Sightings — old airstrip pride, lioness with one eye. Credit: Vincent Kavaya from Mwagusi Safari Camp

The biggest threat to African lions isn’t trophy hunters, it’s their lack of value to local people

Lanisha Butterfield interviews WildCRU’s Amy Dickman

Oxford University
Aug 24, 2017 · 12 min read

Lion populations are at a tipping point.

There are now fewer than 25,000 left in the wild. But while there is general public appreciation of the consequences of a decline in the lion population, the causes behind the fall are less understood.

Public outcry flooded social media when Cecil the lion’s son, Xanda, was killed by a hunter in Zimbabwe in July, meeting the same fate as his father a year before. Big game trophy hunting is one of the most widely reviled threats to the lion population, and consequently one of the most discussed. However, the biggest single threat to the future of wild big cats is not trophy hunting. It is direct, everyday conflict with humans. An issue that has not yet captured public consciousness in the same way.

In 2011, 37 lions were killed in the area around a single village. That’s the equivalent of half the wild lions lost to trophy killings across the whole of Africa, in a year.

For some groups in Africa, such as the Barabaig and Maasai tribes of Tanzania, lion hunting is a cultural norm. Lions are considered a vermin, akin to rats in the city or foxes on farms. They are a very real danger to local people’s families and their livestock — very few of us would be happy having lions roaming around and threatening us, especially with no means of protecting ourselves. In these parts of Africa, a local person who kills a big cat is lauded by the community, and the killing is considered a mark of status and bravery.

Dr Amy Dickman of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) is working to protect the lion prides of Africa in southern Tanzania, along with her team at the Ruaha Carnivore Project. By offering incentives for conservation to the community, they have encouraged local people to value lions rather than regarding them mainly as a dangerous pest. Since the project launched six years ago, carnivore attacks on livestock in these communities have been reduced by 60%, and big cat killings have decreased by 80%.

Here, Dr Dickman explains the challenges of raising public awareness about human-lion conflict, and her unique approach to lion conservation.

Why do you think there is such active public interest in trophy-hunting, compared to everyday human carnivore conflict?

Trophy hunting gets a lot of press because it’s a very public activity, and the images of the killings are widely displayed. Many people find it morally abhorrent, so it spreads like wildfire on social media.

The number of lions killed in everyday human conflicts is probably dozens of times higher than the number killed in trophy hunting. But it’s hard to track and monitor, so the wider world doesn’t see it. Even if they do, there is a reluctance to come down against tribal culture. It’s easy to demonise a western dentist who shoots a lion on a trophy hunting trip — as was the case for Dr Walter James Palmer, who earned instant global notoriety when he killed Cecil the lion. But a tribal warrior, not so much.

Tribal lion killers don’t post all over Facebook, but they make it common knowledge in the community. In our area, when a lion is killed, its front right paw is cut off, and the hunter then carries the animal’s claw as proof of their kill. Killing a carnivore earns people respect, status and even gifts like cattle from the rest of the community.

What inspired you to focus your work in Ruaha, Tanzania?

Ruaha is not well known outside of Africa, but it is the biggest national park in Eastern Africa and home to a tenth of the world’s lions.

I had never heard of it when I was assigned the post. I first heard about it when I was visiting other researchers in the Serengeti, which was everything I had hoped it would be: cheetahs climbing on the car, beautiful lodges and amazing scenery.

But there were too many people working there for my contribution to be useful. When we first started, there was no dedicated carnivore conservation going on in Ruaha, so there was a real opportunity to make a difference.

At first I felt like I had been banished and it was very much my second choice, but now I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.

How did you go about getting started?

The relationship and project have grown over time, but initially there was fear on both sides.

The Barabaig and Maasai warriors — who are responsible for a lot of the wildlife killing in the area — are two of the most impenetrable tribes in the world. We launched the project with $50k worth of funding (the project now costs $400,000 annually, which I spend most of my time trying to raise), and asked if we could set up camp.

