Summer Camp: For many, the term brings fond memories of campfires, fast friendships, ”cannon balls” into cold water, mess halls, and hiding from the counselors when they tell you to go to sleep. For many families in North America, summer camp is a given.
In the communities that we work in here on the Maasai Steppe, summer camp is a little different. For those students who participate, our Noloholo Environmental Camps are highly competitive, involving a combined evaluation from school grades in addition to two separate tests. And if they don’t study, even the best students can’t assume they will get in, with only five boys and five girls taken from each school. When they finish their tests, students wait anxiously to hear whether they will be taking the bumpy ride to camp in our trusty lorry. For those whose names are called, you will never see children run as fast to get permission forms signed by their parents. For those whose names are not called, some can try again next year, and a gentle pep talk from our Conservation Education program officer, Neovitus “Neo” Sianga, returns smiles to the children’s faces.
This year, we added three new primary schools to the environmental camp program: Emboret, Loibor Soit, and Mbuko. So far, we have held two weeks of camp: one for the students of Loibor Soit and Mbuko, and the second for Kangala and Emboret. As per usual, and especially for the new schools, students entered cautiously, with wary glances at unfamiliar foods (like bread and peanut butter). But also as per usual, they quickly became accustomed to camp, and the initial timidity dissolved with the small candy rewards they placed in their mouths. By the end of the week, virtually every arm went up when a question was posed.
On the list of draws for the kids, camp provides three good meals plus two snacks a day, a severe lack of chores, clean rooms to sleep in, and absolutely no physical punishment. Our Conservation Education duo consisting of Neo and Revocatus Magayane use teaching methods that are both instructive and fun, which are two words that aren’t often used in the same sentence here on the Maasai Steppe. Children receive prizes for raising their hands, games of tag teach lessons about ecological relationships, and game drives treat them to a different perspective on the wildlife that live in their own backyards. Each day, campers have lessons on topics from ecology and natural history, to project management and astronomy, while at the same time learning about what our team does here for conservation. Lessons are taught in dynamic and interactive ways that are constantly raising their confidence in important life skills such as public speaking, organization, and debate. They are exposed to role models such as our own Joyce Ndakaru and Elvis Kisimir, and on culture day, even our interns get involved in presenting their own special family traditions alongside Maasai elders. At the end of the week every attendee receives a certificate of completion, and the most actively participating boy and girl receive their deserved recognition. Each and every child goes home a little bit wiser, a little bit braver, and a little bit plumper.
In the coming years, climate change will transform the world in ways that we have not predicted. The king of the big cats has already survived two major periods of change, but with humans quickly taking over valuable grassland habitat, will they be able to survive another? On the Maasai Steppe of Tanzania, lions have long shared the land with herds of cattle that require the same large tracts of grassland as they do. With a common goal, perhaps these age-old enemies can find truce – their survival might depend on it.
By Deirdre Leowinata
The rolling sea of long, golden grasses that characterize Africa’s savannas serve not only as representations of the unique ecosystems of this expansive continent but also as symbols of a quietly but precisely balanced climate. Its inhabitants, such as the thorn acacia, whose stiff barbs threaten to impale anyone who dares to let his mind wander as he walks, may be built to withstand both heat and jaws, but the combination of climate change and human population growth could threaten the resilience of the plains.
The modern lion, the flagship species of Africa, has already survived two global freeze-thaw cycles characterized here by rhythmic expansions and contractions of deserts and forests that separated populations, creating genetically different subspecies. Widespread aridity in northern and southern Africa during these periods reduced lion populations in these regions. Today, the estimated 32, 000 lions of the continent are sentinels of intact ecosystems, but these areas are undergoing huge changes.
Between 1960 and 2010, the human population of sub-Saharan Africa increased four-fold from 229 million to 863 million and is expected to double by 2060. In the Tarangire ecosystem of Tanzania where we work, we may have one of the remaining lion strongholds, and we are working very hard to ensure that it remains that way. Because our goal is to keep lions around for the long run, and not just the next few years, we must to take into account long-term changes, such as the potential effects of a changing climate.
In these semi-arid landscapes, pastoralism, if done sustainably, is a productive use of land. It benefits the ecosystem and the wildlife that inhabit it through grazing movements that fertilize the soil and promote new vegetation growth. But as climates change, another creature is showing signs of peril: the Maasai cow.
