Lions kill cat­tle, so peo­ple kill lions

In Tan­za­nia, some seek to break cy­cle be­fore cats dis­ap­pear

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Christina Lar­son

LOIBOR SIRET, Tan­za­nia — Saitoti Petro, a tall, slen­der 29year-old, is march­ing with four other young men who be­long to a pas­toral­ist peo­ple called the Maa­sai. Be­neath the folds of his thick cloak, he car­ries a sharp­ened ma­chete.

Only a few years ago, men of Petro’s age would most likely have been stalk­ing lions to hunt them — of­ten to avenge cat­tle that the big cats had eaten.

But as Petro ex­plains, the prob­lem now is that there are too few lions, not too many.

“It will be shame­ful if we kill them all,” he says. “It will be a big loss if our fu­ture chil­dren never see lions.”

And so he’s joined an ef­fort to pro­tect lions, by safe­guard­ing do­mes­tic an­i­mals on which they might prey.

Petro is one of more than 50 lion mon­i­tors from com­mu­ni­ties on the Maa­sai steppe who walk daily pa­trol routes to help shep­herds shield their cat­tle in pas­ture, with support and train­ing from a small, Tan­za­nian non­profit called African Peo­ple & Wildlife.

Over the past decade, this group has also helped more than 1,000 ex­tended house­holds to build se­cure mod­ern cor­rals made of liv­ing aca­cia trees and chain­link fence to pro­tect their live­stock at night.

This kind of in­ter­ven­tion is, in a way, a grand ex­per­i­ment.

The sur­vival of lions — and many other threat­ened sa­van­nah species, from chee­tahs to gi­raffes to ele­phants — likely de­pends on find­ing a way for peo­ple, live­stock and wild beasts to con­tinue to use these lands to­gether, on the plains where the ear­li­est hu­mans walked up­right through tall grass.

Across Africa, the num­ber of lions has dropped by more than 40% in two decades, ac­cord­ing to data re­leased in 2015 by the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture, putting lions on the list of species sci­en­tists con­sider “vul­ner­a­ble” to ex­tinc­tion.

They have dis­ap­peared from 94% of the lands they used to roam in Africa, what re­searchers call their “his­toric range.”

The big­gest rea­son for lions’ re­treat is that their for­mer grass­lands are be­ing con­verted into crop­land and ci­ties. Los­ing habi­tat is the top risk to wildlife in Africa and glob­ally. But on open sa­van­nahs where lions still roam, poach­ing for body parts and re­venge killings are the next most sig­nif­i­cant threats.

Lions are re­spected as wor­thy ad­ver­saries in Maa­sai cul­ture. Any­one who harms more than nine is said to be cursed. But aveng­ing the death of a prize cow wins re­spect, like du­el­ing to avenge a lost fam­ily mem­ber.

But what if the trig­ger­ing con­flicts could be pre­vented?

“Our el­ders killed and al­most fin­ished off the lions,” Petro says. “Un­less we have new ed­u­ca­tion, they will be ex­tinct.”

In most cor­ners of the planet, hu­mans and big preda­tors don’t eas­ily co-ex­ist. But on the el­e­vated plains of north­ern Tan­za­nia, pas­toral­ists have long lived along­side wildlife: graz­ing their cows, goats and sheep on the same broad sa­van­nahs where ze­bras, buf­falo and gi­raffe munch grass and leaves — and where lions, leop­ards and hye­nas stalk these wild beasts.

It’s one of the few places left on Earth where co­ex­is­tence may still be pos­si­ble, but it’s a pre­car­i­ous bal­ance.

And what hap­pens here in Tan­za­nia will help de­ter­mine the fate of the species; the country is home to a more than a third of the roughly 22,500 re­main­ing African lions, ac­cord­ing to data from re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford.

There’s some ev­i­dence that re­cent steps taken to mit­i­gate con­flict are work­ing.

In 2005, the vil­lage of Loibor Siret, pop­u­la­tion 3,000, on the Maa­sai steppe saw about three preda­tor at­tacks on live­stock each month. In 2017, the num­ber had de­clined to about one a month. The big­gest change in that in­ter­val was that about 90 vil­lage house­holds built re­in­forced cor­rals, which are much more ef­fec­tive than the older bar­ri­ers of tan­gled thorn bushes.

Al­though pro­tect­ing an­i­mals in pas­ture is a trick­ier chal­lenge, the lion mon­i­tors helped to defuse 14 sit­u­a­tions in 2017 that might have led to lion hunts, ac­cord­ing to records col­lected by African Peo­ple & Wildlife.

Within a study area mon­i­tored by the non­profit Tarangire Lion Project, the monthly count of lions hit a low of around 120 lions in fall 2011 — down from about 220 lions in 2004. But the pop­u­la­tion started to re­cover in 2012, reach­ing more than 160 lions by 2015.

Wildlife refuges are some­times not a suf­fi­cient an­swer — at least for species that re­quire large ranges.

Within the bound­aries of Tan­za­nia’s Tarangire Na­tional Park, lions sleep on open river banks and dan­gle from tree branches of­ten ig­nor­ing the squadrons of open-top sa­fari tour ve­hi­cles pass­ing by.

Here, they are mostly safe. But the pro­tected area of the park is only a por­tion of the land that these lions and their prey de­pend upon. Large mi­gra­tory an­i­mals range widely.

Some peo­ple in nearby vil­lages say they aren’t happy about Petro’s ef­forts. But at­ti­tudes are evolv­ing. Petro Lengima Lorkuta, Saitoti Petro’s 69-year-old fa­ther, killed his first lion when he was 25, hurl­ing a spear after the cat at­tacked his largest bull. In those days, he says, “If you killed a lion it showed that you were a strong war­rior.”

Since his ex­tended fam­ily moved into a new ranch home and erected a re­in­forced cor­ral four years ago, he says they have not lost any live­stock to preda­tors.

“Now I love to see lions,” just not too near his home — and he sup­ports his son’s ef­forts to ed­u­cate neigh­bors about avoid­ing preda­tor con­flicts.


A lion in Tan­za­nia’s Tarangire Na­tional Park. In Africa, the num­ber of lions has dropped by more than 40% in two decades.

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