People often talk about it being harder as a woman in science, but in African conservation, the woman thing is totally eclipsed by the white thing. Being white, foreign, female — and at the time single with no children — no one wanted to talk to me.

They had never seen a white person before and in my shorts, with my long hair, I was ‘other’ and like an alien to them. They didn’t know why I was there. They later told me that they had assumed I was a man or a prostitute. Some thought we were chopping up bodies for witchcraft.

What was your breakthrough moment?

We tried all the traditional ways, such as attending community meetings, but nothing worked. I was ready to give up. They were just too hostile. The thing that saved us was completely 21st century; letting the tribe charge their phones with our solar panels. We had put them up to power our devices, and were stunned when after years basically ignoring us, they emerged from the bush to do the same thing.

Thinking about it now, it makes total sense. Our links to the wider world are the last thing any of us would give up, so why would they? They use their mobiles for everything from livestock prices to WhatsApp location tracking, a mix of real tribal culture and modern tech.

How did you go from letting then charge their phones to working with them to save wild lions?

When we eventually made a connection, they told us that they kill lions and hyenas all the time. They even showed us some of the carcasses and it emerged that the area had the highest recorded rate of lion killing in East Africa.

After spending so long earning their trust, we didn’t want to just tell them what to do. A top down approach can be really counterproductive in tribal communities. We wanted to understand how much killing was going on, and see if there was anything that we could do to make the wildlife more of a social benefit than a pest.

At the moment they impose a lot of costs on local people, and almost no benefits. You have to switch that around, so the costs come down, and the benefits go up.

How does the Ruaha Carnivore Project achieve its aims?

Lions have incredible international value, but in most places they are currently worth more to local people dead than they are alive.

If we want them to protect their wildlife, they have to value it as something that actually brings them some benefit — and that means giving it a tangible value. If the presence of this wildlife improves their lives, they are going to want to keep it there.

We worked with the communities to understand their needs, and incentivise protecting the wildlife. Their concerns, particularly for the women in the group, were the same as they would be for any of us: economic stability, healthcare, education for their children and veterinary health for their livestock. Therefore, we have developed programmes in all these areas, and made the link between those benefits and wildlife conservation very clear.

What is a Lion Defender?

Of all the benefits of lion killing, the big thing was cattle. Young men may be awarded gifts of cattle for killing a lion, and they said they could not acquire as many of their own cattle any other way. So, we gave them a way. We employ the warriors to be Lion Defenders, instead of killers. We work with a group called Lion Guardians in Kenya, and Panthera, who sponsor a lot of our work, to engage the young warriors. In return for protecting the lions, they get a monthly wage, which they can use to buy cattle.

Lion Defenders stop the hunts as they happen. They live in the community, so they hear about things and can intervene. They make it clear that lion hunting hurts the community and stops local people from getting all of the benefits that now come from protecting the species.

Do you offer any other incentives?

No single initiative would address all of their needs, so we made small changes with knock-on benefits for real impact.

Status was another key reason for lion-killing. The only other thing that carried the same level of social recognition as lion killing was being able to read and write. Often, one person in a village is semi-literate, and they perform all reading and writing tasks for the community — charging a small fortune for their time. So, we started offering literacy classes.

We also run a school scholarship programme and a school twinning project, where international schools provide vital funds for local schools. We also run a porridge project to ensure children get a hot meal during the school day. Some walk about five miles to get there, and there is no way they could concentrate on an empty stomach. We also work with local healthcare services to provide better maternal and infant health.

To protect cattle — the bread and butter of the community — we reinforce animal enclosures with strong wire to stop the big cats getting in, and have also placed specialised livestock guarding dogs. Local people contribute to these costs, as keeping their livestock safe gives them economic security. But we offer veterinary medicines in return, so there is always a benefit.

Do you think local people are engaged with the project, or protecting the lions in general?