Increasingly erratic rainfall is now threatening livestock populations with more frequent droughts, leaving many Maasai to rely more on small stock that have lower feed requirements such as goats and sheep. Smaller stock in larger numbers mean a faster rate of rangeland degradation, rendering the challenging task of sustainable grazing even greater as resources become scarce. In this part of Tanzania, current reports predict a 1.8- to 3.6-degree increase in temperature over the next 50 years, along with even less rainfall and a large increase in monthly evaporation. Undoubtedly, this will lead to losses in livestock and a discouraging economy for pastoralists. Contiguous rangelands will become more important than ever.
“The paradox of pastoralism is that it needs security to protect its flexibility.” (Galvin, 2009)
A loss of water security can give families incentive to privatize grazing land and also (somewhat counter-intuitively) to start farms to supplement their livelihoods. In the poor soil and already uncertain climate of the Steppe, meager stalks of corn struggle towards the sun; want of income is quickly splitting the golden sea with stretches of attempted cultivation. Compartmentalizing the landscape means losing ecosystem function, connectivity and resilience, so small stochastic events like droughts are more likely to affect larger proportions of both livestock and wildlife, endangering the famed Maasai cattle herds and the lions they have shared the land with for so long. The bottom line: The pastoral/wildlife system that is crucial to the functioning of the Maasai Steppe will collapse unless the land can be managed to maintain the movement of both livestock and wildlife.
The situation has resulted in a rather unusual opportunity for truce between big cats and cows. The question now is: Can predator and prey – who require the same habitat to survive – equally benefit from improved rangeland management on the Maasai Steppe?
The idea might not be so absurd, given the importance of both to rangeland inhabitants. In fact, it is a golden opportunity for conservationists to link the future of a natural, social, and cultural treasure to the continued existence of the Maasai’s greatest status symbol – the ultimate example of killing two birds with one stone. But the truth is that we are also dealing with two icons that have clashed for ages, and the quarrels may only get worse as the population grows, habitats shrink, and water becomes scarce.
Our team at Noloholo might just be what these two particular animals need. With wildlife conservation a main priority, and happiness of the community a necessity, the lions and cattle of the Steppe are our premiere clients. Our four main programs are poised to tackle the still somewhat ethereal problem of climate change with a long-term, whole-system approach to conservation. Elvis and his expert team of Big Cat Conflict officers can mediate any squabbles while our education and conservation enterprise teams help the community not only learn the best ways to manage their rangelands, but how to do so in a manner that provides environmentally-friendly opportunities for growing economically.
Like a fable of Aesop in itself, the moral “United we conquer, divided we fall” echoes true for the inhabitants of the Steppe. Since we already know the moral, there’s no reason this story shouldn’t have a happy ending.
Sources for this post:
Barnett, R., Yamaguchi, N., Barnes, I., and A. Cooper (2006). The origin, current diversity, and future conservation of the modern lion (Panthera leo). Proceedings: Biological Sciences 273, 2119-2125.
Chardonnet, P. (2002). Conservation of African lion. Paris, France: International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife.
Creel, S., Becker, M.S., Durant, S.M., M’Soka, J., Matandiko, W., Dickman, A.J. et al. (2013). Conserving large populations of lions – the argument for fences has holes. Ecology Letters
Galvin, K.A. (2009). Transitions: Pastoralists living with change. Annual Reviews of Anthropology 38: 185-198.
Msoffe, F.U., Said, M.Y., Ogutu, J.O., Kifugo, S.C., de Leeuw, J., van Gardingen, P., and R.S. Reid (2011). Spatial correlates of land-use changes in the Maasai-Steppe of Tanzania: Implcations for conservation and environmental planning. International Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation 3: 280-290.
Msoffe, F.U., Kifugo, S.C., Said, M.Y., Neselle, M.O., van Gardingen, P., Reid, R.S., et al. (2011). Drivers and impacts of land-use change in the Maasai Steppe of northern Tanzania: an ecological, social and political analysis. Journal of Land Use Science6: 261-281.
Packer, C., Loveridge, A., Canney, S., Caro, T., Garnett, S.T., Pfeifer, M., et al. (2012). The size of savannah Africa: a lion’s (Panthero leo) view. Biodiversity and Conservation 22: 17-35.
