By Victoria Shelley, Ruaha
Ruaha National Park in central Tanzania is Tanzania’s largest national park (22,200 km2) and home to an estimated 3,500 lions. The sheer size of the protected area offers the cats some protection but the protected area is surrounded by human communities where conflict with livestock owners is widespread. After many months of planning and logistics, the expansion of the Lion Guardians program in Ruaha is moving forward full force.
In August 2012 we hired five young Barabaig men who previously were active lion hunters to be Lion Guardians in Ruaha.
These Lion Guardians cover 113km2 of village land outside Ruaha National Park. Like the Maasai, the Barabaig are a nomadic pastoralist community who share land and resources with lions. The word for lion in Kibarabaig is “ngadida” (pronounced nah-gah-deed-ah). And, like the Maasai, the Barabaig not only hunt lions in retaliation for killing livestock, but they also have strong cultural reasons for killing lions. But the cultural relationship the Barabaig have with lions is different than that of the Maasai. The Barabaig engage in incentive-driven traditional killing; a lion killer is rewarded by his family and community with gifts of cattle and sometimes a wife for killing a lion, but there is no symbolic sharing of the lion’s name between the lion that is killed and the warrior that killed it which is so important in Maasai culture.
The Lion Guardians in Ruaha have exceptional tracking skills and are influential members of their community. Prior to being hired as Lion Guardians, none but one Lion Guardian (Ema) could so much as write their own name. Three months later all Lion Guardians have improved their literacy skills tremendously. All can now write their name, the area in which they work, as well as correctly read, and legibly fill out, all data forms in Kiswahili – no small feat for these young Barabaig pastoralists who have never spent a day in school.
In addition to their on-going literacy training, Timoine and Mokoi, two seasoned Lion Guardians from Kenya, travelled from Kenya to Ruaha for a week in mid-September to lead further training. They trained the Ruaha Lion Guardians on how to use a GPS unit and how to fill out the three different data forms correctly. Timoine and Mokoi also shared their knowledge of tracking, their extensive experience with stopping lion hunts, strategies for working through issues that come up in the community, and the role of Lion Guardians in general.
This training provided not only a marked increase in the skill sets of the new Lion Guardians, but also fed their enthusiasm for the work that they do and their connection to a bigger network of Lion Guardians in Kenya.
Even though the Lion Guardians here in Ruaha are the first Lion Guardians who are not Maasai, all of the Lion Guardians took interest in each other, learning about and appreciating the differences between Barabaig and Maasai culture as well as communing over the overwhelming similarities between them and all pastoralist societies.
The training session ended with a celebration together including dancing, singing, and roasting a goat in Kenyan style. All ate together and laughed a lot, enjoying each other’s company. We look forward to continuing our progress here in Ruaha as the rainy season approaches and we increase our knowledge of the lion population in the area and further develop our conflict mitigation skills. Up to date no lion have been killed in the areas where the new Lion Guardians are operating. Continue to follow our stories on the blog and support the Lion Guardians hard work.