Africa’s lion population is agonisingly low. In Tanzania, Amy Dickman, a Devon-born conservation biologist, is working to help local tribes live in harmony with these wild beasts, and to save them from all-too-possible extinction.
Amy Dickman has always been fascinated by big cats, and as a student, on her first project in Tanzania, she felt she had arrived. She had been working with cheetahs in Namibia for six years, and now she would be working with lions. Pitching up at the camp on the edge of the Great Ruaha River, she was impressed with the accommodation: spacious canvas tents built securely on wooden platforms.
She was less dazzled when she was shown her own quarters – a small two-man ‘pup tent’ of the type that people take to Glastonbury and throw away afterwards – and even less impressed when she noticed tracks in the mud indicating that the tent was parked directly on a hippo trail from the river. So she moved it off the hippo trail and went to bed.
But, she says, on such a project, in the daytime you are 95 per cent trained biologist and five per cent terrified human. At night it’s the other way round. Darkness fell, accompanied by the roaring of lions. ‘Relax,’ Dickman told herself, ‘that’s why you’re here, to study lions.’ And it’s a fairly sound theory that if the tent is zipped up, it appears like a solid object to a lion – one that it is unlikely to broach.
But the roars got louder, and closer. Suddenly, there was a very loud roar indeed. Through the cheap material Dickman could see a huge lion silhouetted in the moonlight. ‘He was actually bigger than the tent. I thought, “Oh my God.”’ The lion approached and started sniffing around. Stiff with terror, Dickman began searching surreptitiously for a weapon. She came up with her Leatherman pocket knife.
‘I thought, “If he comes in here, I will slit his throat…”’ – then she looked again and saw his huge shaggy mane, ‘and I realised that the chance of doing that was zero. I put my hand in my bag again and found my deodorant spray. Now I had a plan: I would blind him with deodorant and then stab him.’
The lion leant casually against the tent, sprang back – he had probably thought it was a rock and not expected it to move – then resettled himself comfortably, the whole tent bowing beneath his weight, so that he was lying on it, and on Dickman’s arm. The arm that was holding the Leatherman.
Dickman’s heart was beating as if it would explode. ‘All I had was the deodorant spray, which is obviously a rubbish lion-killing tool, and it was too risky to wriggle my other hand out, so I just lay there, and a few minutes later I heard him snoring.’ She was trapped, her arm was numb, and the tent became hotter and hotter until she thought she would die of heat exhaustion. In the end she must have passed out.
‘Because the next thing I knew it was morning and there was sunlight streaming in, and the tent was back to its normal shape.’ After that she got her own proper tent with a platform. And she has a similar one now, at her camp in Kitisi village, near Ruaha National Park, though the platform is rather rudimentary.
She also has a lavatory that looks like a small brick throne, an open-air kitchen, two operations managers, Tanzanian researchers and several other employees living at what is now the headquarters of the Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP), established here some eight years ago. And despite that earlier experience, her love for lions is unabated. But the sad truth is that the lion population in Africa has been decimated: in the past 20 years, numbers have halved.
A lion population in danger
Today, there are fewer than 25,000 wild lions left – making them as rare on the continent as rhinos. And contrary to popular opinion, this is not due to high-profile issues such as trophy hunting; the main cause of the decline is human- carnivore conflict. Ruaha is, at over 20,000 sq km, east Africa’s biggest national park. But only about half of the lion range is within it.
The park is unfenced, and the larger landscape – through which lions and other animals range at will – covers an area of over 50,000 sq km (bigger than Denmark). At certain times of year – when the rain hits, for example – wild prey disperses and conflict spikes on village land. It becomes easier for lions to pick off poorly guarded livestock, which is plentiful here – this is an area replete with cattle.
Among the Maasai and Barabaig tribes in particular, lion hunting is a cultural tradition, with young warriors using it to prove their bravery, accumulate wealth (cattle are given to them as a reward) and increase their status in the community.
It is also a form of retaliation for lions killing livestock. Cattle here are sacrosanct. Goats are cash, cows are savings in the bank. Livestock is used as dowry, investment and means of largesse; it is everything.
Dickman wants to save lions, and conserve habitat, and benefit the local community. But, as she points out, it would be patronising to tell the local population to protect lions for nothing in return. Why should they? ‘People here don’t care if they never see another lion again – they are worried about where their next meal is coming from; lions are just another threat.’