Riggio, J., Jacobsen, A., Dollar, L., Bauer, H., Becker, M., Dickman, A., Funston, P., Groom, R., Henschel, P., de Iongh, H., Lichtenfeld, L., and S. Pimm (2013). The size of savannah Africa: a lion’s (Panthera leo) view. Biodiversity Conservation 22: 17-35.
Schuette, P., Creel, S., & D. Christianson (2013). Coexistence of African lions, livestock, and people in a landscape with variable human land use and seasonal movements. Biological Conservation157: 148-154.
Tadross, M., and P. Wolski (2010). Pangani River Basin Flow Assessment: Climate change modeling for the Pangani Basin to support the IWRM planning process. IUCN Water and Nature Initiative & Pangani Basin Water Board.
Turner, A., & M. Antón (1997). The big cats and their fossil relatives. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Gathered women, waiting for a meeting to start, were quizzing Alison Nicholls, a visiting artist at APW’s Noloholo Environmental Center. Inquiries about children are common worldwide. However, to this group of Maasai and Swahili women, her answer was unthinkable.
“My husband and I chose not to have children.”
Rushed chatter in Kiswahili and Kimaasai immediately prompted several offers.
“You can have one of my children.”
“How about a girl? Only this high,” indicating just over knee height.
Alison fended off the well-intentioned offers. Commenting that she only had one plane ticket back to the U.S. was her escape from an unsought adoption.
Where we operate on Tanzania’s Maasai Steppe, choosing childlessness is unthinkable. According to multiple Maasai staff at APW, eight is the minimum number of children a woman must have to be considered respectable. “More are better,” says Joyce Ndakaru, APW’s Conservation Enterprise and Development Officer anda very unconventional Maasai woman. “If you have five children, people will always ask: ‘why not more?’ You must have enough children to accommodate one or two deaths, and a few that do not have good personalities. Family planning is a bad word around here.”
Tanzania’s population is growing rapidly and shows no signs of slowing. Current UN estimates rank Tanzania as the world’s 26thmost populated country. But by 2050, Tanzania is predicted to jump to 13th place. Escalating human demands place increased stress on already limited big cat habitat. More people need more space and more food, but lions and cheetahs also need lots of room to wander. On the Maasai Steppe, more humans usually mean more cattle or cultivation, pushing out native lion prey and reducing grasslands. With fewer wildebeest and zebra to eat, lions are more liable to prey upon livestock, triggering retaliatory killings. Our Living Wall project is one initiative aimed at preventing such conflict. However, we also tackle conservation issues more broadly and in less obvious ways, for example by addressing women’s position in society.
The ladies chatting with Alison were waiting for a micro-grant award ceremony to start. So far this year, APW has provided start-up funds to 10 women’s groups as part of our environmentally friendly business initiative. To some, supporting women’s businesses might seem like an indirect step for women’s rights and wildlife conservation. Of course, encouraging sustainable livelihoods is an important part of what we hope to achieve with these grants. But by giving local women something they desire — additional income — we can also subtly change their position in society. Managing a beekeeping business, for example, gives many local women their first opportunity to have something completely their own, completely apart from male family members.
Joyce, our indefatigable Conservation Enterprise and Development Officer, is a fantastic example of how hard a Maasai woman must work to escape her society’s female norms. For several years she was her family’s black sheep. Joyce defied her parents to obtain a secondary education and thereby avoided marriage at 15 (a common age for Maasai girls to marry). Years later, she reconciled with her family. Marrying a Maasai man — “of my own choice,” she is quick to point out — undoubtedly helped. Today, she is proud of her two – yes, only two – children.
Now, Joyce routinely shocks young Maasai men as she works. Watching her switch among Swahili, Maasai, and English while directing emergent women’s groups, they comment, “How can a Maasai woman know so much?” Hopefully, through projects like the recently funded beekeeping businesses, young women choosing their own path will be less of a shock to the community in the future.
Along with supporting female empowerment and local economic development, these beekeeping businesses also promote habitat retention – the bottom line for big cat survival outside of protected areas. Tanzania’s National Beekeeping Policy of 1998 prevents people from cutting down trees around hives. So, each new beekeeping venture helps keep important lion, cheetah and leopard habitat open.
A win for women and wildlife – well, that’s exactly what we are hoping for.
