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Saving lions is no game, except when it is

Posted by: Ruaha Carnivore Project, a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife

Male lion in the Ruaha landscape, Tanzania. Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project.

Lion Defender Joseph Dendu had just worked nine hours through the night to stop a traditional lion hunt near his village in Ruaha, Tanzania when he jumped on board a 10-hour bus ride with his fellow Defenders to the next test of his stamina: the annual Lion Guardian Games.

The Games bring together protectors of lions from all over East Africa, all graduates of the training program offered by Lion Guardians, a conservation organization based in Amboseli, Kenya. Dedicated to finding and enacting long-term solutions for people and wildlife to co-exist, the organization trains local warriors to work from within the community to stop lion hunts, search for lost livestock and reinforce livestock enclosures called bomas.

Joseph Dendu enjoying the Games, just hours after stopping a traditional lion hunt. Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project.

In Tanzania’s Ruaha landscape—home to 10% of the world’s remaining lions—the devoted guardians call themselves locally the Lion Defenders. In 2015, 14 influential young warriors across seven village zones in Ruaha completed rigorous guardian training, learning how to collaborate with locals to protect Ruaha’s lions. Their work has enormous stakes.

Worldwide, lion populations have decreased by 43 percent over the past two decades, leaving approximately 20,000 lions in the wild. Though a large population of these remaining lions is located in Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park and its surrounding lands, this landscape also has extremely high rates of human-carnivore conflict and lion killing. To local pastoralists, the loss of even one cow, goat or donkey to predation can have a profound impact on livelihoods, and how local people feel about large carnivores.

The only way to address the extraordinarily high levels of human-carnivore conflict in this landscape is to work closely within local communities. The Ruaha Lion Defenders came together through the work of the Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP), a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife. RCP focuses on improving the conservation status of Ruaha’s large carnivore populations. Beyond lions, Ruaha is home to spotted hyenas, leopards, the world’s third largest population of endangered African wild dogs, and one of only four large cheetah populations in East Africa.

The Ruaha Lion Defenders. Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project.

The Lion Defenders help bridge RCP’s science and community-driven strategies by conducting tracking, conflict mitigation, data collection, techniques to prevent hunts, and livestock husbandry across a 270 mile landscape. Their work with local people is instrumental to RCP’s success.

In their first year, the Ruaha Lion Defenders have fortified 330 bomas, found 96 percent of all reported lost livestock—a value of $750,000 US—and prevented 28 lion hunts.

The Lion Defenders and their Lion Guardian cohorts across the region take a sense of pride in protecting wildlife while still serving the needs of the communities that have shaped their values and raised them on traditions. The Lion Guardian Games is a time to celebrate both where they are from, and where they are going.

Held annually since 2010, the Lion Guardian Games bring graduates from across East Africa together to applaud their hard work, reconnect with old friends, discuss challenges, exchange ideas and compete in various athletic endeavors.

The Ruaha Lion Defenders arrived at the Games ready to compete and did not disappoint. Samora Tomas demonstrated excellent aim during the spear-throwing competition, making it to the second round.

A typically modest Samora Tomas shows off his excellent spear-throwing skills. Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project.

Darem Philipo competed to defend his 100m sprint record, coming away in a tie with his longtime rival from the Amboseli Guardians team.

The highlight of the Games was the whistling competition—a skill honed by pastoralists in their grazing of livestock and a truly musical experience. Ruaha Defenders Joseph Dendu, Lanjo Anno, Mandela Dudiyeka and Darem Philipo provided beautiful performances, with Darem just missing out on the finals.

Ruaha Defender Darem Philipo leads the way in the 100m sprint competition. Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project.

To cap off the day, Ruaha Defender Julius Selendu was awarded the “Community Impact” prize for his incredible work. Julius successfully found 701 lost livestock and reinforced 31 bomas over the past year, going a long way towards protecting lions.

During the return ride, the Ruaha Defenders talked the night away, discussing their challenges and what they need to do as a team to overcome them. The Games renewed the spirits, energy and motivation of the Ruaha Lion Defenders, reminding them that they are a part of a larger family and they do not struggle against the challenges of saving lions alone.

The winning Ruaha Lion Defenders! Back (from L) Kambona Kanaya, Samwel Asecheka, Lanjo Anno, Julius Selendu, Mandela Dudiyeka, Front (from L) Darem Philipo, Penelope Rogers, Samora Tomas, Mathew Bajuta, Joseph Dendu, and Daudi Kinyoka. 

Every time you visit Adia and Xerxes at Woodland Park Zoo, you make support of the Lion Defenders possible through our partnership with Ruaha Carnivore Project. Thank you! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.


Unknown said…
Thank you for such a uplifting story gives up Big Cat lovers a reason to hope that they will be around with us for a long time to come. Your program is wonderful....