Tanzania’s Zealous Lion Defenders Are Warriors and Former Lion Hunters of the Barabaig Tribe

They may be the “Kings of the Jungle,” but lions are now listed as a vulnerable species.

Only 40,000 of them are left in the world, with Tanzania being the only hope to revive the population of these big cats through its conservation efforts.

Photo: YouTube/National Geographic

Tanzania is home to 14,000 to 15,000 lions — it is the country with the largest number of this species, which has managed to survive after the vast destruction of their habitats, indiscriminate killing by hunting and poaching, killings for ceremonial rites, and other serious threats.

Lion Landscapes is among the conservation groups that have been working hard to save the lions from extinction. They operate in Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia.

How Lion Landscapes is Raising Awareness of the Lions’ Importance to the Ecosystem

Amy Dickman, director of the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, is also a joint CEO of Lion Landscapes.

Among the areas that Lion Landscapes has been working on in Tanzania is Ruaha, where they have been encouraging tribes and communities to join their conservation efforts.

“Our work is centered around trying to empower local communities so that they see a benefit from conservation,” Dickman told CNN.

Photo: YouTube/National Geographic

Through cooperative conservation, Lion Landscapes provides the locals with training on how to set up camera traps that help in gathering wildlife data. Villages win points for every image of a wild animal that they are able to capture, more points if it is a rare one or an animal that will most likely get caught in people-wildlife conflict.

Quarterly, a winner is announced from the four participating villages who has earned the largest number of points. The winner is given $2,000 worth of healthcare, education aid, and veterinary medicine, and the rest receive smaller amounts. This innovative project has changed the communities’ perception of wild animals as the root cause of livelihood and personal losses. Now, the locals associate them with access to education, healthcare, and subsidized school meals.

Another successful program that the organization has implemented with the participation of warriors from the Barabaig Tribe is the Lion Defenders.

The Challenges and Triumphs of Tanzania’s Lion Defenders

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

In the past, Barabaig warriors killed lions for wealth and status, unlike other tribes who hunt lions for ceremonial rites.

Photo: YouTube/National Geographic

“If there’s been an attack on cattle, the Barabaig will go and start a lion hunt, but it’s not just about retaliation,” added Dickman. The warrior who was able to spear a lion before anyone else did would take its paw as a trophy. “Girls will pay them lots of attention and they will get gifts of cattle.”

But everything has started to change now. Eighteen young men have decided to become Lion Defenders, with Stephano Asecheka from the Barabaig tribe among them. Part of his role is to serve as an intermediary between these young men and the village.

“Their task is to survey the border areas early in the morning for traces and tracks of lions so as to inform herders of the safest grazing areas,” said Asecheka.

Photo: YouTube/National Geographic

But there were many challenges, too, from the locals who criticize the program. “(They) refuse to give correct information of the lion hunters and even threaten them (the Lion Defenders) to be disowned by the community for destroying the tradition,” explained Asecheka.

But bringing the members of their tribe on tours to Ruaha National Park has helped in raising their awareness of the importance of lions and other wild animals and the benefits they bring to the world, including the local tourism industry.

“They feel a sense of ownership and get to understand the right reasons to why we are protecting the lions,” said Asecheka.

According to Dickman, the combined programs have succeeded in decreasing lion killings by over 70% in the core area where Lion Landscapes works. “The communities that we work with have truly come on board as partners.”

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