Case Study: Big Cats in the Ruaha Landscape

Case Study: Big Cats in the Ruaha Landscape

Learn how the local tribes in the Ruaha landscape are protecting their livestock and coexisting with big cats with the support of National Geographic grantee Dr. Amy Dickman.


9 - 12+


Biology, Ecology, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

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Big Cats Initiative


The Ruaha landscape is an ecosystem of about 51,800 square kilometers (20,000 square miles) in central Tanzania. The landscape within the ecosystem changes from the semi-dry savannas common to eastern Tanzania to the Miombo woodlands that cover much of the southern part of the African continent. Savannas are grasslands dotted with trees along permanent water sources, such as rivers. Some people refer to savannas as prairies, plains, or steppes. Miombo woodlands are areas where Miombo trees grow 15-20 meters (50-65 feet) with shrubs and grasslands growing beneath them. This transition area supports many kinds of plants, birds, and animals, such as wildebeest, greater and lesser kudu, zebras, giraffes, and one of Tanzania's largest elephant populations. The Ruaha landscape is extremely important for predators—some scientists have estimated that it holds just under one-tenth of all the lions (Panthera leo) left in sub-Saharan Africa, the third-biggest population of endangered African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) left in the world, and one of only four big cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) populations left in East Africa. It is also very important for spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), leopards (Panthera pardus), and smaller carnivores that also live and hunt there, and has been highlighted as a priority area for carnivore conservation.

The Great Ruaha River runs north and east for 100 kilometers (62 miles) along the eastern edge of Ruaha National Park, a protected park within the Ruaha landscape. Ruaha National Park is about 23,000 square kilometers (about 8,880 square miles). This park is now the largest national park in Tanzania and the second-largest in the whole of Africa. However, due to its remote location, far fewer people have heard of Ruaha than they have smaller parks such as Kruger and the Serengeti. The Ruaha landscape has a wet season, which runs from January through April, and a dry season, which runs from May to December. During the dry season, animals move toward the river as other water sources dry up. The river was once a year-round source of water, but use by farmers, who irrigate their crops with it, and by the country’s hydropower plants, has changed that. Now the river dries up during the dry season, leaving occasional pools of water along its length.

The people who live on the Ruaha landscape come from several different tribes, and live south of the river, outside of Ruaha National Park. The area supports over 30 different ethnic groups, including the Hehe, Maasai, Barabaig, Sukuma, Gogo, and Bena. Some of these groups, such as the Maasai and Barabaig, are traditional pastoralists who rely heavily upon cattle and other livestock, whereas tribes such as the Hehe are usually agriculturalists or agro-pastoralists.


Since the mid-1980s, most species of wildlife have declined in the Ruaha landscape and throughout Tanzania’s main wildlife areas and ecosystems, even in protected areas such as Ruaha National Park. High human population growth is the cause of most of this decline. People have settled and are farming in unplanned areas, making habitats patchy and fragmented. Roads restrict the movement of animals, making migration more difficult. People who live in rural areas with the big cats sometimes lose livestock to them, and see very little benefit from the tourism based on big cats.


Many of the people living in the Ruaha are pastoralists, so their livestock—particularly their cattle—are extremely important to them. Cattle are used in important ceremonies, and are viewed as an important symbol of wealth for local people. Many of the villagers around Ruaha spend much of their time moving their cattle, sheep, and goats around to find water and grazing. In recent years, however, more people have settled around Ruaha National Park to farm the fertile land that supports both the wildlife and the domesticated animals of the Ruaha landscape.

Different land uses within an area cause conflict; for example, because of farms, there is less grazing land available for pastoralists’ animals. Farms grow food for people, not for grazing animals. Farmlands interrupt the movements of herds of animals that live on the vast area of the savanna. The farms are often very close to the border of the national park, which is unfenced, so animals such as elephants will raid the farmers’ crops. This results in significant problems for the farmers, as elephants can destroy an entire year’s worth of harvest in one night, and people often retaliate by killing the raiding wildlife. Furthermore, a shrinking habitat means fewer grazing animals for predators, such as lions, leopards, and cheetahs, to eat. Farming, particularly for rice, also diverts water from the Great Ruaha River, and this is thought to have contributed to the drying-up of the river.

