Shining a Light on Passionate People

“A Splendid Torch”

This is the true joy in life,
the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one;
the being a force of nature
instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances
complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community
and as long as I live,
it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die,
for the harder I work, the more I live.
I rejoice in life for its own sake.
Life is no brief candle to me.
It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment,
and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible
before handing it on to future generations.
-from “Man and Superman” by George Bernard Shaw

When a friend shared this George Bernard Shaw quote a few years ago, I immediately identified with it – at least within the context of selflessness and generosity, but it is only recently that I began to consider the role that passion (hopefully) plays in each of our lives.  Some people find their passion early and run with it (Evan is a great example), while others (I include myself in this category) seem to get caught up in life’s machinations and get so busy “doing” that the act of “being” gets lost in the shuffle.  Our time in Africa and our work to help save the Big Cats has stirred the embers of passion in me, and to be doing this alongside Evan makes the experience, and life itself, that much more exciting and fulfilling.

I bring up “passion” because I have been blown away by the sheer force of it in so many of the people that we have met whose life energy is devoted to saving the Big Cats.  What becomes loud and clear is that these people are actively choosing to make the World a better place – and the Cats are only one of many beneficiaries.  When you listen to people like Dereck and Beverly Joubert or Alan Rabinowitz (CEO, Panthera) speak about their early love of the Big Cats and their goals and aspirations to save these amazing creatures, you get it and them – this is their reality and they live their passion each and every day.  What is even more powerful is how this passion inspires others to follow in their footsteps and take hold of a “Splendid Torch” that grows stronger and shines brighter with each hand that touches it .  As I mentioned in my last post, Evan and I had the opportunity to briefly meet Dr. Amy Dickman on our last visit to National Geographic.  Amy is the Kaplan Senior Research Fellow in Felid Conservation at the University of Oxford and is the Founder and Director of the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania.  She is also a Big Cats Initiative grantee.  Amy holds that “Splendid Torch” and you feel her passion the minute you meet her.

The Ruaha Carnivore project, which was established in 2009, is part of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) within Oxford University’s Zoology Department.  It works in partnership with Tanzanian organizations such as the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) and the National Parks.  The Ruaha landscape (and the Ruaha National Park) is located in Southern Tanzania, about 1500 kilometers from the Serengeti National Park (estimated 18 hour drive between these two National Parks).  Ruaha is important because it holds approximately 10% of the world’s remaining lions, one of only four cheetah populations in East Africa numbering 200 individuals+, the third largest population of endangered African Wild Dogs and globally important populations of leopards and spotted hyenas.  Amy did her MSc and PhD fieldwork around Ruaha and ultimately set up her project there when she realized just how understudied this important area was.  (I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Ruaha before meeting Amy and somehow I don’t think I am alone in my previous ignorance).  The premise of the project is to (1) provide baseline information on large carnivore distribution relative abundance and ecology across the Ruaha landscape and (2) reduce the costs and improve the benefits associated with living alongside carnivores for local people, thereby reducing human-carnivore conflict in this area.

One area of focus for Amy and her team is working with the Barabaig community (a pastoral tribe in the area).  The Barabaig warriors have been responsible for many local lion deaths.  They are similar to Kenya’s Maasai in that they will kill lions for their traditional hunts, as well as in response to livestock loss.  Amy and her team have slowly earned the trust of this reclusive group and in so doing, encouraged them to visit the Maasai’s Lion Guardians program in Kenya.  Upon their return, the Barabaig warriors voiced their support of the Lion Guardian program.  The Ruaha Carnivore project is now working closely with the Barabaig warriors, Panthera and the Lion Guardians in Kenya to educate the Barabaig people how to put down their spears and take up instead GPS units and other monitoring devices to help protect the lions in human-denominated areas.  The Warriors not only collect data on the lions, but they also warn the locals about lion presence when they are near livestock grazing areas as well as being advocates for the lions by discouraging lion hunts by the Barabaig community.  Amy shared with me that in 2011 Ruaha had at least 25 lions and other larger carnivores killed in their core study area but, to date in 2012, they have only had eight killings on village land (this is a huge step in the right direction).

I have mentioned this in other posts, but it bears repeating – researchers know that to make a difference in their local communities they need to (1) ask good questions and then (2) listen and be responsive to these community requests.  The Barabaig have requested improved healthcare and education for themselves and the availability of veterinary medicine for their livestock (disease is the greatest reason for livestock loss, estimated at 9%, while predation causes a 1.3% loss).  Scholarships are in the midst of being set-up to enable children from these pastoralist families to attend and complete secondary school (at a cost of approximately $1500 per student per year).  With the help of a UK Rotary Club, the Ruaha Carnivore Project was also able to equip a healthcare clinic in the Kitisi village (in the heart of this pastoralist area).  This clinic serves more that 1500 people who depend on it for their basic healthcare needs.

Reducing human-carnivore conflict is key to the solution and the RCP team has three strategies; (1) reducing the costs of carnivore presence, (2) improving the benefits associated with living amongst the carnivores and (3) providing education and outreach.  One way they are reducing the costs related to the presence of the Big Cats is by helping the villagers improve their livestock enclosures (bomas) via the use of Living Walls (thornbush/chainlink fence combination).   RCP is also researching the possibility of introducing special livestock guard dogs into the equation.  (The Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia has had success with using Anatolian Shepherd guard dogs and Ruaha is going to test the dogs here).  The RCP team is also spending time teaching the local community about carnivore ecology and conservation.   The villagers are largely unaware (like most around the world) that the Big Cats are threatened.  When this is combined with the inability to discern the causes of livestock loss (ie., livestock deaths from illness or  scavenging are many times incorrectly attributed to Big Cat predation, leading to unwarranted retaliatory killing), the Big Cats lose.

Amy Dickman is holding her Splendid Torch high and with the strong intention that the Ruaha Carnivore Project make a difference in saving the Big Cats and the people who live amongst them. For more information please check out their website or their Facebook page

I am including a few pictures that Amy shared with me.  Let me know if you have questions.


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