The Maasai warriors of Tanzania are known around the world for their tradition of hunting lions. When a young warrior kills a lion, he is celebrated for his courage and skill in the face of a powerful beast. But as the human population grows, the lions are disappearing. The Maasai of the Tanzanian steppe now have a decision to make: to carry on tradition as is or to turn that age-old respect into protection. Two men, one lion-slayer and one young guardian, share their stories on how they came to protect the big cats in their communities.
The Maasai people of Tanzania may be one of the last of the world’s cultures that has maintained most of their traditions through the modern age. The lion hunt remains one of their most celebrated rituals, simultaneously honoring the big cat and praising young warriors for their bravery. (Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)
“If we wanted to kill the lion, we had to find someone we knew. It was necessary to find a friend who was not afraid, who could help – and then the lion didn’t escape”. Early one morning in the year 1998, Julius Laizer was called upon to be that friend.
The Maasai people of Tanzania and Kenya are said to be one of the last remaining cultures that haven’t allowed their traditions to be significantly affected by the outside world. In that, they are commonly known for three main things: their bold attire, their fondness for cattle, and their lion hunts.
For the Maasai, the lion hunt is a celebration of bravery reflecting their reverence and respect for the big cat as a primary foe. However, their relationship with the lion has become increasingly turbulent as the pastoralists confront an ever more populated landscape where conflicts between people and wildlife are on the rise. Warriors often put down their spears, replacing them with poison and guns. With lion populations plummeting across many parts of the continent, one spot on Tanzania’s Maasai Steppe shows refreshing signs of a recovering lion population and a Maasai community in a locally-motivated transition.
Julius Laizer is a Maasai elder living in the sprawling rangelands of Emboret. At just 23 years of age, he speared his first lion. Lucas Lengoje, who is 24 now, is one of the African People & Wildlife Fund’s Warriors for Wildlife, an important component of the Maasai Steppe Big Cats Conservation Initiative. The two men are warriors of different generations, and have chosen different paths, but both have put their spears down for a road that ensures their children don’t speak of a time when lions once roamed the steppe.
“If lions are around, and our children are able to see them, I can say it will be good for me — I will have gotten my reward,” says Lucas, who already has four wives as per his family traditions. For Lucas, getting a job as a Big Cat Conflict Officer was the tipping point in his switch from hunter to defender. Not yet a full warrior, he has already made a decision that changes his entire way of life. In contrast, Julius was celebrated as a lion slayer at the same age, and a lucky photo of the celebration still hangs on his wall, though years have worn its original color.
What ties the two together is the one thing that keeps the lions out: Living Walls. An idea birthed from a combination of community knowledge and modern tools, the simple chain-link structure intertwined with Commiphora africana trees has played a big role in the changing attitudes of the Maasai people here.
“Since we installed the fence, we have not had any animals attack our livestock. Me, I installed mine in 2012*…and after that many people started asking me how I got the fence.”
Julius was one of the first community members in Emboret to install a Living Wall.
For Lucas, who is (pardon the pun) on the other side of the fence, the walls make his job a lot easier.
“First of all, I can say that people are now aware that there are solutions for human-wildlife conflict, because, even right now, these fences, the Living Walls…they help a lot. That’s why many people right now are asking for them to prevent the wild animals from entering their bomas.”
In his home village of Narakauwo, Lucas is the first one on the scene if a cow or a goat is attacked. He is tasked with the considerable challenge of explaining why lions shouldn’t be hunted. “Lions, they are very important for us Maasai. If someone kills a lion, it can be very significant to them,” he says.
The tradeoff for vengeance and fame is peace with the animal they have clashed with for generations. But is that enough?
In the image hanging on the wall in Julius’ house, he holds the lion’s front paw, the customary prize for the second spearman, while his friend, the first, holds the tail. He has experienced firsthand the glory of the Maasai lion slayer, but has chosen a different future for the next generation of his family. Here, near the eastern edge of Tarangire National Park, the celebrated wild animals of this country frequent the farms and homesteads of the people who live nearby. The idea of a lion, a leopard, or a pack of hyenas paying your home a visit in the night may sound exciting, perhaps even welcome to some. But when your livelihood depends on the targets of those visits, it can become more than a little difficult to live with them.
Today, the warriors of the steppe have come to a very real crossroad: to keep fighting back with spears, poison and guns, until the lions are perhaps all gone, or to embrace new methods of protecting their livestock. With support from the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative and other partners, 350 Living Walls are now in place, impacting 7,000 people with countless requests for more.
