Saitoti Petro is trying to change his neighbors’ ideas about lions. Petro lives in northern Tanzania, where people and lions have lived together for as long as anyone can remember.
But that relationship is uneasy.
Petro is one of more than 50 lion monitors in an area known as the Maasai Steppe. It is named after the Maasai people, who live there and work as herders raising cattle.
Each day, Petro walks around the area, helping herders protect their animals from lions. He and other monitors get support and training from a non-profit group called African People and Wildlife. The group has offices in Tanzania and the United States.
Over the past 10 years, African People and Wildlife has helped more than 1,000 families build secure, modern fencing to protect their livestock. The fencing is partly made of chain-link fence and living acacia trees.
The method is experimental. However, the survival of lions and other large animals living in East Africa’s grasslands may depend on it. The goal is to find a way in which people, their livestock and wild animals can continue to use the land together.
The lion is in danger
Across Africa, the lion population has decreased by 40 percent over the past 20 years. That number comes from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The group says that scientists are considering putting lions on the list of animals thought to be threatened with extinction.
Lions can no longer be found on 94 percent of the land in Africa where they used to live. The biggest reason is the loss of grasslands to farming and cities. This loss is the biggest risk to wildlife in Africa and around the world. But for lions, illegal hunting and revenge killings are also major threats.
Lion monitor Saitoti Petro works closely with the Maasai people. Lions are respected in Maasai culture. But when the animals kill prized cattle, Maasai often seek to answer the attack by killing lions. These revenge killings have become more deadly in recent years. The reason: herdsmen have stopped using traditional spears and now leave out poisoned meat, which can kill lions and other animals.
Petro wonders if these conflicts can be prevented. “Our elders killed and almost finished off the lions,” he said, “Unless we have new education, they will be extinct."
It is rare for people to live close to large, meat-eating animals. For example, there has been heated debate in the United States over whether to let gray wolves live near Yellowstone Park.
But on the high plains in northern Tanzania, herders have been living close to wildlife for a long time. Their cows, goats and sheep live on the same grasslands as zebra, buffalo and giraffes – and the lions, leopards and hyenas that hunt them.
What happens on the Maasai Steppe may be important to the future of lions all over Africa. Tanzania is home to more than one third of remaining African lions. Oxford University researchers puts that number at 22,500.
There is some evidence that efforts to ease the conflict between human beings and lions are working. In 2005, the village of Loibor Siret reported three attacks on livestock each month. By 2017, the number had fallen to one each month. The biggest change was the addition of improved fencing.
Also, the group African People and Wildlife says lion monitors helped in 14 incidents that might have led to a lion hunt. But lion hunts still happen. In July, wildlife officials reported on a hunt which included a picture of a dead lion with its four feet and tail cut off. The body parts are considered traditional talismans.
Craig Packer is a biologist who set up the Lion Center at the University of Minnesota. Packer says efforts like the one Petro takes part in are helpful, but he worries about the future.
“These conflict-mitigation efforts clearly help lions, although there’s always the question of whether they’re going to last 20 or 50 years with a growing human population,” he said.
Wildlife refuges do not fully protect animals, like lions, that need very large spaces in which to live. For example, in Tarangire National Park, zebra and wildebeest spend periods with little or no rainfall inside the park. But when rains come in the winter, the animals move outside of the protected area, and the lions and cheetah follow them.
Michiel Veldhuis is an ecologist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He has studied parks and wildlife.
Veldhuis told The Associated Press, “The current way of just thinking about the borders of protected areas isn’t working.” He added, “We need to think about how to include people living next to protected areas.”
Some people are unsure about living in areas with dangerous wild animals nearby.
“We don’t want to hear lions roar at night,” said Neema Loshiro, a 60-year-old woman who lives in Loibor Siret. She likes giraffes and impala because “they’re pretty and don’t attack people or crops.”
But Tanzanians’ opinions about wildlife are also changing.
Petro’s 69-year-old father killed his first lion when he was 25. Four years ago, he moved into a new home that included improved fencing. He has not lost any livestock to lions or other animals.
“The modern fence is very helpful,” he said.
Petro’s father said, “Now I love to see lions,” but not too close to his home. He also supports his son’s effort to educate neighbors about avoiding conflicts with lions.
I’m Anne Ball. And I'm Mario Ritter Jr.
Christina Larson reported this story for the Associated Press. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
monitor – n. someone who watches over so something or someone
elder – n. someone who is older; an aged person; a traditional leader
spear – n. a sharp-pointed instrument; a weapon with a sharp head
livestock – n. farm animals
talismans – n. an object believed to have magical powers
mitigation – n. to make some situation less harmful
pretty – adj. pleasing or nice
roar – n. the sound made by a lion
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