The limited water sources available during the dry season attract both domesticated animals and wildlife to pools of water left along the course of the mostly dry riverbed, which hugs the southern border of the park, close to village land. The proximity of domestic animals to wildlife competing for water creates another problem for humans, who sometimes lose cattle to predators along the water. The predators live close to mild, domesticated animals and will eat them if the opportunity arises. The local people are very poor (the majority live on less than $1 per day) and see the big cats as endangering their livelihood. They often will kill the predators they think are responsible for killing their livestock.

All of these factors combine to endanger the big cats—lions, leopards, and cheetahs.


The people and animals that are affected by changes in the Ruaha landscape are called stakeholders. They all have a stake in what happens as the environment changes because of factors such as climate change and human population growth.

Local Tribes: There are more than 30 local tribes living in the Ruaha landscape who have a range of different lifestyles and land uses. Some, such as the Maasai and Barabaig, are traditional pastoralists, which means that they live their lives around the needs of their livestock. They move their herds from area to area to find the best grazing for their stock. Cattle are extremely important to these groups—for instance, the Maasai traditionally believe that their god gave cattle specifically to the Maasai, and that all cattle on Earth rightfully belong to them. Therefore, the Maasai often steal cattle from other pastoralists, such as the Barabaig, and this causes a lot of tension between the groups. Pastoralists use cattle in traditional ceremonies, and give them as gifts on important occasions. Cattle with certain characteristics and coloration are particularly valuable; for example, among the Barabaig, animals with a white body and a black head, or those with one horn facing forwards and one facing backwards, are considered especially valuable, and are often saved for particular ceremonies. This can make people even more sensitive to their cattle being killed by carnivores. It is not only the economic value of the cattle that they are losing, but also the social worth, which is extremely important.

The tensions between different tribes in the area (and the common belief in witchcraft) can contribute to human-big cat conflict. If lions are attacking someone's cattle and not a neighbor from another tribe, the victim may think the neighbor is bewitching the lion to turn it into an evil ‘spirit lion.’ People sometimes think that the only way to deal with spells is by killing the spirit lion. Big cats can be killed just because of fears of witchcraft. The killing of lions is very important in many of these traditional pastoralist groups. Among both the Maasai and Barabaig, killing a lion is, traditionally, a necessary ritual in order to demonstrate bravery and to become a warrior. If a Barabaig warrior kills a lion, he is rewarded with cattle from his relatives, so this is an important way for him to gain cattle and status within his community. Understanding these rituals and beliefs is very important for developing effective strategies for big cat conservation in areas such as the Ruaha.

Farmers: The elements that make land good for grazing animals also make it good for farming. Farmers need fertile land that gets the right amount of water during the rainy season. 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 move. Farmers also use water from the Great Ruaha River to water their crops, and this practice contributes to the river drying up during the dry season. Also, farmlands have restricted the amount of land available for pastoralists to move across and graze their livestock. This has caused significant tension between farmers and pastoralists, particularly as the farmers often impose fines (paid in cattle) if livestock strays onto their land.

Conservationists: Dr. Amy Dickman works for the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, or WildCRU, that is part of the United Kingdom's University of Oxford. She tries to protect the big cats and other carnivores that live in the Ruaha landscape, by developing strategies to help people and big cats live more easily alongside one another. To achieve this, she works to reduce the negative impacts that big cats have on local people, particularly by reducing the number of big cat attacks on livestock. In addition, she works with local communities to develop schemes that provide them with a clear benefit from the presence of big cats.

Big Cats: Cheetahs, leopards, and lions are losing their habitat as farmers and other people move into the ecosystem. The wild animals big cats prey upon also decline as human populations increase, which makes it harder for big cats to hunt and reproduce. People around the park often kill big cats, either for trophy hunting, in retaliation for attacks upon domesticated animals, or by young men who are proving their bravery. The numbers of big cats are dwindling—African populations may have lost half their size in the last 20 years, and both the African lion and the cheetah are listed as “Vulnerable” to extinction risk by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organization that assesses the status of threatened species.

Tourists: About 30 percent of Tanzania's land is made of national parks and game and forest reserves. Wildlife thrives in these areas, and tourists come to see the wildlife. In some areas, such as national parks, people just come to watch and photograph the animals, while in areas like game reserves, people come to hunt animals such as lions and antelope. These visitors are very important to Tanzania’s economy, as tourists generate a lot of money and jobs for local people. Without the wildlife, many tourists would stay away, and the people who work in jobs that serve tourists would need to find new work.

