Case Study: Big Cats in the Maasai Steppe
Case Study: Big Cats in the Maasai Steppe
Learn how the Maasai people in northeastern Tanzania are protecting their livestock and the big cats with the support of National Geographic grantee Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld.
9 - 12+
Biology, Ecology, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography
Tanzania, the 13th-largest country in Africa, is on the eastern edge of the continent, just below the Equator. The Maasai Steppe is an important ecosystem in northeastern Tanzania that covers approximately 40,000 square kilometers (15,444 square miles). Tanzania is 1.3 times the size of the U.S. state of Texas, and the Maasai Steppe is slightly larger than the state of Maryland. A steppe is grassland dotted with trees along permanent water sources, such as rivers. Some people might refer to a steppe as a prairie or grassland plain. The Maasai Steppe includes Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks.
The Maasai Steppe has two rainy seasons. The short rainy season is in November and December, while the long rainy season lasts from March through May. During the rainy seasons, water is plentiful, and wildlife spreads across the steppe because food and water are easy to find. During the dry season, from June to November, less and less water is available. When this happens, animals gather around reliable, permanent water sources. The major permanent source of water on the steppe is the Tarangire River.
The alternating dusty and verdant landscape of the Maasai Steppe supports some of the widest variety of wildlife in the world. This variety includes well-known species such as wildebeest, buffalo, spotted hyenas, jackals, African elephants, giraffes, zebras, leopards, cheetahs, and rarer, less-known animals such as the African wild dog, the stripped hyena, and the fringe-eared oryx. It is also home to one of Tanzania’s most threatened lion populations, and to the local people, called the Maasai.
Since the mid-1980s, most species of wildlife have declined in the Maasai Steppe and throughout Tanzania’s main wildlife areas and ecosystems, even in protected areas such as the Tarangire National Park. High human population growth is the cause of most of this decline. People have settled and are farming in unplanned areas, making wildlife habitats patchy and fragmented. Roads also restrict the movement of animals, making it more difficult to migrate. People in rural areas live with big cats, sometimes lose livestock to them, and see very little benefit in the tourism that big cats draw.
The traditional use of land by people in the Maasai Steppe has been for livestock grazing. The Maasai people continue this tradition today and live in small, rural communities, tending to their cattle, sheep, and goats. In recent years, more people have moved onto the steppe to farm the land that supports both the wildlife and the domesticated animals of the Maasai.
These different uses of the land cause some conflict. The farms interrupt the movement of the herds of animals that live on the vast area of the steppe, and the farmers grow food for people, not for grazing animals. A shrinking habitat means fewer grazing animals for predators, such as lions (Panthera leo), leopards (Panthera pardus), and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), to eat.
The limited water sources during the dry season attract both domesticated animals and wildlife, and this causes some problems with humans, whose cattle is sometimes eaten by predators. The predators live close to relatively defenseless and unaware domesticated animals, and will eat them if the opportunity arises throughout the year. The Maasai see the big cats as threatening their livelihood and often will hunt down the predators they think are responsible for killing their livestock.
All of these factors and others, such as unplanned livestock migration, human population growth, unregulated land conversion, poor farming practices, illegal wildlife poaching, and deforestation for charcoal production, combine to endanger the lives of big cats—lions, leopards, and cheetahs alike.
The people and animals that are affected by changes on the Maasai Steppe are called stakeholders. They all have a stake in what happens as the environment changes because of weather and population growth.
The Maasai: The Maasai people have a long tradition of grazing livestock on the steppe. They are called pastoralists, which means they live their lives around the needs of their livestock. They move their herds from pasture to pasture as food sources and water change, but often keep their herd in fixed locations at night. These locations have enclosures called bomas. Bomas are similar to corral enclosures in the United States, but have some fundamental differences. Bomas are usually made of cut thorn branches piled on top of one another.
Conservationists: Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld runs the African People & Wildlife (APW) and works on the part of the Maasai Steppe that borders the Tarangire National Park. Her team works to maintain the health of the steppe that is critical to both the Maasai people and the wildlife dependent on this arid environment. They also try to protect the big cats that live in the area and to educate the local people about the benefits of having wildlife nearby.
Big Cats: Cheetahs, leopards, and lions are losing their habitats to farmers and pastoralists who move into the steppe. Big cats are less able to eat and breed in a smaller, fragmented habitat encroached upon by people. Lions and leopards are often hunted by sport hunters, and by farmers who are protecting domesticated animals. The numbers of big cats are dwindling. African lion and cheetah populations are classified as “vulnerable” to extinction risk by organizations such as The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN uses science and data to determine if plants and animals are in danger of disappearing from the planet. The IUCN’s classifications for animals and plants are: Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Extinct. The African lion and cheetah are in the category of “threatened” animals and face a risk of global extinction.
