Oxford helps to save one of the world’s most significant lion populations

Research into the ecology of big cats helps resolve human–carnivore conflict in Tanzania.

Southern Tanzania’s Ruaha landscape has at its heart Ruaha National Park, which at 20,000km2 is the largest in East Africa. The unfenced park is bounded by a river, on the south side of which are lands populated by pastoralist tribes such as the Barabaig. In the dry season, wildlife – both predators and prey – congregate around the river. When it rains, however, prey move to safer water sources elsewhere, so predators – lions in particular – are drawn onto village lands, seeking food. To the Barabaig, therefore, lions have long been very bad news.

For Dr Amy Dickman, Kaplan Research Fellow in Wild Felid Conservation at Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Unit (WildCRU), this historic tension between humans and wildlife was the greatest obstacle to the work of her Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP). Cattle ownership is traditionally the source of both status and wealth for pastoralist societies. Dr Dickman explains: ‘According to our data, about 18% of villagers’ cash income was being lost because of carnivore attack. And these are people who mostly live on less than US$2 per day.’

Partly to retaliate for attacks and also to prove their manhood, young Barabaig men have traditionally tracked and killed lions. The first hunter to spear a lion is allowed by tribal authorities to visit a certain number of Barabaig households, which will give him gifts of cattle (he may receive up to 20 in all) in gratitude for his removal of the predator. This has resulted in an extremely high rate of lion killings around Ruaha, so addressing it was a top conservation priority.

It quickly became clear to Dr Dickman that, if the alarming rate of destruction was to be stopped, winning over the Barabaig would be vital. Reluctant to interact at first, the villagers proved suddenly amenable when Dr Dickman’s group put up a solar panel for electricity – it transpired that the Barabaig were eager to charge their mobile phones!

The approach was always to talk to the community rather than imposing our own ideas.Dr Amy Dickman

Eventually the two sides were able to meet and discuss how preserving lions could become more materially worthwhile to locals than killing them. What concerned the villagers most was stopping attacks on their stock, followed by better healthcare, education and livestock health, so RCP set out to address these needs and link them to preserving carnivores.

Attacks were countered by reinforcing bomas (livestock enclosures), and placing guarding dogs to alert herders when predators approach (extending a scheme from Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Fund). To help local schools the ‘Kids 4 Cats’ initiative twins them with international schools, which provide at least £300 of educational materials each year. ‘Simba Scholarships’, launched in 2013, enable bright pastoralist children to go on to secondary school. Dr Dickman noticed that there was little local interest in the education of girls. She comments, ‘That was the one time we went against the community a bit – they didn’t initially prioritise the girls, but we said we wanted half of the scholarships to be for them. Now they are actually very keen on having the girls as scholars.’

RCP is also developing plans for a mobile clinic to visit the more remote villages, and young hunters have become conservationists in a Ruaha expansion of the Kenyan ‘Lion Guardians’ project. They now use their tracking skills to monitor where lions are and help locals avert possible conflict situations.

 Amy Dickman with Barabaig warriors. Photo by Pat Erickson

Central to this project is ecological research and wildlife mapping. Before the arrival of RCP, Dr Dickman says, ‘Ruaha was known as an international priority area for large carnivores. But there was no accurate data – no one had done any focused studies.’

Villages are now given responsibility for placing camera ‘traps’; points are awarded per animal photographed, and can then be exchanged for benefits such as educational or veterinary supplies.

RCP has also been granted a permit to deploy satellite tracking collars like the one which alerted WildCRU monitors in Zimbabwe to the fate of Cecil the lion. The Lion Guardians will help collar, monitor and protect the lions, while park drivers have been enlisted as observers and asked to photograph the wildlife they see. All of this is helping map carnivore distribution across the Ruaha landscape, to avoid potential conflict with humans. The project has had impressive success, reducing livestock attacks by 60% and carnivore killings by 80%, and improving local livelihoods.

Globally, Dr Dickman and five other leading lion conservationists have just formed a new initiative, ‘Pride’, an alliance of professional women who direct carnivore conservation projects across Africa. In Dr Dickman’s words, ‘Beyond Ruaha, how can our work affect lion conservation on a bigger scale? We want to learn from others and share what we have learned, to benefit lions elsewhere.’

American philanthropist Tom Kaplan and his wife Daphne Recanati are major sponsors of big cat conservation. In 2009 they endowed Oxford University’s Postgraduate Diploma in International Wildlife Conservation Practice, along with the Recanati-Kaplan residential centre for diploma students at WildCRU’s Tubney House.

In addition their non-profit organisation, Panthera, has supported the Lion Guardians scheme in Kenya and Ruaha. RCP receives welcome support from many organisations, and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species has given long-standing support to WildCRU.

Support WildCRU and the Ruaha Carnivore Project