes staunch defenders such as Richard Leakey, Michael Fay, and the Jouberts. Despite this, the ecosystem has received less media attention than imperiled ecosystems like rainforests. But a ground-breaking study in Biodiversity Conservation finds that 75 percent of these large-scale intact grasslands have been lost, at least from the lion’s point of view.
(10/25/2012) Bushmeat hunting has become a grave concern for species in West and Central Africa, but a new report notes that lesser-known illegal hunting in Africa’s iconic savannas is also decimating some animals. Surprisingly, illegal hunting across eastern and southern Africa is hitting big predators particularly hard, such as cheetah, lion, leopard, and wild dog. Although rarely targets of hunters, these predators are running out of food due to overhunting and, in addition, often becoming victims of snares set out for other species.
(06/05/2012) Last summer, a wild Sumatran tiger—one of only a few hundred surviving on the island—made news in a story that did not have a happy ending. The cat had become entangled in a snare in a logging concession owned by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). The tiger spent seven days without food or water before wildlife rangers found it, but its snared right paw was a bloody black mess. Although the rangers were able to sedate and free the cat, it died shortly thereafter from its wounds.
(12/10/2012) Illegal hunting in Tanzania’s Greater Serengeti Ecosystem (GSE) remains a prevalent activity for local people, despite government regulation and grassroots movements to prevent it. A new paper from mongabay.com’s open-access Tropical Conversation Science examines the factors that drive poachers to continue their activities, despite the high costs involved. By interviewing citizens involved with illegal hunting in the Western part of the Serengeti, they were able to identify key risks that are faced by the hunters as well as the perceived gains of a successful hunt.
(12/10/2012) Bushmeat consumption, or “wildlife hunted for human consumption,” poses a significant threat to wildlife conservation all across the globe. But in Eastern Africa—where savannah grasslands flourish and big game roam free within ‘protected’ reserves—one may be forgiven to think that poaching does not occur here: but it does.
(12/10/2012) One of the biggest challenges for big African wildlife like lions, elephants, and buffalo is movement across native habitat that is increasingly being encroached on by humans. Animals find their movement restricted by roads, fences, and property boundaries which fragment the landscape. Without safe, smart, and well-maintained corridors between designated wildlife areas, animals can get cut off from resources needed for survival and from potential mates (putting genetic health at risk), even while conflicts with humans become more frequent.
(06/09/2011) What’s happening in Tanzania? This is a question making the rounds in East African conservation circles. Why is a nation that has so much invested in wild lands and wild animals pursuing projects that researchers say will not only gravely harm some of the nation’s world-famous wildlife and ecosystems, but also undercut its economically-important tourism industry?