Conflict Mitigation

Dr. Dickman and her staff work with the local people to try to balance their needs with those of the big cats, and to make human-big cat co-existence a bit easier. At present, there is much conflict between local people and big cats, which results in people often killing these threatened species. One main reason for the conflict is that big cats often kill people's livestock, which imposes very significant costs on local villagers. The costs are partly economic—the majority of people live on less than one dollar per day, and livestock are an extremely important form of household wealth, as cattle can be worth around $200. If a lion kills a cow, the loss of that animal has a very big impact on poor households. It also has a social cost, especially among the traditional pastoralists. If a person has few cattle, they are not as valued within the community, so losing livestock to big cats is a very important issue for local people.

Local people in the villages around Ruaha see very few benefits from having big cats around. Tourists bring income into the park but very little of that income reaches the villagers outside the park. As big cats bring lots of costs and no benefits to local people, villagers often try to kill them, using spears, poison, snares, and guns.

It might seem easier to fence the park and set aside its use for big cats and other wildlife, and for village land to be set aside for people and their livestock. However, village land around the park is an important part of the landscape, and wildlife are very dependent upon it, especially in the dry season, when there is little water within the park. For long-term conservation, populations of big cats and other wildlife need to be maintained outside the park, on village land, as well as within it. To do this, it is fundamentally important for conservationists to work with local villagers to reduce the costs and improve the benefits of having big cats living alongside them.

National Geographic is helping fund Dr. Dickman and her team to reduce human-big cat conflict around Ruaha National Park. The work involves protection of people's livestock, communication with local people to discuss how villagers can get more benefits from big cat presence, and education about the best ways of living alongside these animals.


One of the main reasons that people dislike and kill big cats is loss of livestock. Dr Dickman and her team work closely with local people to test different methods of protecting livestock from predators. One successful technique is the use of chainlink fencing to reinforce villagers’ livestock enclosures, called “bomas,” which are traditionally made of thorn bushes. The big cats are often able to jump over or pull apart the bushes, but the team strengthens the bomas by fencing them with tall chainlink fencing and poles, and this makes it much harder for big cats to break through. The reinforced bomas reduce the number of big cat attacks on livestock, which is good for people, as it protects their wealth, and good for big cats, leading to fewer big cats being killed. As people do not have much money, Dr. Dickman and her team pay for half the cost of the materials needed to build the strengthened bomas. Dr. Dickman’s team records all the losses and carnivore killings before and after reinforcing the bomas. The team is then able to assess how effective wire bomas are at protecting both livestock and carnivores.

The team is testing other methods—for instance, some people have reported that mounting a plastic jerrycan on a pole in the center of the bomas helps prevent attacks. The livestock sense when a predator is walking outside the boma, and they cluster together toward the center. When the livestock gather together, they press up against the pole and make the jerrycan rattle loudly. This acts as an early warning system to the householder, who can come out and scare away the predator before it causes problems. The team is now testing the use of simple, cheap “boma bells” to see if they are an effective technique that can be used by households.

As the study area, the Ruaha landscape, is very big, the team has trained local villagers to be “conflict officers” in 10 of the villages close to the park. These officers learned how to implement the most effective methods for reducing livestock attacks, and regularly meet with other villagers to train them in such methods. This training program is very important because it gives local people a good income, training on wildlife conservation, and builds local capacity, as the villagers are training one another without relying on the project.


Dr. Dickman and her team live in a field camp on village land, so they can witness firsthand the issues that local people have with big cats, and find culturally appropriate ways to reduce conflict. For instance, there is a special relationship between the young warriors and the lions: the warriors are extremely good at tracking lions, and have traditionally demonstrated their bravery by killing lions. However, Dr. Dickman and her team are working with colleagues from Panthera and Living with Lions to develop a “Lion Guardians” plan, which makes the warriors central to lion conservation. The Lion Guardians are employed to track and monitor lions, and are paid for as long as their study lions are alive, which gives them a clear incentive not to kill the lions. As these warriors are very influential in their communities, this project can be a very powerful scheme for reducing lion killing, while still allowing the warriors to demonstrate their bravery by engaging with lions.

Communication is very important for the project. The studies mentioned above help demonstrate which techniques are most effective at reducing carnivore attacks on livestock, but these results need to be shared widely across the community to be most beneficial. The conflict officers play an important role in this project. They regularly visit hundreds of households across the study area, share results, and help villagers implement the best techniques.

