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

Why contexts matter: Comparing similar conflict experiences in different landscapes and implications for convivial conservation

By Wilhelm Kiwango, The University of Dodoma (Tanzania)

For Part 1 of Wilhelm’s reflections particularly on his experience with Lion Guardians in Kenya, please click here.

Different contexts, yet similar conflict experiences

Ruaha National Park, Tanzania

The Greater Ruaha-Rungwe ecosystem is a large (approximately 50,000 km2) and complex landscape. It consists of Ruaha and Kizigo National Parks, Rungwa and Muhesi Game Reserves, two Wildlife Management Areas and Lunda Mkwambi Game controlled areas.

In the ecosystem, dominant ethnic communities are not only Maasai, but also Barbaig, Hehe, Bena and Sukuma, all living in the same landscape. The Maasai and Barbaig are predominantly pastoralists, while the Sukuma are agro-pastoralists. The Hehe and Bena are predominantly cultivators. This contrasts sharply with how the Maasai dominate the Greater Amboseli ecosystem in southern Kenya. Yet, ethnicity is one of the determinants of human-wildlife conflicts, in particular for carnivore-related conflict. This implies inter- and intra-ethnic differences in how conflicts are perceived and mitigated. Applying similar conflict mitigation techniques in such a diverse social-cultural setting can be difficult, and strategies to address conflicts must fully consider these aspects, including conservation politics affecting pastoral communities in Tanzania and beyond.

The Greater Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem also comprises of a multiple land-use system that includes livestock-keeping and cultivation. As such, when wildlife ventures outside the protected areas’ boundaries, they immediately face crop farms and livestock belonging to local communities. Crop damage by elephants (Loxodonta africana) and other wildlife is therefore common in the area, and increasing along with carnivore attacks on livestock (livestock depredation).

On the other hand, the Greater Amboseli ecosystem comprises of 5,975 km2 between Amboseli, Chyulu Hills, Tsavo and Kilimanjaro National Parks, in southern Kenya. Eight community group ranches and several community sanctuaries surround the Amboseli National Park. I personally visited Olgulului and Imbirikani group ranches.

The area experiences erratic rainfall ranging from 158-553mm per annum, with frequent and intensifying droughts. This has had an impact on people, wildlife and livestock, as one elderly interviewee accounted.

Nonetheless, one of the fascinating sceneries in the ecosystem is the grazing side-by-side of livestock and wildlife. This is made possible by: the free movement of wildlife between the National Park, community sanctuaries, group ranches and the Maasai traditional lifestyle; and institutional arrangements that discourages killing of wildlife without a valid reason, promoting co-existence. The Maasai community has been living in the area over a long period of time. Despite the costs associated with living with wildlife populations, they have learned to live with them. One Maasai elder in Olgulului group ranch claimed that “We realise that despite the fact that human wildlife conflict existed before the project [Lion Guardians], it gives us some benefits so we are now more motivated to live with them”.  

However, the same cannot be said of the Greater Ruaha-Rungwe ecosystem, because the established protected areas in the ecosystem are under strict government laws and policies. Under this arrangement, all wildlife belongs to the state and people cannot kill them unless under self defence (Wildlife Conservation Act, No 5; 2009, § 73). Since the protected areas are not fenced, wildlife and specifically carnivores move out to different surrounding ethnic communities, risking their lives in search for water and food. They are often killed in retaliation, although prosecution of the culprits is rare probably due to difficulties in identifying and isolating offenders.  

Lessons for ‘convivial conservation’

The human-lion co-existence programmes that the Lion Guardians and Big Life Foundation implement in the Greater Amboseli ecosystem have been beneficial to the surrounding communities. For instance, Lion Guardians have employed 40 lion guardians. The organisation also has subsidised some school teachers’ salaries in exchange for promotion of conservation education in their schools. In addition, communities benefit from: provision of transport, especially for the sick, recovery of injured livestock, fencing of bomas (kraals); and participation of the programme’s staff in fundraising events within the communities. On the other hand, the Big Life foundation compensates lost livestock through the Predator Compensation Fund (PCF), in addition to other community benefits similar to the Lion Guardians. These benefits are thought to have encouraged co-existence and mitigated conflicts proactively.

However, despite these benefits, challenges still remain, offering vital lessons for ‘convivial conservation’ to other lion-dominated landscapes such as the Greater Ruaha-Rungwe ecosystem. For example, retaliatory killings are conducted more discretely through poisoning of carcasses which, when eaten by Lions or other predators, proves to be lethal. Poisoning   may have far-reaching consequences in the ecosystem, including the killing of unintended species. In the last few decades, deliberate poisoning has become one of the most serious threats to large carnivores in Africa. On the other hand, different approaches taken by the many conservation partners in the Greater Amboseli ecosystem, such as the Predator Compensation Fund, and the use of uniformed rangers similar to KWS carry mixed messages to the local communities who are largely related and homogeneous.

Further, the land subdivision and permanent settlement in the ecosystem, coupled with frequent and prolonged droughts, threaten the viability of the ecosystem – resentment also echoed throughout the discussions in the two ranches. Concerned communities are worried about the outcomes of land subdivision in the area which result in more parcelling of land. Parcelled land restricts livestock and wildlife movements, and the effects of parcelling are exacerbated by immigration into the ecosystem by other ethnic groups who engage in other land uses, such as agriculture and permanent settlements.

Obviously, the methods to reduce human-wildlife conflicts in the ecosystem could be borrowed as best practices and implemented elsewhere, such as in the Greater Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem. However, this would need a more detailed study to account for contextual differences in ethnicity, climatic and ecological conditions; motivations, and different governance arrangements. A systemic transformation aimed at understanding social-ecological and socio-technical systems would be indispensable in this case in order to orient conservation towards the vision of convivial conservation. Through systemic transformation, the CONVIVA project in Tanzania will promote co-existence (living with) between communities and lions, in line with the vision.  In addition, engaging local communities democratically will lead to more understanding of their motivations for living in lion-dominated landscapes. Their local knowledge of nature is imperative in co-designing governance arrangements that will foster co-existence and reduce frictions in the current top-down management of wild landscapes – which often ignores local opinions while valuing technocratic expertise.