It is Westerners who want lions, she says, and therefore it is Westerners who should pay for them. As for the locals, as Dickman says, what it comes down to is making a live lion worth more than a dead one. So one of the aims of RCP is to make it worth the locals’ while to protect lions.
‘All too often, people try to stop wildlife killing without understanding the dynamics, and without giving people meaningful incentives for conservation. You’re asking for failure then, because the communities don’t engage – yet again they feel disempowered. I’m a big fan of the community-first approach – we need to sort out the root causes of why people are killing lions.’
In Ruaha, Dickman’s research revealed that those root causes include attacks on livestock, people receiving few or no benefits from wildlife presence, and cultural killing of lions.
It takes a village – or 12
Her team works intensively with 12 villages, but also across 22 villages housing more than 50,000 people, to address all these issues. Most attacks occur inside poorly constructed livestock enclosures, so the project reinforces them with wire. It also gives some families special Anatolian livestock-guarding dogs to protect grazing stock.
These methods have markedly reduced attacks, but for long-term conservation, the advantages of wildlife presence have to outweigh any costs. Villagers voted on what benefits they would most appreciate, and the top three were education, healthcare and veterinary medicine.
Therefore, the project twins village schools with international ones to help provide books and materials, and supplies lunches because otherwise the children – many of whom have walked several kilometres to school – have nothing to eat all day. A nutritious porridge of maize, cornflour, sugar, nuts and milk is served at noon.
Although primary school is free in Tanzania, secondary school can be expensive, so many children, especially girls, are not educated beyond the age of 13. RCP has established ‘Simba scholarships’ to enable promising students who cannot afford fees to go to secondary school.
The project also provides high-quality veterinary medicines and invests in local healthcare, with a focus on maternal and infant care. It provides, too, an unofficial ambulance service, with multiple babies being born in the back of Dickman’s Land Rover.
To reduce cultural killings, RCP has established Lion Defenders – young warriors who might otherwise have been lion killers, whom it employs in a conservation-focused version of a traditional warrior role. They track lions, chase them away if they are near livestock, help find lost stock and children, and prevent lion hunts.
These initiatives were very popular from the outset, but Dickman realised that villagers were attributing the benefits to the project, rather than to the presence of the felines in the first place.
To reinforce the link with wildlife, RCP developed community camera trapping, whereby villagers are employed to place remotely triggered camera traps on their land. Each wildlife image captured scores points – based on the number and species concerned – and every three months these points are translated into additional education, healthcare and veterinary benefits for the community.
Villages compete against one another, so the village with the most wildlife photographs receives the most additional benefits, although they will all receive some. This enterprise has been a huge success.
There were some initial complaints about the amount of points villages were awarded – 10 for a cheetah or a lion, say, or five for a pangolin – but despite it making no difference in relative terms, there was much more response when three zeros were added: 10,000 points for a lion, and so on.
Villagers celebrate their success
Each quarter, there is a celebration in the top-scoring village when prizes are handed over, and this quarter, the presentation is due to take place in Idodi, a few miles along a potholed road from Dickman’s camp. ‘Party time!’ she says, jumping out of the Land Rover.
The village is immaculately kept, with bright-pink flowers planted in neat rectangles, bordered rather endearingly by upturned green plastic 7Up bottles.
A DJ is setting up a sound system in front of the largest baobab tree I’ve ever seen, and Meritho Katei, an RCP research assistant, has taken it upon himself to be the MC and is dancing enthusiastically with some of the villagers. He grew up near here and has 27 siblings (his father has six wives).
A teenager in a wheelchair made out of reconstituted bicycle parts looks on, and behind a table set up with plastic flowers and a pink tablecloth sits Dickman, alongside the village chairmen. The smell of roasting goat is in the air, and all the villagers have turned out to join in the feast.
The proceedings are very protracted, partly because everybody has to introduce themself to the spectators, including me. Dickman makes a speech in Swahili, photographs are taken, and prizes are presented, including a printer and a chair for the school (which has 840 pupils and only seven teachers), medicines for the local clinic and veterinary supplies.
Off to the side, observing proceedings in a slightly diffident manner, are elders from the Barabaig tribe. The villages all have different ethnic compositions, but around this area, there are a lot of Maasai and Barabaig.
Building bridges with the Barabaig
The Barabaig are pastoralists, living on the outskirts of the villages, and they are old-school. They are often know as ‘Mang’ati’, which means ‘the enemy’. They are also, traditionally, avid lion hunters. When Dickman first came here, in late 2009, she started talking to the villagers, but found it impossible to make contact with the Barabaig.
