For co-existence, (bio)diversity and justice in conservation

Contextual differences and convivial conservation: lessons from lion-dominated landscapes in Kenya and Tanzania

By Wilhelm Kiwango, The University of Dodoma (Tanzania)

The CONVIVA research project explores the idea and vision of convivial conservation, and how it could be operationalised in Tanzania’s wildlife landscape, particularly in the Greater Ruaha Rungwa Ecosystem (GRRE) in south-western Tanzania. By specifically exploring the coexistence between human and lions (Panthera leo) in the ecosystem, the Tanzanian research team intends to understand interactions between these apex predators and local communities.

In order to gain more understanding and learn best practices, Dr Wilhelm Kiwango, a Post-Doc from the team, visited the Lion Guardians, and the Big Life Foundation conservation organisations. The Lion Guardians is also a partner to the CONVIVA project. The two organisations operate in the Greater Amboseli ecosystem (GAE) located in southern Kenya. They implement human-wildlife coexistence programmes in collaboration with local communities in community group ranches and wildlife sanctuaries. The Lion Guardians’ core area of operation is the Olgulului. Eselengei and Imbirikani group ranches, while the Big Life Foundation operates in Eselengei, Imbirikani and Rombo group ranches, Kimana Area, Chyulu Hills National Park, and Enduimet Wildlife Management Area in Tanzania.

A map showing the location of the Greater Amboseli ecosystem with a network of conservation areas. Source: Big Life Foundation

“The visit involved travelling from Tanzania to the Greater Amboseli ecosystem, and staying at the Lion Guardians’ campsite. I had fieldwork observations while visiting elder and lion guardians for in depth discussions, while having a cup of tea, usually in their homesteads (bomas/kraals). The discussions were held in Maa, the Maasai language, and translated into English by the help of project officials who accompanied me.

Discussions on lion coexistence with communities with one of the Maasai elders at Olgulului group ranch (Photo by J. Kikardi, Lion Guardians, 2020)

What do Lion Guardians do?

To conserve biodiversity while ensuring human well-being, the Lion Guardians have set up a special programme that safeguards lions and ensures safety and livelihoods of the predominantly Maasai people in the Greater Amboseli ecosystem. For instance, the project recruits and trains lion guardians, hereafter “guardians”, who are usually the ilmurran (‘warriors’). The guardians are normally traditional warriors with no formal education, but who are very skilled in lion tracking and have previous lion killing history. They also command high respect from the community. The guardians are mainly concerned with conflict mitigation between lions and communities and participatory monitoring of lions. To reduce conflicts, the guardians recover lost livestock, as this is usually a source of retaliatory killings from herders according to an interviewed lion guardian.

It is estimated that over 2$ Million of potential livestock loss to the community is avoided each year through livestock recovery by the guardians. They also look for lost herders, usually children and older men, and prevent lion killings from happening in the first place. It is estimated that about 10-20 lion hunts are stopped annually in the ecosystem, usually in collaboration with other conservation organisations. The guardians also participate in lion monitoring by tracking the lions, surveying their tracks and naming them. They have been trained in using mobile phones, GPS recorders and radio telemetry whereby they directly relay data to the Lion Guardians’ officials at the campsite. On average, the lion killings have been reduced and lion populations have quadrupled in the area. In 2018 alone, about 7,232 livestock and 7 herders were recovered. The Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania has partnered with the Lion Guardians project in Kenya to implement the lion guardian model. Here, the guardians are known as lion defenders.

Livestock herding at Injekita village, Olgulului group ranch (Photo by W. Kiwango, 2020)

Why are lions killed?

According to one Olmurran, the motivation for lion killings is twofold: retaliatory, due to livestock depredation, and the cultural/traditional hunt, whereby the Maasai warriors would go into a hunting spree as a rite of passage. The first warrior to spear a livestock herding at Injekita village, Olgulului group ranch would gain fame and a special name in the community. This dichotomy has guided conservation efforts in such landscapes, although, as Mara Goldman and others argue, it ‘limits its analytical power and its usefulness in informing conservation strategy’. For example, through the dichotomy, lion killings motivated by conservation politics (e.g. loss of grazing land or water sources as a result of creation of protected areas) are not fully accounted for. The same dichotomy returns in the Greater Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem, in which some stakeholders suggest that many of the lion killings are attributed to livestock loss (hence the need to reinforce bomas) and cultural killings to gain status and defend communities.

More research beyond the dichotomy is needed, especially into the social, economic and cultural aspects, as well as the politics of lion conservation. As Amy Dickman points out, conflict mitigation strategies, including human-lion conflicts, should be broad and targeted towards a wide range of species and ecological contexts. This would allow for nuanced analysis of all issues and therefore, a better understanding of the conflicts and design of more appropriate mitigation strategies.

The Predator Compensation Fund in Imbirikani group ranch

The Predator Compensation Fund (PCF) is one of the approaches used by the Big Life Foundation to protect vulnerable predators such as lions in the ecosystem. The Fund is currently implemented in Imbirikani and Eselengei group ranches.

The Imbirikani Group Ranch is part of the group ranches that form the Greater Amboseli Ecosystem. Big Life Foundation manages this ranch in collaboration with communities, state agencies and other NGOs such as the Lion Guardians, to protect and sustain East Africa’s wildlife and wild lands. Due to internal conflicts and mistrust, it was discontinued in Olgulului group ranch and efforts are underway to roll it back.

The Fund pays Maasai livestock owners a portion of the total value of the livestock lost to predators. In return, the owners must not kill the predators (lions) in retaliation. The Fund has been sustainable due to robust governance arrangements. While the NGO contributes 70 percent to the fund, the community group ranch contributes 30 percent. There is an efficient monitoring system involving the communities; and the communities have collectively endorsed rules and regulations for compensation. Payments are made regularly and timely (every 2 months), and any complaints from the owners are resolved by a specially set committee composed of community leaders and the NGO’s officials. There is transparency and accountability in implementing the guidelines for compensation and funds disbursement. For instance, there is a transparent claim verification process. This has, to a large extent, reduced the moral hazard – the propensity of livestock keepers to neglect defensive actions against predators due to availability of compensation -, which is inherent in compensation and insurance schemes elsewhere. As such, it may lead to more livestock depredation in the absence of collectively agreed rules and guidelines.

Thanks to the PCF and active patrol by 228 trained rangers working alongside the Kenya Wildlife Service, retaliatory killings of lions have been reduced – and their population is now growing, and not decreasing as in other parts of Africa. The Fund’s programme manager and former chairman of Imbirikani group ranch noted that due to the programme’s success, the Kenyan government through Kenya Wildlife Services is learning some best practices to develop its own guidelines for a nationwide wildlife compensation scheme.”

For part 2 of Wilhelm’s reflections on what this means for convivial conservation and CONVIVA in Tanzania, please click here.