Protecting predators in the wildest african landscape you’ve never heard of

One of Africa’s wild lands practically unknown to the global public is the Ruaha landscape. It covers 51,800 square kilometers of southern Tanzania’s woodlands and savannah.

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 ofRuaha Carnivore Projectand a National Geographic Explorer, told 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.
“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.”

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