‘We went to their households and they’d be totally empty – there’d be a fire and a goat bleating – they would have run away. Everyone said to us, “You need to talk to the Barabaig,” and we’d say, “Yeah. How?”’ She made little progress, but in 2010, Dickman installed solar panels in her camp, and instantly the Barabaig showed up to charge their phones. ‘They just walked up, not a word, and held out their phones.’
Soon there were queues of people every day. ‘It wasn’t great engagement but it was a start.’ One night, Dickman and her team heard a lot of singing and chanting after what had clearly been a lion hunt. ‘We thought, that’s got to be a celebration of a kill, and we wanted to find out what was happening.’
They drove through the bush towards the noise, as far as they could, then started out on foot. ‘It was a really cloudy night,’ says Dickman, ‘and we were walking through the bush without torches, which was stupid because it turned out there was cattle rustling going on between the Barabaig and the Maasai, so having people creep up on a household was a bit reckless. All of a sudden, we got this feeling that we were being watched.
‘At that moment the clouds parted and down came a shaft of moonlight, and we were totally surrounded by men with spears. Then it was pitch-black again. ‘Msafiri [Mgumba, a research assistant] was with us, and he was shouting, “Research! Research! It’s just us – the idiot researchers from down the road – we aren’t trying to steal your cattle!”’
One of the elders talked to the team, and a meeting was arranged. They discussed fears on both sides. (It turned out, for instance, that the Barabaig had worried about the pots in Dickman’s open kitchen, which they had seen during phone-charging expeditions, thinking they might contain human blood or body parts. She showed them the contents: sugar.) Dickman’s team explained that they were not police or the wildlife division.
‘We told them, “We’re just trying to understand how things work so we can develop conservation strategies.”’ It seemed to go well. Then, the following week, seven lions were killed. ‘We found the bodies. Carcass after carcass. Paws cut off. It was horrendous.’ It was a test, it turned out. To see how the team would react. ‘They wanted to see if we could be trusted to respond in a way that they respect.’
It’s not illegal to kill wildlife in Tanzania, outside the national parks, if it is a threat to humans or livestock, but there are official ways of doing it – you have to get a permit from the authorities. (In Tanzania, the village owns the land but the government owns its wildlife. In Namibia, for instance, the landowner also owns the wildlife, so has a vested interest in it.)
‘If we had handled it in a really heavy-handed way, that would have cut off trust straight away. Instead, we compiled mortality reports, measured the lions, and then just backed off. A few days later they invited us to their traditional meeting in the bush and said, “OK, now we want to work with you.”
‘I know that we have saved far more than seven lions by working closely with the Barabaig,’ Dickman says, ‘but those deaths still hurt.’ At one of the first meetings with the Barabaig, the project’s dogs (Ruaha and Carnivore) were present. They started to get under everyone’s feet, so Dickman told them to sit in Swahili (‘Kiti!’). They sat, and the meeting ground to a halt.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Dickman. One of the elders said, ‘Where did you get the magic dogs?’ ‘What do you mean? They’re not magic – I got them from that guy over there.’ Dickman pointed to Mzee Punyaa. ‘He said, “I would never have given them to you if I’d known they could speak Swahili!”
‘People were amazed – we’d given the dogs the most basic training, but they couldn’t believe that a dog could understand you. It was a bit of a breakthrough, actually, and that eventually led to the Anatolians.’
The Anatolian dogs were bred for guarding livestock – initially in Turkey and then at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, which supplied them. They are large and friendly, with great protective instincts. There is a waiting list for them, but they are not cheap to feed. RCP subsidises this, and also checks that the dogs are being properly looked after. So far nobody with a dog has lost any cattle to lions, and they have successfully chased lions away.
They have a fairly short life expectancy, and Alphonce Mallya, who is in charge of the programme, plans to breed them with local dogs to improve their adaptability to the environment. Despite many challenges, the project has had impressive success: RCP has been recognised by the local government as a major contributor to community development, and lion killings have dropped by 80 per cent in the core area.
Dickman’s love affair with big cats
One afternoon, we take a detour into Ruaha National Park to see some lions. When we spot an impressive male with a huge mane, Dickman lights up, as enthusiastic as if it were her first sighting. Why is she so passionate about lions?
