On Thursday, October 24th I hopped on Amtrak for what has become our “annual” trip to Washington, DC. My friend, Laura Brown and her husband, Scott Satterfield, were hosting an evening to meet Dr. Amy Dickman, the founder of the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania. You may recall that Evan and I met Dr. Dickman last year at this same time when we came down to spend the day at National Geographic. (Amy was the 2011 recipient of the Rabinowitz-Kaplan Prize for Next Generation of Wild Cat Conservation and is also a National Geographic grantee.) I was looking forward to seeing Amy again and getting an update on this important project.
So where is Ruaha and why is it important? The Ruaha National Park is the second largest national park in all of Africa and the largest national park in Tanzania. It covers an area of about 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 sq miles) in central Tanzania and is about 130 kilometers (81 miles) from Iringa. The Park is part of a more extensive ecosystem, which includes Rungwa Game Reserve, Usangu Game Reserve, and several other protected areas. The name of the Park is derived from the Great Ruaha River, which flows along its southeastern margin. You can get to the Park by car via Iringa, as well as an airstrip at Msembe, Park headquarters.
Now to Ruaha’s importance. According to a recent study led by Duke University, there are only ten “strongholds” of lions left in the world where researchers believe that lions have a good long-term chance of survival. The study goes on to point out that 40% of the world’s lions are found in Tanzania, with more than 10% living in southern Tanzania’s Ruaha landscape (the second largest lion population in the world). Amy says the Ruaha landscape has a large, viable carnivore population because it is a vast, relatively untouched area with healthy prey populations. Amazingly, until 2009 when the Ruaha Carnivore Project was launched, there were no research or conservation efforts focused on this important large carnivore stronghold – data that is necessary to help develop effective conservation strategies for the area. The Ruaha Carnivore Project is part of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, WildCRU. The Ruaha team focuses 30% of their efforts on ecological research/conservation data and 70% on mitigating human/carnivore conflict in this isolated landscape. It is the only non-governmental organization working on the ground in the area to promote large carnivore conservation. Its geographical area of focus includes Ruaha National Park, the surrounding Wildlife Management Areas and 21 neighboring villages.
What are the challenges? Despite its isolation, Ruaha has historically some of the highest rates of lion killings in east Africa. Most key carnivore areas are close to village lands (approximately within 30 km) which is a key reason for the very high lion killing numbers found in/around Ruaha. Over half of the lions killed were missing their right front paw when the carcasses were found and a significant number found poisoned were pregnant females. The poisoning is probably the result of retaliation for livestock deaths.
In Ruaha, wildlife wealth lives amongst human poverty: 90% of the people live on less than $2/day and life expectancy is less than 50 years. Until the Ruaha Carnivore Project, villagers had little appreciation for the economic value of large carnivores, resulting in a severe conflict between the two (when polled, 93% of the villagers said that they derived no economic benefit from wildlife). And what is behind the right foot “trophy”?… the Barabaig Tribe. The Barabaigs are a local, very isolated and dangerous pastoral tribe. They are known to be fierce warriors. The Barabaigs keep goats, sheep, donkeys and chickens, but cattle are by far the most important domestic animal. It is tribal tradition that to “become a man” you must kill “an enemy of the people” which could include a lion, an elephant or a non-Barabaig person! As Amy pointed out, there aren’t many “non-Barabaig” people residing in the area…
Amy’s team had made concerted efforts since 2009 to reach out to the Barabaig, but to no avail. It was not until the Project set up a solar charging station on village land (for the purpose of being able to charge their cell phones and computers) that the Barabaigs decided to meet the Project’s overtures – the Barabaigs wanted access to the charging station for their own cell phones! (thereby eliminating the 30km walk to the next town for charging access). Even the Barabaigs recognized this technology convenience and were willing to start a mutually beneficial dialogue. The Barabaigs have since invited the Ruaha team to their village meetings and presented them with a cow, one of their most prized possessions, so trust has ultimately resulted in dialogue and progress. Amy and her team recognize that they need to provide the Barabaigs with tangible benefits related to living amongst the large carnivores in exchange for their cooperation.
