Lonely Planet Writer

How Tanzania’s warriors went from lion hunters to lion defenders

Lions and humans have found it difficult at times to co-exist peacefully in Tanzania. Now a conservation project is turning those who used the hunt the fierce creatures into their staunchest defenders.

The conservation project has helped local communities gain a newfound respect for lions. Photo by Putsada Sriphet / EyeEm

Tanzania has the largest population of lions in Africa but this close co-existence between humans and lions can lead to issues. Between 1990 and 2005, nearly 900 Tanzanians were attacked by lions, with more than 560 killed. The attacks have decreased hugely in recent years with new protection measures but conflict still exists between the sides.

The Ruaha Carnivore Project was set up in 2009 to understand what it was like to live in such proximity to dangerous predators and try and find a way to foster harmony between the two. They found Ruaha had the highest level of human-wildlife conflict and the biggest number of lion killings in East Africa.

Lions at the Serengeti National Park. Photo by Danita Delimont

The project tackles the issue on many fronts, including improving livestock protection, education and wildlife monitoring. One of the biggest issues the project faced was the cultural tradition of killing lions that was practised by the nearby Maasai and Barabaig nomadic tribes. The project took inspiration and advice from Kenya’s Lion Guardians to create the country’s first Lion Defenders.

Traditionally, young male warriors are granted cattle from their community whenever they spear a lion, giving them wealth and status. After creating and being involved in the programme, the men now opt to fulfil their warrior role by protecting the community, rescuing livestock and giving back to their pastoral community. The warriors also get to visit Kenya where they learn skills on GPS, literary and radio tracking.

Tanzania has the largest population of lions in Africa. Photo Russell Burden

The communities can also join in. By helping to monitor the wildlife and contribute to its conservation, they are awarded points which can be redeemed against healthcare, education and even social gatherings.

The positive effect on both the human and lion community has been staggering. The rate of lion killings has been reduced by 90%, from 60 lions a year to just four this year. The project’s outreach programme also has meant that 90% of local villagers now have a more positive outlook on dangerous animals.

You can learn more about the Ruaha Carnivore Project or donate to their efforts online.