On Safari to Save East Africa’s Big Cats

The dry season is not the best time to visit Tanzania. There are only two seasons in East Africa, dry and wet, and most people prefer the damp air and green savannas to dusty roads and dead grass. “I wish you could’ve come when it was wetter,” Laly Lichtenfeld told us as she stood on a hill near her home in the bush, about four hours southwest of Arusha in northern Tanzania. She swept her arm across the landscape. “After it rains, this whole place looks almost like a golf course.”

We visited Tanzania at the peak of the dry season, a week before the rain was expected. The tourists had gone home and, at the least, we figured dusty roads were better than muddy ones.

The plan was to visit Laly, a conservation biologist with an innovative idea to keep East Africa as wild as possible. On a continent where people come to ameliorate poverty or save the landscape, Laly’s story seemed different. She grew up in New Jersey, but after hearing the roar of a lion when she was a teenager, she committed to Africa. She lived first in Kenya then moved to Tanzania, where she started a nonprofit called the African People and Wildlife Fund to engage the local communities. Rather than teach them about how to protect their surroundings, her plan was to understand their needs and find more local ideas. The broader goal would be to protect big cats, which were already seeing their populations decline due to conflicts with humans.

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Those cats also have an unlikely story. Despite sitting near the top of the food chain, dominant species like lions have been shrinking in number. Less than a decade ago, there were more than 600 lions in Eastern Africa around Tarangire National Park. Today it’s believed to be roughly half that. There are the usual reasons like loss of habitat and changes in rain patterns. Yet the most dramatic impact has been an increase of conflicts between humans and the animals. If a lion kills a cow belonging to a nearby tribe, warriors from the tribe then kill it in retaliation.

Three hundred lions isn’t many. The number pushes the population close to being unable to recover through wild breeding. Yes, there are more lions further west in the famed Serengeti, and there are strong populations in parts of Asia, but eastern Tanzania’s ecosystem of mammals—like any ecosystem of mammals—depends on biodiversity. Remove cats like lions or cheetahs and the dominoes fall upward. The traditional relationships between prey and predator skew.

T o get to Laly’s camp requires flying into Arusha. Then you sit in a car for four hours on roads strewn with enough holes and dips to simulate a nine-magnitude earthquake. “I don’t even notice the drive anymore,” she said when we pulled up, road weary. The area where she built camp is remote—only last year did it start showing up on Google Maps. A year before that, there was neither cell service for dozens of miles nor available internet. It sits near a watering hole, so she named the plot Noloholo, which in Maasai, the language of the largest tribe in East Africa, means “place of water.”

The Maasai have some of the most sustainable customs on the planet. They carry their water from nearby streams, and eat only food they can produce nearby. But the Maasai’s long-held custom to kill threatening animals was disproportionately targeting lions.

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A normal conservation NGO might parachute in and dispatch volunteers to plead with tribal elders to stop the practice, pitching earthly harmony and animal sympathy. But customs can rarely be changed by a PR campaign. “I don’t think cultures change from the outside,” Laly told us as we headed to meet some of the tribal elders who requested her help to protect their flocks. “They change from within.” The translation: one American expat is not going to convince thousands of nearby Maasai families to give up a custom central to how they survive and protect themselves.

She figured that keeping big cats away from people could be the most effective way to keep them alive.

A better idea was to eliminate the need to retaliate in the first place. Or, in other words, build better fences. Maasai keep their livestock in fenced rings fortified by sharp thorns from Acacia trees. The cows stay inside the ring and the lions stay out; any break in the flimsy chain invites a hungry cat inside. But what if they fortified the barrier with chain link and held it in place with sturdy trees? Laly figured that keeping big cats away from people could be the most effective way to keep them alive.

So since 2000, Laly and her staff, which has grown to 65, have been pursuing her idea of building better fences, or as she calls them, living walls for livestock within a boma, the Maasai word for a family’s plot. With grants from National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative and several foundations, as well as a fundraising program that allows donors to sponsor a living wall, Laly’s goal is to build 100 of the by the end of this year. The longer term plan is to create 1,200 in nearby villages, then expand to other areas.

It brings to mind the proverb about teaching a man to fish versus catching one for him. “We’re not building these for them,” Laly said standing in a dusty expanse near several small huts. Each Maasai family has to cover 25 percent of the cost of the new fence. Then they have to certify that they’ll maintain it, and patch it when necessary. Usually it’s worth it. One Maasai elder said he had long been paying much more than the set-up cost in hours unslept, staring awake listening for lions.

B efore we left Tanzania, Laly wanted to make sure we got to see some wildlife. She took us to one of her favorite spots, a jutting outcrop called Ngarhari Rock that could be the backdrop for the live-action version of the Lion King. It’s also the spot where she married her husband, Charles, who helped her build Noloholo.

“In order to make a real difference in conservation you have to be dedicated and make a commitment to an area,” she said, waxing philosophical about why she’ll probably never leave Africa.

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For all of the downside of the dry season, there are still good parts about visiting when there’s dust in the air. It turned out to be the best time to see wildlife. With only a few spots to find water, the lions and elephants and zebras tend to all congregate near each other, rather than scatter far apart.

Early the next morning, Laly took us on a safari through the nearby national park, hoping to spot the elusive cats she spends so much time thinking about. Bahati, the Swahili word for luck, was on our side. We saw impala and buffalo, wildebeest and giraffes. Over the course of the drive, 16 lions (of the area’s roughly 300) came within view, an unheard of number for one day that Laly worried out loud might undercut her claim that the cats really are threatened (fact check: they are).

Last fall, Laly became a mother to a baby girl named Kemah. She’ll be raised at Noloholo, not far from the watering hole and the wildlife it attracts.

A few months after that, Laly became a mother again, A baby impala that had been separated from its family wandered into the camp and refused to leave. They named him Mr. Miguu, Swahili for legs (since his were shaking).

Charles explained that once an animal has the scent of humans on it, it’s hard to be accepted back into the wild. So Laly, against her usual judgement that wild animals belong in the wild, told the staff they could keep him—at least until he started head-butting with sharp horns. For now, they let him sleep in their shower.

To learn more about the work of Laly Lichtenfeld and National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, visit CauseAnUproar.org.