What makes for effective conservation strategies? Amy and her team know that accurate baseline data is necessary to be able to map one’s progress. Their ecological work includes using camera traps which provide extremely valuable initial data, as well as also equipping ten National Park drivers with cameras to monitor the carnivores within the Park. Counting large carnivores, dead or alive, only takes you so far. The next step is developing creative solutions to the conflicts and challenges that arise when humans and large carnivores live in close proximity.
One way the Ruaha Carnivore Project, in concert with the villagers, is reducing the number of carnivore attacks on livestock is by reinforcing the livestock enclosures known as “bomas”. The villagers’ bomas historically have been poorly constructed, consisting only of branches and sticks piled together – not much of a deterrent for a large carnivore, but when these bomas are reinforced with chain-link fencing they become 100% effective. To date, 65 reinforced bomas have been constructed and they would like to build 100 more.
The Ruaha team is also working with the Lion Guardians, young men who are employed to track the lions’ whereabouts and keep the livestock away from the lions. The Guardians are incentivized to keep the lions safe because they are paid in cattle (practically a currency unto itself), IF no carnivore is killed. The Lion Guardians have had a real impact on the reduction of retaliatory killings as a result of their work. They are now appreciating that protecting the lion is a means to earning a good livelihood. At the request of the young Guardians, a “Warrior School” has been created which teaches the young men to read and write.
The Project also recognized the need to engage the women of the tribe and asked what was important to them. The women requested that a village clinic be created to address maternal and infant health needs. The women also requested veterinary care and medicine for their livestock protected by the reinforced bomas. There seems to be a good quid pro quo established, all based on what is important to the villagers and their needs. So, if you are making the effort to build reinforced bomas to house your cattle or goats, you can now receive veterinary care for those same animals. The local schools are also severely undersourced so the Ruaha Project is teaming with US primary schools through National Geographic and their “Kids4Cats” program.
The Team is also going to experiment with introducing large guard dogs to help protect the livestock – I believe they plan to use Anatolian Shepherds (like those used in the Cheetah Conservation Project). The dog grows up with the livestock and becomes part of the herd where its instinct is to protect (and these dogs grow to be huge – hard to believe that it is a real match for a lion, but perhaps a deterrent). Check out the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s website for more detail on how they use the Anatolian Shepherd and the Kangal – it’s really interesting. http://www.cheetah.org/?nd=guarding_dog_program
Lastly, the Ruaha Team recognizes the need for the villagers to develop an appreciation of the large carnivores’ value – this can only be done with education and increased understanding. Despite their close proximity to the Park, the villagers had not experienced the Park as “tourists”. The Project now brings groups of villagers into the Park to experience it as a guest and to see the animals the way visitors see the animals. Apparently the villagers are most excited to see the planes coming and going from the airstrip and know now that the planes are bringing guests to see their special and very valuable large carnivores. The Project also hosts “movie nights” for the villagers – a large white sheet serves as the movie screen. Most of the movies are wildlife features. Amy is working hard to get the movies translated into Swahili, the native language of Tanzania. Some of this sounds so straightforward and practical – but it is simple things like these that are instilling an air of cooperation in and around the Park.
Trending Positive. To date the Project can point to positive trends on the large carnivore front. Attacks have been reduced and the villagers are beginning to see the benefits of living with large carnivores. In 2011 there were 39 large carnivore deaths, this fell to 12 in 2012, and year to date in 2013 the death count stands at 3. Thank you, Amy. This work is very important. http://ruahacarnivoreproject.com
Visiting Ruaha National Park. If you are thinking about visiting the Park, it was recommended to me to stay at Mwagusi Camp. I haven’t done the research yet but here is their website for anyone who is as intrigued as I am. http://www.mwagusicamp.com