The road we travel is so bumpy – I fear every moment that I will be thrown out into the outskirts of Tarangire National Park. But the students around me show no fear, only happiness and excitement, so I relax as we traverse the Maasai Steppe of Northern Tanzania spotting zebra, giraffe, and antelope. Suddenly, the car stops and all heads turn as we are told that lions are nearby. We see them in the distance, and the students become quiet with awe as they stare through their binoculars. I ask, “Have you ever seen lions before?” They all shake their heads, saying “no” without words. The two lionesses lie close together under the shade of an acacia tree. After a long period of silent observation, the Land Rover starts again and we continue to explore the savannah ecosystem. When we return to the campsite, it is evident that the journey has sparked the interest of the students, and their environmental teachings about these beautifully unique creatures can finally be put into the perspective of one lucky enough to see them in person.
As an intern in the Environmental Education department of the African People and Wildlife Fund, I work closely with the primary school students who venture to Noloholo as part of the environmental summer camps hosted here. The camps give top students in the area practical knowledge of their environment and how to take care of it, and sometimes provide a glimpse at the vulnerable species that become more rare every day. The students are not only intelligent and motivated but are also kind and fun-loving. I believe their sense of adventure and awareness of their environment will allow them to succeed as stewards of the country that is their home: Tanzania.
Just ten years ago, two young explorers set up camp by a small acacia at the top of a hill given to them by the rural Tanzanian community of Loibor Siret. That camp was to eventually become a permanent base for the African People & Wildlife Fund’s conservation programs focusing on the lions of the Maasai Steppe – a program that now protects thousands of head of livestock and 100 lions every year with over 500 Living Walls. With one side of the hill looking to the community rangelands and the other side looking to the eastern edge of Tarangire National Park, a flagship haven for African biodiversity, the location was a perfect metaphor for the work they set out to do.
Those two explorers were Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld and Charles Trout, now directors of the African People & Wildlife Fund (APW). What started as a tent on top of a land rover has grown into an operation that spans 19 communities across 30 000 km2 of Northern Tanzanian rangelands. The small two-man tent has been replaced by the Noloholo Environmental Center, a one-of-a-kind emblem combining traditional architecture and sustainable design that stands on top of the hill where it all started and marks the organization’s headquarters in Tanzania. The newly released 2014 Annual Report highlights the milestones of the last ten years, and as we celebrate a decade of success on the Steppe we invite you to share in celebrating Big Cats and Communities in Northern Tanzania.
This video highlights the journey we have taken over these past 10 years, and the strong relationships that have stemmed from it:
Africa is the land of diversity, hosting a vast amount of biological and cultural variance within each of its 53 countries. Biologists and David Attenborough fans all over the world know it for its unique, charismatic species: The roaring, the stampeding, and the larger-than-life. Anthropologists and Human Planet fans know it for its lion hunters, its hunter-gatherers, and its fascinating traditions that have been remarkably preserved through time. As a single country, by certain measures Tanzania contains more distinct peoples and languages than there are countries in the world (see Hirst, 1972). It is a land rich in history, and draws thousands of tourists every year for a walk on the wild side.
Our staff at the Noloholo Environmental Center are from all over Tanzania: the slopes of Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru to the islands of Lake Victoria; the bustling metropolis of Dar es Salaam to the small rural villages surrounding our environmental center. Most tourists bypass our little corner of the country beside Tarangire National Park, but this year we benefitted from two National Geographic Student Expeditions that came from all over the world to add a little bit of big-cat- conflict education to their photo and wildlife safari.
Each group spent a day in the communities surrounding our Noloholo Environmental Centre building the protective enclosures for local homesteads (‘bomas’) we call Living Walls. Nothing brings people together like hard labor (except perhaps Tammy), which has a way of completely leveling social stratification. In the warm afternoon sun the same beads of sweat were glistening on the skin of the students, leaders, boma residents, office staff, field officers, and even our executive directors. As holes were dug, Commiphora poles were planted, and fencing was nailed around the enclosure, students and local community members bonded — with smiles and kind gestures when no one was available for translation.
In the history of the world, ethnic diversity has not always been tied to positive things. Often, cultural differences have had negative outcomes like social and economic inequality, which has many times led to violence and suffering. On those two sizzling afternoons in Northern Tanzania, the same red earth dusted the faces and coated the multicolored hands of many regions, hands that were working together towards one goal. That goal was peace between two different kinds of neighbors: humans and wildlife.
In an area where lions and other big cats roam among the herds of Maasai cows, Living Walls reduce attacks on livestock and consequent retaliation on lions. The walls mark the union of two unique pools of knowledge, and during the wall building, those two bomas on the Maasai Steppe marked the union of many different cultures. It may have been just me, but I think I caught a glimpse of the ideal world, and it looks pretty beautiful.
You can sponsor a family’s Living Wall by donating to our program here.
Sources for this post:
Hirst, M.A. (1972). Tribal mixture and migration in Tanzania: an evaluation and analysis of census tribal data. Canadian Geographer16: 230-248.
Miguel, E. (2004). Tribe or nation? Nation-building and public goods in Kenya versus Tanzania. World Politics56: 327-362.
