This past week served as another reminder that there’s still more work to be done to mitigate human-carnivore conflict. On Monday morning, just barely after sunrise, we were informed that there was a lion that had killed a stray cow the previous night near our basecamp. The Ruaha Lion Guardians, a group of people expertly trained to intervene in cases of human-lion conflict, quickly mobilized and prepared to head to the site in the hopes of saving the lion from human retaliation. When we arrived, we learned that our efforts were too late as the lion had already been found and killed by the villagers. In light of the past week’s media attention which has been dominated by the story of the American hunter who illegally killed Cecil the lion in Hwange, Zimbabwe, some reading this blog might draw comparisons between that story and this one. With this blog, I hope to make clear just how different these stories actually are. Here I write about the fear and insecurities of the local people that share landscapes with wild-living lions. According to the villagers, a young male lion had been in the vicinity of the village for several days. Though they felt that their livestock were well-protected, one night they could hear a cow being attacked by the lion. The villagers opted not to search for the lion at night because they knew it would be dangerous. The next morning, three children on their way to school heard the lion from a distance and rushed back to the village to alert adult community members. Several men departed to protect their village from the lion. In the process, one man, his son, and stepson were injured by the lion. In the end the villagers overcame and killed the lion.
Upon arriving on site and realizing that we were too late to save the lion, we were frustrated by the turn of events, but also very sad for the experiences of the local people. Msago (Ruaha Carnivore Project’s community liaison officer) rushed the three injured men to the nearest hospital, which was about a 30 minute drive on a very rough dirt road. The villagers informed the village executive officer (VEO), who serves as the chief of the village, of the lion killing and the injuries incurred by the three men. Informing the VEO is a necessary step to ensure that the victims of the lion attack get medical treatment upon arrival at the hospital. If the VEO is not informed, the process of getting treatment tends to become more complicated and takes much longer. After that, the villagers led us to the site where the lion was killed. We took biometric measurements of the lion and assessed the scene of the killing, as outlined by the protocols of RCP. We then had a small meeting with the VEO who revealed to us exactly what had transpired. The children walking to school on the morning of the animal’s death must have been so frightened. Their shoes, books, and other possessions littered the area, evidence of their desperate dash to safety upon discovering the lion. The VEO thanked the villagers for their openness and encouraged them to continue to foster their relationship with RCP and the Guardians who are better placed to intervene in such situations and deter lions from using habitat near the villages. She (the VEO) also urged RCP to keep raising awareness on the need to conserve lions and reduce retaliatory killings via improved livestock husbandry practices.
Ruaha Carnivore Project’s extensive work in this system has provided the villagers with many avenues to access benefits from sharing their landscapes with lions and other carnivores. Such initiatives include park trips (see ‘Sticking my Neck out’), community camera-traps (see ‘Keeping an eye on wildlife’), reinforced bomas, Simba scholarships (see ‘Laying the foundation for a better future’), and Anatolian Shepherd dogs (see ‘War against ribs 1 and part 2’). In addition to these incredible programs, RCP conducts ‘DVD nights’ in the villages to raise awareness of carnivores in the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem. During the DVD night, RCP researchers introduce the project, present interesting findings of their work, and teach the locals carnivore identification so that they can give more accurate reports. The highlight of the DVD night is the airing of a wildlife documentary to expose the locals to the life of carnivores in the wild. This allows the villagers to appreciate the beauty of these majestic animals in their natural environment as opposed to the encounters that happen in the villages when carnivores attack their livestock and threaten villager’s sense of security. The DVD nights also serve as platforms for the villagers to discuss with the RCP researchers any concerns regarding the project.
It was intriguing to talk to the villagers after we had collected the data we needed. The villagers were not visibly angry about the loss of the cow, and stated that they were aware of RCP’s work. Much of this awareness was due to the fact that there had been a DVD night in that specific village only a short while ago. The villagers were not in a celebratory mood either as it was obvious that they do not enjoy killing lions. Clearly, there is no real winner in the conflict between humans and carnivores. However, our work continues to strive to establish equity in the interactions of carnivores and people in the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem.