“They were made to eat meat, not grass”: A local conflict, but not with lions; by Adam Pekor

Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is an extraordinary place.  Part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem, the NCA hosts some of Earth’s most incredible natural wonders, including the great wildebeest migration and the famed Ngorongoro Crater, an extinct volcanic caldera containing one of the densest populations of lions in Africa.  The NCA is also home to almost 100,000 people, most of whom are Maasai pastoralists who continue to carry on the centuries-old traditions of their ancestors.  But what makes Ngorongoro truly remarkable is not just its wildlife or its people, but their coexistence.  On a continent where conservation has been defined by a “fences and fines” approach, the NCA represents a unique declaration that people and wildlife can successfully share a landscape.  

Across the NCA, however, human tolerance of lions has been eroding. Lion attacks on livestock have prompted so many retaliatory killings in recent years that the species has disappeared from much of its historical range. I came to Ngorongoro to understand this conflict between people and lions and to work with a local community-based conservation organization called KopeLion to help mitigate it.  My work with KopeLion is aimed at assessing the feasibility of establishing a new, incentive-based program to promote coexistence between people and lions by offering communities tangible financial benefits for achieving agreed-upon lion conservation goals.  To assess the feasibility of this idea, KopeLion and I conducted focus groups and in-depth interviews with government officials, tourism operators, and, most importantly, NCA residents, including elected representatives, traditional leaders, community elders, and young warriors. 

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but what I heard from the NCA’s residents over and over again was startling: most people didn’t really have a problem with lions.  “They were made to eat meat, not grass,” I heard more than once, an acknowledgment that lions were not to blame for seeing livestock as lunch.  So why were people killing lions?  Of course, frustration with losing valuable cattle and goats had something to do with it.  But a much bigger part of the problem was frustration with the NCA Authority, the governmental agency charged with overseeing the area.  Although the NCA Authority’s statutory mission is to conserve the area’s wildlife, promote tourism, and protect the interests of its people, the Authority’s perceived lack of concern for the Maasai was a regular refrain at almost every community meeting we held.  When a cow is killed by a lion, I was told, the NCA Authority responds only to warn against retaliation, not to address the problem of livestock losses or even express sympathy for the owner.  “They care more about the wildlife than they do about us.”  At least part of the reason lions have been killed, it seems, is because people believe the NCA Authority is indifferent to their problems.

This sentiment has been building for years.  At meeting after meeting, I was reminded of (and occasionally blamed for!) the Maasai’s expulsion from Serengeti National Park almost 60 years ago.  In the 1950s, Serengeti encompassed much of what is now the NCA, and Maasai lived throughout the area.  However, in 1959, a law was passed prohibiting people from residing within national parks, and the Maasai were moved out of Serengeti and into the newly formed NCA—according to many people at our meetings, without any real consultation.  In the minds of many Maasai, that move reflects the nature of their relationship with the NCA Authority ever since.  In the early 2000s, for example, the long-standing ban on agriculture in the NCA, which had been temporarily lifted, was summarily reinstated by the NCA Authority, even as many people struggled to feed their families. Most recently, I heard again and again, people were prohibited from grazing cattle within the Ngorongoro Crater without any inclusion in the decision-making process.  “They get fat [off of tourism in the NCA]; look at us—we are hungry.”  

This, I’ve learned, is the real source of conflict in Ngorongoro: the people’s distrust of the NCA Authority.  

This, I’ve learned, is the real source of conflict in Ngorongoro: the people’s distrust of the NCA Authority. To be clear, I don’t know if the Authority has actually ignored the interests of the Maasai, or if the real problem is a matter of communication and perception.  The NCA Authority and the government of Tanzania have, after all, provided the NCA’s residents with food relief, medical facilities, educational scholarships, and other benefits.  But what I do know is that if a lion conservation incentive payment program is going to be established—and succeed—it will require close collaboration between the NCA Authority and the people.  Given the history and the tension I learned about during my research, improving this relationship stands to be the most significant challenge going forward.  

Author: Adam Pekor is a 2017 Fellow, pursuing a MA degree in Conservation Biology in the department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. He is focused on human-lion conflict in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. This summer he traveled to Tanzania to research whether and how an incentive payment program can be established to mitigate this conflict and allow local communities to benefit from helping to conserve lions.

Photos: Taken and provided by author.

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