It seems for many, peace with the lions is worth the effort.
*In the original interview, Julius Laizer mentioned that his wall was built in 2007, but after a fact check we have changed the year to 2012, the year it was actually built.
Kideghesho, J.R., Rija, A.A., Mwamende, K.A., and I.S. Selemani (2013). Emerging issues and challenges in conservation of biodiversity in the rangelands of Tanzania. Nature Conservation 6: 1-29.
Colors make life brighter, and our Loibor Siret Simba club just added a whole lot more color to their school walls. Over three days, some very committed Wildlife Club members decorated two classrooms and one very large outside wall with letters, numbers, and local wildlife.
We had the great pleasure of hosting wildlife artist and conservation advocate Alison Nicholls at Noloholo for just over a week, and as soon as she arrived we hit the ground running with three long days of taping walls, stenciling, mixing colors, and painting.
The classrooms of standards 4 and 6 were filled with the animals that not only represent their own wildlife club but the relationships that make up the Tarangire ecosystem. Impalas were placed opposite to hyenas, and livestock faced off with lions in a symbolic representation of the predator-prey system that shapes not only the environment but the culture of the Maasai Steppe. Ungulates followed each other in lines that may (perhaps unintentionally) represent the great seasonal migrations of the region.
Later in the week, wildlife club members of Loibor Siret, Kangala, and Narakauwo got a life drawing lesson from Nicholls herself, which was a very special treat for schools that don’t offer art as a subject. The lessons revealed some hidden artistic talent within the stack of sketches.
The end of the week coincided with the closing of the primary schools, and Loibor Siret primary school played host to the town’s first ever art gallery. Alison presented her work inspired by the people and wildlife of the area, and showcased in the gallery were the works of 59 Simba Club members, two of which were selected by Alison to receive art supplies for their excellent drawing skills. A game of wildlife trivia selected 33 wildlife club members who would receive a laminated print of one of her special works. Undoubtedly, the first to go were the animal paintings. If the week was any indication of what the future holds, the enthusiasm and dedication of the students as they carefully painted in stencils of elephants and lions, the smiles on their faces as they learned how to draw a rhino, and the murmurs as they listened to the story behind Alison’s pink elephants* bodes well for wildlife conservation in this town.
As animals mark their territories, so did the students of the primary school this week. On the wall facing the village road, big enough for any passerby to see, a large map of Tanzania has been painted containing its green, blue, black, and yellow flag. And below the name of the school is none other than the mark of the Noloholo Simba Club — a pair of lions, which stand overlooking a parade of African wildlife.
*The story behind the elephants can be found on Alison’s website under “Artwork,” “Original Paintings,” and “Elephant!”
Monday mornings, although they may bring about familiar feelings, are different for various regions of the world. In the village of Loibor Siret, the rising smell of roasting meat welcomes a new week. As congregations of red- and blue-garbed men and women head toward the aromatic wafts of beef and mutton, market day in the village begins. People come from all over on bicycles laden six or seven feet high with clothes, house ware, spices, and food supplies.
On one particular Monday though, something changed. A new entity arrived in the marketplace: a wave of blue school sweaters with peaks of white collars. The wave swept into the market with a rush of cheering as our Noloholo Wildlife Club members from Loibor Siret primary school arrived for their first marketplace education day.
Armed with brooms and rubber gloves, the Loibor Siret Lion Club picked up trash, swept it away, or burned it, until the market area looked brand new. The club chairman then delegated teams of two to circle the assorted stalls to inform community members of what they were doing that day. The scene was truly a sight to behold.
As the day went on, the market became crowded as community members sought sugar, soap, and meat. The stall that garnered the most curiosity, however, was the one attended by the primary school students where conversations about how to keep the village clean and how to protect their natural resources were overheard. And the most impressive part was that they did it all on their own.
The ultimate measure of success for a program like our Noloholo wildlife clubs is independent functioning. In just the past few weeks, we have seen the members of this year’s wildlife clubs blossoming into true environmental leaders in their communities. Like a family, a huge bonus of working so closely with local communities is being able to watch change as it happens. And, boy, are we proud.
As elders gathered around the table with genuine questions about how they could help their environment, knowledge passed between generations of the past and of the future with respect and open minds. Perhaps the wider world can take a page out of the book of this little Maasai town.
Left to right: Namelok, Karakai, and Rahely are three of our more senior scholars. Bonding happens quickly during the scholars’ two-week stay at camp.
We all remember high school. The days of cramming for full days (or not), the horror that was public speaking, along with the mild to extreme social pressure that hits everyone at some point in time. Once a year, our Noloholo Environmental Scholars can escape from all that.
Scholars enter the dorm at camp in Noloholo. During their stay, the students spend every moment together whether sleeping or waking.
They come home from boarding school in Monduli and spend two weeks in camp together to bond and help each other through whatever difficulties they may have, whether in school or out. And if they weren’t close before, everything changes pretty fast while they study for their standardized school exams. With days that start at 8am and don’t stop until 10pm, they spend every moment, whether sleeping or waking, together. When I was that age, a week in I would have been hesitant to return to the classroom at 8pm for the night session, but when asked, our scholars just say “We want to go back to study”. And that’s the kind of commitment that brought them to where they are now. Bringing them together in camp provides a unique opportunity: the younger scholars can gain valuable mentorship from their elders, and the senior scholars can learn all the better, because you never learn more than you do by teaching. Plus, when you’re going to boarding school in an unfamiliar place, it’s always good to have friends.
A teacher from Moringe Secondary School helps a group of Form 1 students tackle subjects including Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Math, Geography, History, English, and Swahili.
For the scholars, intensive work in new and difficult situations is a part of everyday life. Not only have they left their homes in the villages, but also here in Tanzania, secondary school classes are taught in English with no transition period in between to learn the language. Last week, each of our scholars got up in front of the classroom to teach a subject of their choice – and yes, it was in English. Sure, there were nerves, and watching them may have released my own scary memories of high school French class, but I never had to explain advanced functions, research methods, or the concept of relative density in French in order to maintain my prospect of finishing high school.
Kelvin teaches his fellow scholars how to calculate the density of an object. The best way to learn is to teach, and each student taught one subject of their choice during their stay.
What each and every one of these scholars has achieved is nothing short of inspiring. During the day, they display tremendously high levels of discipline, determination, and maturity. It is only when the books are closed, the sunlight hits their faces, and they head down to play and chatter with cheeky smiles that their adolescence becomes apparent.
Work hard, play hard. After a long day of studying, the students (and the teacher too!) enjoy a game of soccer by the dorm.
So what exactly is our scholar retreat? It is school, it is camp, and it is a little cross-section of life in its most concentrated form. But, like a cocoon, what comes out is visibly and marvelously different from what goes in, and it’s a very special thing to see. For our education team here at Noloholo, it means a whole lot more than any of our scholars may realize. If we had to pick a moment that makes our work worthwhile, a great place to start is this period of time when our scholars come and show us just how much they’ve grown.
Paulo grins behind his Physics textbook, revealing his less serious side!
Earth Day this year may have been the biggest to date; it certainly was for the citizens of six towns in our part of the Maasai Steppe. This year marked the first inter-village soccer tournament here, with two preliminary rounds and a final on Earth Day that drew 1500 people to the school field – that’s a pretty big deal for a small community of less than 6000.
The first preliminary round took place on Saturday in Loibor Soit, between its wildlife club and those of Emboret and Mbuko primary schools. With the hill called Lolkisale situated nearby behind fields of tall-growing corn, and Maasai warriors watching dressed brightly in their traditional ‘rubega’, that first day was nothing short of romantic. This was the first soccer game ever for the students of Mbuko. So, the idyllic scene was only slightly contrasted by the innocent spirit of the team, who as one might expect, followed the ball in a single cloud with no thought of covering their opponents. As a result, they did not make it to the Earth Day final, but they tried, they learned and they laughed, which is worth so much more.
Our own home town of Loibor Siret played host to the second and final rounds, where small clumps of goats scattered the field before the days’ events. Unlike the open field and gentle grasslands of Loibor Soit, the ecology of Loibor Siret is slightly more defensive. Acacia trees shielded by thorns abound, not to mention the prickly plants that dot the school field. The two field locations inadvertently represented the main landscapes of the Maasai Steppe, which was fitting for a celebration of the environment. There on the school field, with lines prepared impeccably for the occasion by the members of the wildlife club themselves, Loibor Siret competed with Kangala and Narakauo clubs to qualify for the final. And when the final came on Tuesday, it was Loibor Siret and Kangala who played against Saturday’s qualifying teams.