The team also has regular meetings with villagers, where they discuss the benefits local people would most like to see from the presence of big cats around Ruaha. The villagers voted on their desired benefit schemes, and chose health care, education, and veterinary health as priorities. Dr. Dickman has worked with the UK Rotary Club to acquire funding for a local healthcare clinic, and has developed a “Sister Schools” twinning scheme. Under this scheme, local village schools are twinned with schools in the United Kingdom or United States, which raise funds for their Tanzanian school, helping provide schools with much-needed equipment, such as books, pens, and desks.

The project team also encourages people from different tribes to come together and discuss the problems they are having with big cats, and the solutions they have found most effective. This can help break down the perceptions that only some people are being affected, and that they must have been sent “spirit lions” from rival tribes. Local tensions are reduced by helping people understand that even rival tribes have problems with big cats. These meetings also help people learn effective livestock protection techniques from one another.


Although people in the Ruaha area have lived alongside big cats for many years, they are often unaware of the fact that big cat populations are declining sharply across the world, and do not understand reasons for big cat conservation. The project holds regular DVD nights in local villages, where villagers are shown a digital presentation that highlights the importance of the Ruaha landscape for carnivores, and the best methods for helping people live alongside big cats. The presentation also educates villagers about reasons for the carnivore project’s existence, its activities, and the results so far. The team also shows wildlife DVDs in Swahili and English, so that people can learn more about the wildlife that occurs in the local area. One very popular DVD, Living with Lions, from the Living with Lions project in Kenya, shows how the Maasai people are living alongside lions, strengthening their bomas, and seeing local benefits from big cat presence. The project also takes local people on visits into Ruaha National Park, which allows them to learn about big cats in a nonthreatening situation, and also teaches them about the importance and the benefits of the park to the local area.

Sometimes, local people will find one of their domesticated animals dead in the bush, with big cat footprints around it. They will think the big cat killed it, and often set poison out, which can kill many big cats, as well as other scavengers such as vultures and jackals. When the team has examined some of these carcasses, it becomes evident that the animal died of another cause, such as disease, snakebite, or an accident, and the big cats scavenged the carcass. Big cats are being killed even when they are not causing problems to local people. The conflict officers help train villagers to examine a carcass and identify what really killed it. For example, the skin under any bite mark should be removed to see if there is blood and bruising under the skin. If there is bruising, then the bite marks were made when the animal was still alive, indicating it was attacked by a predator. But if there is no bruising, then a hungry big cat just bit into the carcass, and was probably not responsible for its death. Understanding what really caused livestock deaths is very important, both in terms of reducing retaliatory killing, and also helping local people better manage their livestock to reduce further losses.

In cases where a big cat did kill the livestock, it is important to be able to correctly identify the species responsible, as this will determine which technique should be used to prevent a killing from happening again. For example, a spotted cat attacking goats in the day is likely to be a cheetah, and cheetahs can easily be scared away by the presence of dogs or adult herders. However, a spotted cat attacking goats within a boma at night is likely to be a leopard, and might actually be attracted by the presence of dogs, as leopards like to eat them. For leopards, the householder should focus on making a very strong, tall boma to prevent future attacks.


Dr. Dickman's efforts are yielding results. Attacks on livestock have decreased in those bomas that have been fenced. Only a small number have been fenced so far, but attacks on reinforced bomas have dropped from an average of two attacks per week to zero. Before the project started, only two percent of people saw benefits from big cats. Now 24 percent of people say they see benefits from the big cats, while over 80 percent say they have benefited from the project in some way. It is very hard to monitor the changes in big cat killing, but the hostility toward big cats is declining, and there is evidence of people reducing their attempts to kill big cats.

Dr. Dickman continues to build her program and extend the work she is doing. In addition to the conflict mitigation work, her team is conducting research to monitor the size and trends of Ruaha’s big cat populations. The team is using camera traps, which photograph animals and provide data the team can assess, such as where the big cats find and kill prey, how many big cats there are, and how big cats use the land. This information is used to develop future conservation and management strategies to secure the future of big cat populations.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Evelyn L. Kent
Dr. Amy Dickman
Elizabeth Wolzak, National Geographic Society
Kathleen Barrett
Cathlyn Matracia
National Geographic Program
Big Cats Initiative
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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