We introduced Community Camera Trapping, where the villagers run and monitor camera-traps (cameras which automatically take photos when an animal passes), and the villagers receive points for every image captured. These points translate into extra money for the community, around $5000 per village, every three months, which goes towards healthcare, education and veterinary medicine. That programme has really demonstrated that the presence of wildlife on village land directly generates important community benefits.

How have local people responded to the programme?

People can see that just capturing the image of a single lion on village land can earn you 15,000 points, which translates into important healthcare, education and veterinary benefits. Keeping it there guarantees long term income. A win-win.

We started out literally begging them to talk to us, now they come to us and ask how they can earn more points. It has become very competitive, villages compete against each other, and in the process manage their own wildlife.

Rather than rewarding people for killing lions, we see local hunters being publicly shamed for killing them. Which is a big thing for a tribe, and a huge change since the beginning of our work.

What has been your biggest learning curve?

That people are people no matter where you go, and everyone’s needs are fairly similar. On the surface, tribal communities are totally different form us. But, the more you work with them and learn how their societies work, the more you see the similarities and universality of need.

We have a lot more in common than we think. Once we had got closer to them and the women engaged with me more they would ask me why I didn’t have a husband. At the time I just didn’t have one. But, in their culture women get married very young and they just couldn’t deal with it, it clearly troubled them. One day a group of Masaai women came to me and said ‘we’ve been thinking about it, are you single because you don’t have cattle? Because we can get you cattle’. Very sweet.

But, once I got married — and particularly after I had my daughter Millie, I became normal and an actual person, rather than this strange outsider. Her middle name is Kitisi, after the village we live in — and the community love that. They call me Mama Kitisi now.

What’s next for the project?

At the moment there are 22 villages in the local area and we cover 12. In the next five years we would like to expand our key programmes to cover all 22.

Personally, I am looking forward to bringing my daughter to Ruaha for the first time, showing her this beautiful place and the reason Mummy has to go away sometimes.

What is the one thing that you would like people to know about lion killing?

When people say that lions will be extinct in 10 years that is not true. There will be lions in core protected areas. But their position in the wild is under threat — and local people are losing something that has huge international value and could be a huge asset in terms of their development.

Lions have been inspiring people for generations. It is genuinely up to us whether it stays that way. Lion conservation is expensive, and local people live on less than a dollar a day, so we cannot expect them to bear the costs of conservation. The wider world sees this value, so we need to pay for it. If people choose not to do that that’s fine. But that’s a choice that we have to own.

What is the biggest challenge in your work?

Trying to break in with the community was an uphill struggle. But, since becoming a mother, and having to split my life so much, I would have to say that. When I thought about having a child, I was most worried about the practicalities of how it would affect my scientific outputs. I was not prepared for how much it would rip my heart in half.

You have your passion for the work, and your desire to be with your baby all the time. My husband doesn’t work in the field, so he’s in the UK, and she stays at home with him, with the help of her grandmothers.

We had originally agreed that I can bring her with me once she turns two. But, that was before she was born, and my husband fell in love with her. Now he says ‘two, did I say two? I meant 22.’

What motivates you?

The state of the world can leave people feeling disempowered, like they can’t change things. I am fortunate to be in the rare position where I am learning that you can do more than you think you can. Anything you do can have an impact, you may not see it, but it will.

I genuinely feel that this project improves people’s lives and we are securing a better future for the wildlife.

When did your passion for big cats begin?

As a child I would drag my family to the zoo at every opportunity. There is a classic picture of me in which I am meant to be bottle-feeding one of my sisters, but I am totally ignoring her. She is virtually falling off the sofa, and I am just sitting there, absorbed in my Big Book of Big Cats.

When I was 10 years old my sisters and I made a time capsule of our plans for our life when we are 30. Mine was: ‘I am going to be working in the Serengeti with lions.’ And I actually spent my 30th birthday doing exactly that — dreams do come true.

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Want to read more? Try our articles on social and ecological wellbeing in sustainable chocolate, Girls’ diverging pathways to marriage and The Lion, the Web and the WildCRU.

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Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact:

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Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: