By Deirdre Leowinata
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.