Tourists: About 30 percent of Tanzania's land is made up of national parks, game reserves, and forest reserves. Wildlife thrives in these areas, and tourists come to see the wildlife. They come to watch and photograph, and some come to hunt the animals. Without the wildlife, many tourists would stay away, and the people who work in jobs that serve tourists would need to find new work.
Farmers: The elements that make land good for grazing animals can also make it good for farming. Farmers need fertile land that gets the right amount of water. In recent years, farmers have spread to lands that were traditionally used for pastures. Farms can now be found throughout areas where wildlife live and migrate.
Dr. Lichtenfeld and her organization, APW, work with the Tanzanians to understand how best to use the land of the Maasai Steppe: How to farm in ways that are less likely to hurt the environment and interrupt wildlife, how to keep pasturelands healthy, how to help the local economy, and how to understand the wildlife around them. All of this helps wildlife by maintaining a balanced environment or ecosystem for them to live in. Dr. Lichtenfeld also works to keep big cats safe.
Dr. Lichtenfeld works with the Maasai to protect their livestock from big cats, which reduces the possibility that the people will hunt and kill big cats. One of the most effective ways found to protect livestock is by building a Living Wall. A Living Wall is an improved form of boma that Dr. Lichtenfeld’s team developed together with the Maasai people. It is a fence made from traditional chain link, but instead of being attached to metal or wooden poles, it is anchored to living Commiphora africana trees, commonly known as myrrh. The Maasai are experts at planting the tree. The thorny branches of the tree grow through and around the chain link, making an impenetrable wall that keeps predators out. These walls are planted within the Maasai's long-term homesteads, serving as livestock corrals. The Maasai move their livestock into the corrals at night, keeping the households and livestock safe, while allowing wildlife to move easily across the steppe. The National Geographic Big Cats Initiative and other partners have helped Dr. Lichtenfeld and her team to install more and more Living Walls in the Maasai Steppe.
African People & Wildlife (APW) helps support the local communities by hiring local people to help in conservation. This gives some of the Maasai jobs and ensures that there is a local point of view on solutions to problems. For example, local game scout teams are protecting wildlife habitat by stopping the cutting of trees for charcoal production. This preserves important areas for the big cats’ prey and is particularly important for saving cheetahs, something the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative and Dr. Lichtenfeld have teamed up to do. The APW also encourages local wildlife tourism. This contributes money to the local economy and gives the Maasai reasons not to hunt the big cats.
Working together, APW and local communities are able to find solutions that conserve natural resources and preserve traditions and a way of life.
By living and working close to the Maasai, conservationists are able to talk to them and find ways that work within the local culture and lifestyle to help support a healthy environment and to protect the big cats. Conservationists create handouts in English and Swahili, spoken in many East African countries, that provide information, education, and training on natural-resource conservation. The handouts include photos and graphics for those who cannot read. Conservationists also attend local meetings and provide seminars to help people learn more about their environment, and ways they can protect it, while improving their own livelihoods.
Sometimes the Maasai will hunt big cats after one of their domesticated animals dies because they think that a big cat has killed it. When domesticated animals die in these areas, big cats might be the cause, but they are not the only predators on the steppe. Spotted and striped hyenas, wild dogs, and jackals are also looking for an easy meal and are often the culprits when livestock are lost. Animals might also die from disease and snakebites. Dr. Lichtenfeld teaches the local people how to identify different predators' paw prints, scat, and attack marks so that they are better able to see what killed their animals. Knowing that a cheetah attacks during the day and not at night might help an animal owner identify how his animal died, for example.
Dr. Lichtenfeld shows the local people how to look for kill signs on the carcasses of the livestock. If an animal has bite marks on its body, those marks don’t necessarily mean a big cat killed it. Lions, cheetahs, and leopards almost always kill at the throat. Dr. Lichtenfeld teaches the locals to pull the skin from the throat of the livestock to look for bruising and blood under the surface. If those signs are not there, the animal was likely bitten by a hungry cat after it died, not killed by it.
Dr. Lichtenfeld is seeing encouraging success. As of June of 2011, her group saw a 62 percent reduction in livestock being killed by predators after installing a large number of Living Walls. By November of 2010, local people killed only two lions in retaliation for two attacks on livestock that were killed as a result of not being protected by a Living Wall.
Meanwhile, APW’s education and training initiatives are building local capacity by training and preparing local people to manage natural resources for the benefit of the community and wildlife. Local communities are working to protect their water sources, even finding ways to set aside water catchment areas, and to better manage their pastures. All of these efforts are good for both people and wildlife in the Maasai Steppe.
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National Geographic Program
September 27, 2023
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