Tanzania’s vast Ruaha landscape is an epic wilderness centred around Ruaha National Park, which at more than 20,000km2, is the largest park in east Africa. This landscape is one of the most important places left for large carnivores. It is believed to support more than 10% of the world’s lions, and the third biggest population of endangered African wild dogs. It also has globally significant populations of cheetahs, leopards and spotted hyaenas.
However, Ruaha’s carnivore population relies not only on the park but also village land nearby. This is where the animals engage in conflict with some of the poorest communities on the planet. Carnivore attacks on livestock result in significant economic and cultural costs to local households.
This leads to widespread preventative and retaliatory carnivore killing. Human-wildlife conflict has been described one of the most important threats facing large carnivores and other species such as elephants. Therefore, mitigating this conflict is a top priority for conservation biologists.
The conflict is intense
In 2009, we established the Ruaha Carnivore Project as part of Oxford University’s WildCRU. It is committed to understanding carnivore ecology and conflict in the Ruaha region. Our research has revealed the intensity and complexity of human-wildlife conflict around Ruaha.
A staggering 98.5% of surveyed villagers reported problems with wildlife. Large carnivores were viewed as the most problematic. There was also evidence for “contagious conflict” where if people had problems with one species they were likely to be hostile towards others. Therefore, reducing conflict with carnivores could reduce antagonism towards species such as elephants.
Depredation was a major reason for conflict. More than 60% of people reported carnivore attacks. Even though these losses only accounted for around 1% of herd size, far less than disease or theft, attacks could often be catastrophic. At times dozens of stock were killed in a single attack and some villagers lost more than 20% of their livestock annually.
The fear of such attacks drove extremely high rates of carnivore killings. In 2011, more than 35 carnivores were speared, snared or poisoned in a single village.
Depredation is not the only reason behind these killings. Warriors receive gifts of cattle from other community members if they spear a lion. They sometimes receive 20 cattle – worth more than US$4000 – for killing one lion. This is one of the few ways that young pastoralist men can acquire wealth.
They also receive prestige through such killings, with warriors being feted in celebrations after hunts, with dancing, singing and attention from women. Local people received very few or no benefits from wildlife presence, and have little understanding of why conservation might be valuable.
Tackling these issues is complex
The project has been addressing a number of issues over the past five years. Reducing depredation was a key challenge. Two-thirds of attacks occurred in poorly-constructed livestock enclosures known as bomas. We now fortify bomas with strong mesh fencing, on a cost-sharing basis with the household. These enclosures are 99% effective at reducing attacks, so there is high demand for them.
To reduce attacks in the bush, we worked with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia to launch a trial of specialised livestock guarding dogs in east Africa. The dogs don’t attack predators, but work alongside herders to detect carnivore presence and prevent attacks.
So far we have placed nine Anatolian Shepherd dogs, and shown that they thrive and work well, although the feeding and care of such large dogs is expensive. We now plan to start a local breeding programme, crossing village dogs with Anatolians to produce dogs which are smaller and easier for families to maintain, while hopefully large and protective enough to deter predators.
These programmes have reduced attacks in the core study area by more than 60%, but depredation is only one of the factors behind conflict in this area.
To address the cultural side of carnivore killing, we worked with Lion Guardians and Panthera to develop the first Lion Guardians programme outside Kenya. Under this approach influential young warriors are employed as Lion Guardians. They play traditional warrior roles, following lions and protecting the community but in a conservation-friendly manner.
Each guardian patrols a zone of approximately 100km2, finding lost livestock, protecting enclosures, warning communities of lion presence, and deterring other warriors from going on lion hunts. The guardians receive wages so they can buy cattle, and status through education and training. We also recently began sponsoring monthly village celebration events, so traditional dancing events are no longer dependent upon killing lions.
The way forward
For long-term conservation, people must see tangible benefits from carnivore presence. Villagers voted on highest-priority benefits, and selected health care, education and veterinary health. We has been working on all three themes.
We have equipped a rural clinic and are working to equip two more, and have developed a Kids 4 Cats school-twinning initiative. This is where developed-world schools provide critically needed supplies for village schools.
In addition promising boys and girls are funded through all four years of secondary school through our “Simba Scholarship” programme. Households with fortified bomas are eligible to receive subsidised veterinary medicines.
Recently, a community camera-trapping programme has been started, so villages that record more wildlife are rewarded with additional community benefits. Education about wildlife is provided through village DVD nights and educational park trips. This is where villagers are able to learn about wildlife in a non-threatening situation.
Conflict is a complex and deep-seated issue, but these approaches are starting to pay dividends. Attitudes in Ruaha are improving towards wildlife and most importantly, carnivore killings have declined by 80% in the core area. There is a long way to go still. We work intensively in only five of the 22 local villages, but significant progress has been made.
Coexisting with large, dangerous animals will always be challenging, particularly in an ever more human-dominated world. However, the work being done in the remote Ruaha landscape shows that it is possible to move towards a situation which truly benefits both people and predators.