I have spent the summer in the Maasai steppe region of Northern Tanzania for the first field season of my PhD here in the Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey (RECaP) Lab. I’ve been working with fellow RECaP student Rose Kaihula to conduct interviews with local livestock-owners about human-carnivore conflict. As part of my research I am interested in evaluating patterns in carnivore attacks of livestock at the boma – the traditional thornbush corral that is used to protect livestock at night. My interviews have centered on the perceptions held by local people relating to the frequency and intensity of livestock depredation at the boma, with questions about the number of livestock they’ve lost and the carnivores responsible for those attacks.
Although I know the basics of Swahili, I’m far from fluent, so Rose takes the lead in our interviews. While my Swahili comprehension has increased exponentially throughout the past few months, as soon as the conversation breaks away from the general pattern we’ve established in our interviews, I get lost pretty quickly. To compensate, I have begun to pay close attention to body language, tone of voice, and any other hints that might help me keep up and respond appropriately.
Rose, Jackson, and I stiffened with shock as the mzee’s wife interrupted, speaking over her husband. She didn’t yell, but the harshness and pain in her tone made her emotions very clear, even if I couldn’t follow her quickly spoken words. After this very brief interjection, she turned and departed. The rest of us remained sitting in painful silence. Eventually, the mzee stood up, sighing, and beckoned us toward the boma entrance. The three of us followed behind him and Rose quickly filled me in under her breath as we walked toward the farm behind the boma.
The story is tragic and all too common in this region. The family’s eldest son had been killed by an elephant in 2013 while trying to chase a herd of the animals out of their farm - he was 22 years old. The family reported their loss to the authorities who came and conducted multiple rounds of interviews, gathering all the details of the incident and taking hundreds of photos. All apparently for nothing. The family had been forced to relive their catastrophic loss over and over and over again, and they’d never received anything from the government. No compensation. No assistance. Not a word. The family lost their son and their farm, which was destroyed by the same herd of elephants. Thus, they had no choice but to pick themselves up and keep going to make sure they didn’t lose their other two sons to starvation. I finally understood the emotions that I was seeing during the interview, and I could feel the weight of them on me as well, along with a slight discomfort in my chest as the meaning of the mother’s words become obvious. As I tentatively asked Rose, “And what did she say?” my suspicions were confirmed.
“Why are you here? To make us relive his death again? To remind me of my dead son? We have told our story more times that I can count, and no one has ever helped us. Just leave us to mourn him in peace.“
Her words echoed in my head as her husband and second son led us to their farm and showed a swath of ruined crops from another elephant visit just a few days before. After walking us around, the mzee turned and met my eyes squarely, asking a question in Swahili that I understood because I’d heard it at the end of every single interview up until that point. However, this was the first time that I really felt the words, truly understood the meaning and the pain behind them. “What is the point of your research? What help can you give us?” In response, we repeated the answer that we’ve used consistently up until this point: “We’re just in our first year, we’re using our conversations this summer to develop a better idea of what would really be useful and valuable here. Next year, we’ll be back to do something more tangible, but we won’t know what that is until we’ve had a chance to analyze our data from this summer.” He nodded, with a look in his eye that said he didn’t really believe us. Even so, as we walked away, he pulled a few ears of maize off of the plants that were still standing and handed them to us as a gift.
My doctoral research is centered on a specific aspect of human-carnivore conflict – optimization of conflict mitigation efforts from advance pattern-recognition approaches. In other words, analyzing long-term patterns in human-carnivore conflict to make sure that we’re using our limited resources and time effectively and efficiently. To do so, we first need to know the details of what is happening at a fine scale. Approximately 80% of all livestock that are killed in this region are taken at night from the boma, so I have decided to collect my data at that household level. My eventual goal is to determine which carnivore species visit bomas in different parts of the study area (staking out potential meals, if you will), which ones actually attack livestock at those bomas, and how often these two interactions occur. The resulting patterns can provide insights into what types of deterrents might be most effective to protect livestock against different carnivores. Less buck, more bang. The bang here being a reduction in the effects of living with large carnivores, especially in terms of loss of livestock. This summer, my interviews have honed in on one particular aspect of that issue, and I’ve been asking each family how often their boma is attacked by carnivores (specifically lions, leopards, hyenas, and jackals) as well as which carnivore species people think poses the greatest threat to their livestock and livelihood.
In some ways it is reassuring to see my academic predictions come true, but I also seem to have fallen into a careful what you wish for trap. For example, the mzee whose son was killed almost laughed when Rose asked how often lions attack his boma. They hadn’t seen lions at their boma in years, and have never lost livestock to them. But the rest of the story derails the perfect academic narrative I had anticipated. He doesn’t rant about the effect hyenas have on his livelihood. Although hyenas attack his boma on a regular basis, he almost shrugs it off. They know how to deal with that problem, they have dogs and flashlights that are effective at chasing the animals away. In the past few years he hasn’t lost any livestock to hyenas either. His life was torn apart by the largest herbivore in the land instead. The one that had developed a taste for maize.
As a girl who has dreamed of studying African carnivores since my pre-teen days, and has finally been given the chance to do it, these experiences have shaken my foundation. In a circular fashion, I find myself again asking the big question: what if my research can’t provide the knowledge that local people need to sustainably interact with wildlife?
I have spent my entire career learning about carnivores, their ecology, behavior, and interactions with humans. In comparison, I know next to nothing about elephants. I have no preparation to provide help or advice for that brand of conflict. While I will continue to focus my research on carnivores, this experience has taught me a very important lesson. As a scientist studying the intersection between humans and wildlife, I have to pay as much attention to the human stories as the ecological ones. Those voices haven’t been telling me to become an elephant expert, they’ve just been telling me to listen and not take people’s time for granted.
In many ways, the language barrier this summer has been a gift because it has forced me to spend a season doing just that - listening. I’ve begun to truly understand that I can’t insert myself into the personal experience of other people and tell them what they need or what will make their lives better. The people who share their landscapes with fierce carnivores and gigantic herbivores are the only ones who can truly know that, and it is my responsibility to take those lessons and use my platform and privilege to help as best I can. Instead of using local people to help me get a PhD, I need to use the resources I’ve been granted during my degree to take the actions that will directly benefit these people. What those actions are and how I can best adapt my project to make a positive impact, I’m not yet sure (after all, I do actually have to analyze this summer’s data first). But I know that the way I see the data has irrevocably changed. Every number is a story, a hardship, a loved one lost, and must be treated with the gratitude and respect it deserves. Maybe I can’t personally solve the elephant problem here, but I can take the time to make sure that my carnivore research makes a positive impact on the lives of local people and that I carry it out in a way that is primarily informed by their experience, not mine.
There is one other interview that has been permanently fixed in my mind, this time with a young Maasai man who answered every question with incredible thoughtfulness. When given the chance to ask questions or make comments at the end of the session, he looked at us with absolute sincerity and said “There are three types of research: the kind that makes a positive difference, the kind that hurts us, and the kind that just takes information and leaves. Which one are you doing?”