On the morning of the 22nd, the sun shone brightly, the crowd cheered loudly, and each wildlife club competed for the title of Noloholo Earth Day Champion. However, despite the action, the pressure, and the penalty shootouts, the most extraordinary part of the day’s events was not the soccer. Before the games began, armed with gloves, rakes, and brooms, the students and teachers of Loibor Siret, Loibor Soit, Kangala, and Emboret flocked the village roads. As the massive wave of blue and green sweaters swept the village clean in a matter of minutes, it was impossible not to be filled with a powerful sense of hope for the rest of the human race. Perhaps, if four school clubs can clean up an entire village in such a short time, cities and countries can work together to clean up the world.
The lesson was the power of teamwork. Whether picking up trash or playing ball, things always go better when you work together. The final match against Loibor Soit proved that the members of our original wildlife club, the Loibor Siret Lion Club, already know that. Perhaps now it’s the rest of the world’s turn – but we might need a bigger trophy.
Originally posted on National Geographic Newswatch – View it HERE
From afar, the small farming community of Kangala looks unassuming. After passing through village after village of the circular homesteads, or bomas, that mark the Maasai Steppe in northern Tanzania, East Africa, the square, mud-brick houses decorated with bright flowers and nestled closely together in a vast, open landscape look incredibly appealing. It would never occur, upon first look, that this quaint spot was sustained by some of the most environmentally destructive practices in the area.
Mining, charcoal, and agriculture, in sequence, have been staples of Kangala’s economy since its founding, all of which resulted in extensive deforestation. For big cats, and particularly cheetahs, that means severe loss of essential habitat. Dependent on large expanses of land for survival, big cats are being threatened by habitat-clearing.
“When people started to move to Kangala, they came because of the mining. But after the mining disappeared, the hunger problem occurred — there was no money to spend,” says Akundaeli Swai, a farmer in Kangala, and assistant to the village priest. “And that’s when people started to think about what to do. So that problem caused people to go into the bush and burn charcoal.”
Akundaeli is a former charcoal-maker, and one of the many wa-Swahili, or Swahili people, who made their way to the Maasai Steppe for the promise of mining fortunes. A gentle, friendly, and wise man of the church, he is not exactly the image of one who would undermine the law. Charcoal regulations are managed by the district authorities in Tanzania, and in our district of Simanjiro, it is strictly illegal to harvest trees for charcoal without a permit. With the prohibition of harvesting and no other alternatives, families like Akundaeli’s are driven by poverty and hunger to subvert the law.
On a large scale, charcoal is not a great contributor to the global economy. Most developed countries utilize energy sources like electricity and gas. However, in much of sub-Saharan Africa, wood fuel still accounts for the majority of energy consumption, with estimates of over 90 percent in Tanzania.
Around our African People and Wildlife Fund headquarters in the village of Loibor Siret, the value of charcoal has increased over the past few decades, though its contribution to the national GDP has fallen, most likely due to a tumultuous history of regulation and poor enforcement. So, when the mining business started to plunge in Kangala, the Swahili families that made their lives excavating the earth switched to charcoal production.
The charcoal kiln is an ever-consuming black hole for the forests in which our big cats range, sometimes using 4-6 times more wood to produce the charcoal in comparison to cooking with firewood, and it claims a permanent ecological settlement on the land it occupies. The cleared forests themselves can recover only after many years of good conditions, but the kiln claims the land it sits on forever.
Cheetahs require large tracts of contiguous landscape to survive. In areas where their habitats become too patchy, these animals flee to more suitable areas. But, these areas are becoming more scare as Tanzania’s forests are depleted. However, this young male and his brother were recently spotted near our center, an indication that our work is paying off.
For animals that require continuous stretches of land, increasingly patchy mosaics can quickly become inhospitable, driving wildlife into local extinction. And the increasing demand arising from rapid population growth, paired with poor regulation, and virtually no efforts toward regeneration, means that our treasured Tanzanian forests, protected or not, are being destroyed at a rapid rate. Annually, that is a loss of about 300,000-500,000 hectares, with charcoal contributing at least 30-60 percent of the destruction. For our cats here on the Steppe, that’s bad news – posing a significant challenge for the Maasai Steppe Big Cats Conservation Initiative team members, including our Warriors for Wildlife.