“In a few years to come, the world will only see the rare lion spoor on the sandy soil. If the wind blows, then even those spoor will go.” One extraordinary Maasai warrior shares his message for the world about the future of big cats. Elvis Kisimir experiences the full extent of familial responsibility while pursuing a career in wildlife in a story about how early exposure ignited a passion that transformed into the protection of lions and rural livelihoods in Tanzania. He tells his own tale of his metamorphosis from a young schoolboy who is scared of lions to the head of Human Wildlife Conflict Prevention for the African People and Wildlife Fund, and a Disney Conservation Hero.
My name is Elvis Kisimir. Born in Loibor Siret, and a Maasai by tribe, I love people, wildlife, and nature.
During my life I have experienced many changes in both the community and the environment that I live in. My father was a primary school teacher, and my mother was a nurse working at the health centre in the village of Emboreet who used to fly with doctors to different areas of the Maasai Steppe. When I was a young kid, sometimes if I cried, my mother would tell me, “Stop crying because the lions are behind the house.” I would stop crying immediately because I thought the lions might break into the house and take me. At that time the lions were very many, and I would hear them roaring almost every day: in the evening, at night, even early in the morning. When I met with friends to play together we always asked each other if everyone had heard the lions roaring in the night.
In 1991, my father stopped working as a primary school teacher. He took some courses on tourism and was employed as a tour guide at one of the companies in Arusha. During that time he worked very hard because he liked his new job, so I would see him a few times a year at most. I started boarding school at Simanjiro Primary School in Emboreet, and some days I would see him, in a big tourist truck or a Land Rover, stop by the school before going on to Tarangire through the Loibor Siret ranger post.
In December of that year, when the school was closed for Christmas, my father bought us a television. Most of the movies he bought were about wildlife because he wanted to understand more about these animals, as this it related to his new job and he wanted his children to see how various wild animals lived. The two movies that I won’t forget are Masai Mara and Londolozi, and some of those images have stayed in my mind until now. In the Masai Mara film a girl was nearly killed by a lion when she went out to play tennis, but she was rescued by people from the house – this was the flashback that I had when my mother would tell me that the lions were behind the house waiting to break in and take me. I would sit close to my father and ask him many questions, so I came to understand many things concerning wildlife. When I asked about the girl in the Masai Mara film, he told me,“My son, this is not reality. We are living together with wildlife in our environment. You always hear lions roaring at night. They are not bad creatures unless you disturb them. According to our tradition, you can be harmed or even killed by lion if you are cursed by your clan. You are a man, and in a few years time you will become a warrior, son!”
I learned many things from my father — this was the starting point of my dreams. There was a hope in my life that one day I would be like him.
In 1998, my father decided to make Narakauo his main homestead, 15 kilometers from Loibor Siret centre. According to the Maasai tradition, the eldest son has the greatest responsibility in the family. I was the only son to my father, so I had to work hard to make sure the family was fine. I completed my high school education in 2006, after which I took over some of my father’s responsibilities, making it very difficult for me to go for further studies. The next year I got married, and here you can imagine that I needed to work very hard because the responsibilities were mounting in my day-to-day life.
In 2010 I was employed at the African People and Wildlife Fund heading the Human-Wildlife Conflict program for the organization, which has headquarters in Loibor Siret. I saw as the realization of my dreams because I had already created trust in the locals I worked with, which is very important to me. During the time I have been working under Dr. Laly and Charles, I have learned many things concerning wildlife and environment in general, and I want to thank them for all they have showed me by becoming a good local conservationist.
What I have found surprising and amazing in my work experience is when you find different reactions to incidents of human-wildlife conflict. You can find that 20 goats or sheep have been killed by hyenas and the owners don’t take immediate action, but if one juvenile lion has killed a single calf, immediately you find people gather together from different age groups. Everyone wants to listen, and it is a time when each person shows the rest how much he knows about lions. The lesson here I learned is this: The lion is the most important creature in the Maasai tradition.
There was one day in a conversation with Dr. Laly when she said, “If you hear lions roaring, fighting for territory, that means things are balanced: rainfall, grasses, breeding…” This idea made me think back to the time when I was around 12 years old and lions were roaring almost every day in our area, the rainfall was enough for everything that needed it to survive, and many areas were still wild, with not as much human activity as nowadays.
I have discussed this with some of the adults and elders in the communities I work in, and they agree, saying, “At that time lions were everywhere. Every year we would get enough rainfall, and we didn’t have to sell cattle to buy maize because we had a lot of milk to fill ourselves, with the livestock eating well and breeding every year.”
So my message to my fellow Maasai and the world in general:
“In a few years to come, the world will only see the rare lion spoor on the sandy soil. If the wind blows, then even those spoor will go.”
The meaning of this message is that for the small number of lions we have now, for locals and the world in general, if we are not serious about protecting them, we are going to lose all of them. Avoid conflicts with them, and don’t shrink their habitat by developing human activities in their territories. If we do that, hopefully in a few years to come the new generation will both hear and see the king of the Maasai Steppe roaring.
Lastly, if there are no lions, there are no warriors. Your lion is my lion. Let’s preserve lions for the generations and generations to come.
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.
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!”
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!
WildlifeDirect is separately registered in the US (501-(c)3 not for profit) and Kenya (not for profit), aimed at helping endangered animals worldwide. No administration fee is taken for the funds that are transferred through us so that the financial support, net only of bank fees, can go where it was intended in its entirety.
WildlifeDirect ensures that 100% of your financial support (net of bank transfer fees) reaches your intended purpose.
Thank you for your support towards the core costs of WildlifeDirect.