Lion pa­trol: Learn­ing to share the sa­van­nah with big an­i­mals

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - NEWS - By Christina Lar­son AP Sci­ence Writer

LOIBOR SIRET, TAN­ZA­NIA >> Saitoti Petro scans a dirt road in north­ern Tan­za­nia for re­cent signs of the top preda­tor on the African sa­van­nah. “If you see a lion,” he warns, “stop and look it straight in the eyes — you must never run.”

Petro points to a fresh track in the dirt, a paw print mea­sur­ing nearly the length of a ball­point pen. He walks along a few more yards read­ing tracks the way an ar­chae­ol­o­gist might de­ci­pher hi­ero­glyph­ics, glean­ing mean­ing from the smudges in the dust. A large male passed here within the past two hours, he says. “Here he’s walk­ing slowly, then you see his claws come out in the tracks. Per­haps he’s run­ning af­ter prey, or from some­thing else.”

The tall, slen­der 29-yearold 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 and Wildlife . Over the past decade, this group has also helped more than a thou­sand 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 per­cent 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 per­cent of the lands they used to roam in Africa, what re­searchers call their “his­toric range.”

The big­gest rea­son for the lion’s 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.

These re­tal­ia­tory killings have be­come more deadly in re­cent years, as many herds­men have switched from spear­ing in­di­vid­ual lions to leav­ing out poi­soned car­casses, which can dec­i­mate a pride of lions, along with other an­i­mals that might feed on tainted meat.

But what if the trig­ger

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

And so he hikes the steppe, look­ing to teach peo­ple how to live more peace­ably along­side large preda­tors.

On a July morn­ing, he stops sud­denly and points to­ward a tree-lined ravine. The tracks he’s been fol­low­ing have veered off the road, so he thinks the lion moved to­ward a stream in the gorge. The foot­prints must be re­cent be­cause there are not yet bits of grass strewn on top.

As his team walks to­ward the gul­ley, they hear cow bells jin­gling. “We should go and check if any­one is com­ing this way,” says Petro. “We need to warn them.” They soon find two young shep­herds — pre-teen boys — sit­ting un­der an aca­cia tree, play­ing with small yel­low fruit like balls in the dirt. Their two dozen cat­tle are me­an­der­ing to­ward the ravine.

Petro kneels to greet the boys, then ad­vises them about the lion. The men help the boys to turn their herd around, with a high whis­tle the cows rec­og­nize, send­ing them graz­ing in a safer di­rec­tion. Petro knows most of the fam­i­lies near here; later, he will make a home visit.

In most cor­ners of the planet, hu­mans and big preda­tors don’t eas­ily co­ex­ist. When forests and sa­van­nahs are con­verted to farms and cities, the land ceases to be suit­able habi­tat for most large an­i­mals. And preda­tors lin­ger­ing on the edge of cul­ti­vated lands are of­ten de­mo­nized, or ex­ter­mi­nated — wit­ness the heated de­bates about al­low­ing gray wolves on the mar­gins of Yel­low­stone and the French Pyre­nees.

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 at keep­ing preda­tors away from live­stock.

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 and Wildlife.

While the num­ber of lion hunts in the re­gion is drop­ping, they do still some­times hap­pen. In July, one of the field pa­trols sub­mit­ted a re­port about a re­cent re­venge killing, in­clud­ing a pho­to­graph of a dead lion with its four paws and tail re­moved — an old rit­ual for col­lect­ing tal­is­mans.

De­spite such set­backs, the lo­cal lion pop­u­la­tion is be­gin­ning to bounce back.

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.

“Once you make lions safe, their num­bers can re­cover quickly,” be­cause lions re­pro­duce rapidly, says Laly Licht­en­feld, an ecol­o­gist and co-founder of African Peo­ple and Wildlife.

Says Craig Packer, a bi­ol­o­gist and founder of the Lion Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota , who is not in­volved in the pro­ject: “These con­flict-mit­i­ga­tion ef­forts clearly help lions, al­though there’s al­ways the ques­tion of whether they’re go­ing to last 20 or 50 years with a grow­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion.”

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 — they are, af­ter all, cats — 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, and on the parched sa­van­nahs of east­ern Africa, they mostly fol­low the rains.

The ze­bras and wilde­beests that spend the dry months in­side Tarangire Na­tional Park move out­side the park dur­ing the wet win­ter months, where they munch on more nu­tri­tious grass and give birth to most of their calves. And lions, leop­ards and chee­tah trail be­hind them, roam­ing widely on the Maa­sai steppe.

“The an­i­mals in Tarangire spend so much of the year out­side the park, you could never put a fence around it — a fence that blocked mi­gra­tion in and out of the park would kill it,” says Packer.

In­creas­ingly sci­en­tists are real­iz­ing that lands out­side na­tional parks must also be con­sid­ered in con­ser­va­tion strate­gies. In a study pub­lished in March in the jour­nal Sci­ence, re­searchers linked the ac­cess and con­di­tion of lands sur­round­ing Tan­za­nia’s fa­mous Serengeti-Mara ecosys­tem to the health of wildlife in­side the park. Over­graz­ing and fire sup­pres­sion on the edge of the park, for in­stance, “squeezed” the an­i­mals into a smaller area within it, they found.

“The cur­rent way of just think­ing about the bor­ders of pro­tected ar­eas isn’t work­ing,” says Michiel Veld­huis, an ecol­o­gist at Univer­sity of Lei­den in the Nether­lands and a study co-au­thor. When de­vis­ing con­ser­va­tion strate­gies, he says, “we need to think about how to in­clude peo­ple liv­ing next to pro­tected ar­eas.”

Those peo­ple can be skep­ti­cal. Some peo­ple in nearby vil­lages say they aren’t happy about Petro’s ef­forts.

“We don’t want to hear lions roar at night,” says

Neema Loshiro, a 60-yearold woman sell­ing hand­made jew­elry spread out on a cloth on the street of Loibor Siret. The only wildlife she wants nearby are gi­raffes and im­palas be­cause “they’re pretty and don’t at­tack peo­ple or eat crops.”

Still, 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. “The mod­ern fence is very help­ful,” he says.

“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.

Petro still rises each day at dawn to take the cat­tle to pas­ture, as his an­ces­tors have done for gen­er­a­tions. But the cul­ture is chang­ing in many ways: Rather than al­low­ing his fa­ther to ar­range his mar­riages, as most young Maa­sai men do, Petro wooed his two brides.

“We ex­pect the grow­ing gen­er­a­tion to get more ed­u­ca­tion than us,” he says, “and there­fore to know the im­por­tance of wild an­i­mals.”

JEROME DE­LAY

In this Thurs­day July 4, 2019 photo, Saitoti Petro, brushes his teeth with a stick be­fore tak­ing his herd to the fields in the vil­lage of Narakauwo, Tan­za­nia. Petro says 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.

JEROME DE­LAY

In this Thurs­day July 4, 2019 photo, Petro Warakota Ki­palii, right, and his son, Saitoti Petro, left, keep an eye on their graz­ing cows near the vil­lage of Loibor Siret, Tan­za­nia.

JEROME DE­LAY

In this Satur­day July 6, 2019 photo, Saitoti Petro, cen­ter wear­ing blue, tracks lions near the vil­lage of Loibor Siret, Tan­za­nia. 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 and Wildlife.

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