Two weeks ago, a late-night public transport vehicle on its way to Arusha caught fire due to a particularly ill-fated load of charcoal that had been stashed onboard. The incident was oddly unsurprising to many local community members, despite its illegal status. No one knows the situation better than the Loibor Siret village game scouts (VGS), a team supported by our Big Cat’s Warriors for Wildlife program, which receives significant support from the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. On patrol, they have seized over 1,000 bags of charcoal just in the past year. Recently, they found and extinguished eight charcoal kilns in a single week.
Because of the efforts of these warriors, there is hope on the Maasai Steppe despite the disheartening statistics. Gerald Raphael, team leader, has seen a steady reduction in the amount of charcoal they are seizing. “This week, we destroyed eight charcoal kilns,” Gerald says. “You might find, next week, that we only tear down two kilns, and the following week, we might not find any.”
Working in their own communities, Gerald and his team are challenged with the task of explaining to their fellow community members why they can’t make charcoal. “If you ask someone why they’re doing it, the answer is ‘Because I don’t have any other job’. That’s a challenge, because it is very hard to motivate that person to stop doing it, because they don’t have any other options. That’s how they eat — through burning charcoal and cutting trees.”
Akundaeli has not made charcoal in more than four years. And others in the sub-village are following suit. But for many, the temptations of charcoal are too great. “Right now, a bag of charcoal costs 15,000 shillings. Charcoal brings in a lot of money. It brings income — more than farming. And charcoal is easy. If you do it for a week, you can make 30 bags,” he explains.
The government has tried to stimulate alternative fuel-use through policy, tax waivers on kerosene, and training to increase the efficiency of kilns. Some projects are underway to support fuel-efficient stoves. For Jumanne Labia, a citizen of Kangala and one of the African People & Wildlife Fund’s community trainers, the solution is education. “This community doesn’t have any notion that what they are doing is bad,” he says. “They could be given a seminar that teaches them about the environment. I think that would help a lot. If you just tell someone that cutting trees is bad, they don’t understand. They say that trees have been planted by God so we can just cut them. They need more education.”
For our team at Noloholo, education is a top priority. Through seminars and workshops run collectively by our staff and community members, people are starting to understand. That, combined with our new grant program for environmental entrepreneurs, provides critical incentives for people to stop making charcoal, and to start thinking about more sustainable ways to make their living.
Meanwhile, the Warriors for Wildlife continue their patrols. As they help to enforce the law on harvesting, the burning is coming to a halt. That means the animals still have a chance.
The game scouts spot cheetahs on their patrols, indicating that for now, the habitat is still viable. Median-case projections of deforestation predict Tanzanian forests to have disappeared by 2048. But, in areas like ours where on-the-ground protection is combined with support for alternative livelihoods, the big cats still roam – setting a positive example for the forests, and the big cats, of the rest of the country.
Often, the image of education in Africa is portrayed as shabbily clad children sitting at marked and aged wooden desks haphazardly arranged in a broken-down classroom. It is not an image that brings about feelings of well-funded programming and high standards of teaching. However, at a seminar we hosted at our environmental center last week, eight teachers displayed levels of both knowledge and wisdom that are severely underestimated in the stereotypical African classroom.
Together with the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots and Shoots program, we hosted primary and secondary school teachers from Loibor Siret, Kangala, Narakauwo, Emboret, and Loibor Soit, for a seminar on environmental conservation education. Our guests arrived on Thursday evening, and after a tasty dinner and a good night’s sleep, they were ready to learn.
The weekend was focused on the development and advancement of present and future environmental clubs based on progressive teaching strategies that encourage participatory learning styles. In an area where much of the teaching has been done with lectures alone, and discipline enforced with punishment and not reward, the teachers were not only open, but also excited to learn about alternative methods. They were brought together in an unfamiliar environment to learn new concepts and new teaching styles for two intense days, and were exposed to self-criticism and the possible anguish of watching videotapes of themselves on a projector screen, and did it all with respect and smiles on their faces.
Nevertheless, the thing that stood out above all others was the amount of critical thinking each and every teacher demonstrated. Blind acceptance is often a trait of people who don’t know or don’t care, and these teachers were not afraid to pose tough questions.
The great scientist Carl Sagan once said: “It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.”
And when the eight teachers sat on top of the hill called Ngahari at the end of the second day, I saw the true state of education in Tanzania, and it’s looking very bright.
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