‘They are just so incredible – their power, beauty – and they really symbolise wilderness for me. People have been inspired by lions for millennia, putting them on everything from national flags to football teams. When I think of the countless past generations of people who have been amazed by lions, I realise it is up to us – this one generation right now – whether future generations have wild lions in their world. That is a terrifying responsibility.’
As the animal fades from view, she says with determination, ‘We have to be able to save lions – not only for them, but for us as well. It is too important to not do.’
Dickman grew up in Aylesbeare in Devon, one of four siblings. She was always passionate about big cats, and did a zoology degree at the University of Liverpool, then got a Jerwood fellowship at 21 and went to Namibia with the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). Originally, she went there to work with the Cheetah Conservatiom Fund for six months, but she ended up staying six years – after which she left to go to east Africa.
She visited the Serengeti Cheetah Project with its director, Sarah Durant, and was thrilled at the prospect of working in the Serengeti. However, Durant sent her to Ruaha, which seemed remote and inhospitable in comparison, with fewer researchers, visitors and obvious carnivores.
Dickman came to appreciate the real need for more attention in this incredible wilderness. She did her master’s in biodiversity conservation at Oxford, with fieldwork in Ruaha – when the lion slept on her tent – and continued to do her PhD in Ruaha, supervised by Durant. During her PhD she applied for a five-year fellowship in cat conservation at WildCRU. The brief was to set up an internationally significant conservation project.
Given that nobody had studied Ruaha’s carnivores, and it had the second biggest lion population in the world, the third largest population of endangered African wild dogs, and one of four big cheetah populations in east Africa, it was the ideal site.
So along with two Tanzanians, Alphonce Msigwa and Ayoub Msago, she up set the project in 2009, with two aims: first, to provide data on Ruaha’s carnivores for conservation planning; and second – and more importantly – to better understand and reduce the conflict that was going on here.
It was initially a five-year project, and they had a $50,000 grant – they borrowed a broken-down car and used its battery for electricity – but it has grown and grown, and today costs £20,000 a month to run. Half of Dickman’s job is now raising awareness and funds.
It took a while to find the right location for the camp, as they needed somewhere with mobile coverage, on village land among the tribes who were killing lions, and Dickman wanted a nice view. ‘No one could understand what I meant by “view”,’ she recalls. ‘They said, “You want to look a long way? Why?”’ They found the current location in Kitisi, and cleared it piecemeal.
There are now more than 15 people living at the camp, with a wider project team of over 60 employees. Somewhere along the line Dickman met Marcus Adames, who works in finance, while speed dating (she had agreed to accompany a friend who was in search of a date for Valentine’s Day). ‘We got on well but I was due to come back here in three weeks, though I didn’t tell him that – in the end he came out too.’
When Adames turned up it made Dickman more normal, she says, in the eyes of the locals. They hadn’t understood why she didn’t have a husband. ‘At one point, a few of the Maasai banded together and asked, “Is it because you don’t have cattle? Because we can get you some cattle…’ Dickman had never wanted children. ‘But I knew Marcus did, and he gives up an awful lot for my lifestyle, so I just thought it was too big not to do.’
She worked in Ruaha until she was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant, and Millie Kitisi Adames was born in 2014. ‘Now I feel very pulled between these different loves in my life – my love for my child and my love for this.’ Dickman stayed with Millie in England for six months after she was born, then Adames took six months of paternity leave. Now Dickman does short, intensive stints of anything up to two months in Africa.
During that time, Millie is looked after by her father and enthusiastic grandmothers and aunts, at their home near Oxford. ‘It’s harder and harder to leave her but I still want to do this very much. And every time I think about the pain of leaving Millie, I remember there are women and children here whose lives we’ve saved, and countless families we’ve really made a difference to – to give that up for a little bit of time with my child is selfish,’ Dickman says.
She is planning on bringing Millie out here this year. Dickman is in it for the long haul. All too often, projects like this are set up and then abandoned in favour of the next new idea, and things return to how they were.
‘I want this to be here in 20 years. Lions are in serious trouble, and it is up to us whether they are around for future generations. They have huge international value, but we need to translate that to the local level, so that the presence of wildlife becomes the best way of helping communities escape poverty. Villagers here have shown they are behind the project – if we can get long-term international support as well, I know this could be a real success story for lions and local people.’
To find out more, visit ruahacarnivoreproject.com or email email@example.com