After 4 weeks of ‘proper nourishment’, Shujaa, one of the Anatolian shepherd dogs, has left Ruaha Carnivore Project’s (RCP) basecamp and returned to his owner, a pastoralist in the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem. These efforts are part of RCP’s mission to reduce human-carnivore conflict in this ecosystem. Anatolian shepherds are livestock guarding dogs who are capable of protecting the pastoralist communities from lions, hyenas, leopards, and wild dogs. The pastoralists are responsible for naming the dog, feeding (although RCP provides pellets that are crucial part of the dog’s diet in the first 8 months), shelter and cleaning the dog. Shujaa, which means ‘Hero’ in Kiswahili, is part of the first litter of Anatolians that RCP gave to the pastoralists as part of this initiative. Shujaa’s siblings are Hodari and Jasiri, which mean ‘Hardworking’ and ‘Brave’ respectively in Kiswahili. Members of RCP regularly check on the Anatolians to ensure that they are healthy, free of disease, and well looked after. Unfortunately during a recent check Shujaa, unlike his siblings, was unwell and Msago, RCP’s community liason officer, had to bring him back to the camp to nurse him back to health. Msago and RCP are continually fighting a ‘war against ribs.’
It is relatively easy to tell if a dog is unwell as the ribs of the animal will show through the skin. The Anatolians work very hard in this landscape protecting the livestock and the villagers from carnivores. They burn a tremendous amount of calories in their day-to-day work and it can be challenging to keep their weight up. The owners of Shujaa were not pleased about letting him go for a couple of weeks but they fully understood that it was a necessary precaution, and also for their own benefit in the long term. Further, it can be very hard for the dog to be separated from the community. The relationship between Anatolian and their community is clearly reciprocal. The people benefit from the dog’s protection and the dog benefits from the enjoyment of the work and the communal affection. At the basecamp, Shujaa was kept company by Busara, meaning ‘Wisdom’ in Kiswahili, who is part of the second litter of Anatolian dogs at RCP. Busara was named by RCP camp manager Sonja Lipenga and remains in the camp’s enclosure. Busara’s siblings are already posted in the nearby villages. Her siblings are Duma (Cheetah in Kiswahili), Chui (Leopard), Tiger and John. All the dogs are visited three times per week by RCP staff to ensure they are in good health. Two of the visits are just regular checks and discussions with owners of the dogs to get updates on their status, but the dogs do not need to be present for such visits. The dogs are often not present as they will be working in the grazing landscapes protecting the livestock. However, every Friday, the visits are more detailed and the RCP staff usually inform the owners of the dogs beforehand to keep them at their enclosures. The staff weigh the dogs, check for ectoparasites, and give the dogs medication when applicable. If the situation warrants, RCP arranges for veterinary officers to provide treatment to the dogs. Nonetheless, the pastoralists are doing a great job at taking care of the dogs. I remember one instance where one villager was informed that her dog had lost about 1kg from the previous visit and she was worried. She vowed to do better. The pastoralists acknowledge the importance of the dogs and their role in warding off carnivores. They obviously want the dogs to be in the best shape possible and thus, they are also committed to the war on ribs.
Mitigating human-carnivore conflict is no easy task. While the dogs provide a good defense against carnivores, in some instances, cattle may stray from the herd and roam in the wild. Such was the case this week when two heavily pregnant cows and a bull went astray. The two cows were killed by lions while the bull has still not been located. In retaliation, the villagers killed two lions, one male and one female. In such instances, the villagers usually inform RCP and the corresponding village’s lion guardian. A lion guardian is a local villager who is responsible for looking out for any signs such as tracks and scat, of carnivores roaming around the villages and usually informs herders to avoid areas where there are such signs. When the two cows were killed, Msago, Leandro, Enock (RCP member), Tom (RCP intern) and I went to visit the area where the cows and lions were killed. We were joined by two lion guardians, George and Stefano. When we arrived, the local villagers had already organized a meeting and were talking about the whole situation. The initial part of the meeting was in Barabaig (a local dialect) and some of the villagers wanted their local lion guardian to allow them to go after the other lions that escaped (the two lions that were killed were part of a larger pride), while other villagers were against the idea. The villagers took turns to express their sadness and anger in their dialect. George and Stefano were translating for us so that we could keep up with the turn of events.
Msago took to the stage to address the villagers. He spoke in Kiswahili and gave a marvelous talk about working together with RCP and the lion guardians to reduce retaliatory killings. He emphasized the fact that RCP’s work is based on research to cater for the needs for both carnivores and humans in the Ruaha ecosystem. He used the analogy of the two sides of a coin or paper money in Tanzania in order for the villages to get the benefits from their environment. On one side, there’s the face of an important person or important buildings in Tanzania, but on the other side, there are also animals, either an elephant, lion, or giraffe. He finished by saying that protecting the animals would require a collective effort from the government, the villagers, including the lion guardians, and RCP. Right after his talk, the villagers spoke in Kiswahili and agreed to take us to the site. They said that they do not actively go after lions but killed them out of anger. Msago had won back their trust. It is really a great honor learning from Msago’s experience with community work. It is clear that the Anatolian shepherd dog program and the other efforts of RCP are working in this landscape. Each year that the project has been working in this system, the number of carnivore killings has gone down. However, livestock hold tremendous cultural and economic value in this region and retaliations for carnivore killings do occur. The development of viable, intelligent solutions that embrace the fabric of these pastoralist cultures holds great promise.