Conservationists Probe Lion Killers’ Minds to Save Africa’s Endangered Big Cats

Understanding villagers who live with lions helps people and predators survive.

(Photo: Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

Aug 18, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Whether they are trying to stop the killing of wolves in Idaho or lions in Tanzania, conservation biologists often come to a horrible moment when they realize that all their training has missed the mark. “I often think that I have three degrees in wildlife biology, and none of them is relevant to what I do on a daily basis,” says Amy J. Dickman, a senior research fellow at Oxford University. What she needs, more often than not, isn’t ecology. It’s psychology.

That thought occurred most poignantly during the two years she spent camped under a tree with two Tanzanian assistants, trying to make contact with a community of pastoral grazers, members of the Barabaig tribe. She was working on strategies to protect predators on the outskirts of Ruaha National Park—Tanzania’s largest national park, as big as the state of New Jersey. It’s home to 10 percent of the world’s population of lions, the third-largest population of African wild dogs, one of East Africa’s largest populations of cheetahs, as well as leopards, spotted hyenas, and other predators. All of them face “intense human-carnivore conflict and frequent carnivore killing,” says Dickman, who works with the Ruaha Carnivore Project.

The Barabaig had the usual livestock herders’ reputation for hating predators. They were also said to be secretive and hostile to outsiders. From time to time, Dickman’s team would hear celebrations, with singing, dancing, and people imitating lion calls. When they walked closer to find out if there’d been a killing, warriors with spears blocked the way, telling them it was just a wedding, “nothing to do with lions.” After one member of the community was seen talking with Dickman’s team, she says, he was “quite badly beaten up.”

But then the researchers set up a solar station, with the singular idea of being able to recharge their laptops, and that was the unexpected breakthrough. “The Barabaig all started showing up to recharge their cellphones,” she says, meaning they could talk to the researchers “without looking like a snitch.”

Eventually, the Barabaig agreed to take one of the Tanzanian assistants with them, “and they showed us seven carcasses of lions, all very fresh. They told us, ‘We kill lions and hyenas all the time.’ ” Over an 18-month period, “just around that one tiny village,” the research team recorded 35 lion kills. Most of the lions had their right front paw cut off, which turned out to be a key to the Barabaig’s anti-predator culture.

When there is a problem lion, “lots of guys go on the hunt,” says Dickman, eventually cornering the lion. Then they choose the bravest warrior to walk up to it, unarmed, as bait. In turn, he has picked the best warrior to stand behind him with a spear, ready to kill the lion as it charges. Young warriors vie for both jobs, says Dickman, because they bring status in the community and the attention of women. The one with the spear gets the added privilege of cutting off the lion’s paw and wearing the middle claw as an amulet. He then goes around the village collecting livestock as a reward and as one of the only available ways of building wealth.

For Dickman, understanding the psychology of lion killing is a way to begin to prevent it. The researchers were able to interview 262 people in 19 villages around the park for a paper just published in the journal Biological Conservation. Like livestock herders everywhere, people said they hated predators because of attacks on both livestock and humans. But beyond the attacks, says Dickman, hostility to wildlife is often rooted in “rarely considered social factors,” including “perceived disempowerment” in regard to wildlife use, a “poor relationship with the park, and a lack of benefits from wildlife.” Just 2 percent of people said they received any wildlife-related income, she says.

Dickman says the “contagious conflict” idea that’s normally applied to warfare, rebellion, and justice also applies to wildlife. So “someone else’s problems with carnivores or other species might heighten a respondent’s antagonism, even toward species that they have not directly experienced problems with.” One villager’s problem with a lion can cause another neighbor to kill cheetahs, and because the memory of an attack tends to persist, the killing can go on for years after the problem has gone away.

As a practical measure, Dickman’s group is now trying to reduce attacks by reinforcing corrals with proper fencing, a measure that has been 99 percent effective, she says, and it is also introducing guard dogs to drive off predators.

If the owner of the corral pays half the cost of the improvement, he also gets access to a veterinary health program. That’s a big deal because disease kills nine times more animals than do predators. The researchers also bring herders into the park and into conversations with park staff. (“These are people who live within 30 kilometers of the park, and they’ve never been inside.”) Seeing predators in an unthreatening context—for instance, grooming their young—can also begin to subtly shift attitudes. Finally, the researchers are working to link the presence of wildlife in the community to the benefits villagers want, notably education and health care.

In a way, it’s still about ecology. But Dickman has learned that if she hopes to save lions, wild dogs, cheetahs, and other threatened species, it’s really the human ecology that counts.