Meet the Lion Defenders of Tanzania: the hunters turned conservationists of the Barabaig tribe

Historically, the tribe tracked down and killed lions that posed a threat to their community, but with big cat populations declining, a group of conservationists is now helping the Barabaig warriors protect the lions they once hunted.

The lions are classified as vulnerable, with a population of less than 40,000. Amy Dickman, director of the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, says lions have disappeared from more than 90% of their historic range and their numbers have nearly halved in the last 20 years.
Tanzania is home to about 50% of the lion population in sub-Saharan Africa, but conflicts between lions and the people who live alongside them abound. Last year, three children searching for lost cattle were killed in a lion attack near the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in northern Tanzania.

“These types of cases are unfortunately not that uncommon,” says Dickman. “Particularly in southern Tanzania there is a very real risk of living alongside these animals. They pose a genuine threat to people and their safety.”

According to Dickman, there are around 800 lions in the wider Ruaha landscape, although it is difficult to give precise numbers. All of the tribal communities that call the region home struggle to maintain balance with the lions they live with.

lion defenders

For their more familiar neighbors, the Maasai, killing a lion is an important rite of passage for young men. For the Barabaig it is not so closely tied to personal and cultural identity, but it can provide status and wealth.

“If there has been an attack on livestock, the Barabaig will go and start a lion hunt, but it’s not just retaliation,” explains Dickman. She says that the warrior who throws the first spear to wound the lion receives a paw as proof of death. “The girls will pay close attention to them and receive gifts of cattle,” an important economic and cultural asset in the Barabaig community, says Dickman.

She is also co-executive director of the conservation organization Lion Landscapes, which works in Ruaha, as well as in Kenya and Zambia, to protect the big cat. An important element of her job is recruiting “Lion Defenders”. These are members of the community with honed tracking skills and good knowledge of the area.

Amy Dickman (pictured left) and Lion Landscapes work with tribal communities in Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia to reduce the killing of lions.

“The Lion Defenders program has been built around the idea of ​​what it really means to be a warrior,” says Dickman. “To be a warrior is to protect your community, to be someone they can trust, to be someone of high status.”

There are 18 Lion Defenders currently on the show, usually young men between the ages of 18 and 20. Stephano Asecheka, from the Barabaig tribe, acts as an intermediary between these young people and the community. “His task from him is to inspect the border areas early in the morning for lion tracks and tracks to inform herders about the safest grazing areas,” explains Asecheka.

“The challenges facing Lion Defenders are some people in the community who are not supportive of the project,” he says. “(They) refuse to give correct information about the lion hunters and even threaten them (the Lion Defenders) with being disowned by the community for destroying the tradition.”

According to Asecheka, taking tribal members on a tour of Ruaha National Park endears the community to the lions and helps them understand the value of the animals as a tourist attraction that can boost the local economy. “They feel a sense of ownership and come to understand the right reasons why we’re protecting lions,” she explains.

Stephano Asecheka (pictured second from left) is part of a team of "Lion Defenders"  that track lions and work with the community to reduce risk to both human and lion populations.

He is hopeful that lion populations will increase and that communities will adapt by building stronger homes and livestock enclosures. Lion Landscapes helps build fortified enclosures.

Asecheka says fewer lions are being killed thanks to the project. “We still have men hunting lions outside the reserve,” he continues. “But such cases are also falling with the awareness created by the project.”

cooperative conservation

The key to Lion Landscapes’ conservation work is changing the Barabaig’s perception of lions, says Dickman. “Our work is focused on trying to empower local communities to see a benefit from conservation,” he explains.

Among the group’s innovations is a project that trains local people to set up camera traps. Villages receive points for each image they capture of a wild animal, with more points awarded for rarer animals and those with a higher risk of human-wildlife conflict.

Groups of four villages compete for the most points each quarter, with the winner receiving around $2,000 in healthcare, veterinary medicine, and education, with the other villages receiving smaller amounts. Lion Landscapes says the initiative generates valuable wildlife data, trains local people in conservation techniques and, by providing the benefits of wildlife on their land, has led some villages to ban lion hunting.

Instead of associating big cats with loss of livestock, wealth and lives, Dickman says Barabaig now connects animals with access to good health care, education and subsidized school meals.

Through their combined programs, Dickman says lion kills have decreased by more than 70% in the core area where Lion Landscapes works. “The communities we work with have really come on board as partners,” she says.

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