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Hard-Working Hands Span Cultures and Generations to Come Together for Big Cat Conservation

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Two students hold the steel chain link of the new Living Wall to the Commiphora africana while one of the boma’s residents hammers in the nails. (Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)

Education is the foundation for positive change, and every year the National Geographic Student Expeditions takes groups of high school students from around the world to beautiful places on quests for both knowledge and skills. The trips also serve as a way to help various developing communities, and this year two groups of students made a big impact on the Maasai Steppe. Not only did they construct fences that would save livestock, lions, and livelihoods, but the teamwork and compassion displayed on those hot afternoons lit a spark that gives hope to a brighter future.

By Deirdre Leowinata, African People & Wildlife Fund

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.

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National Geographic Student Expedition participants use their newly honed camera skills to capture the wildlife on the road from the Noloholo Environmental Center on the edge of Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park. (Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)

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.

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Three Maasai children herd their sheep and goats around their boma as a group of volunteers and National Geographic students collaborate to build a Living Wall. The Living Wall, an idea conceived by the Maasai people, works to reduce human-wildlife conflict by effectively protecting the Maasai livestock from predators while also protecting these predators from being attacked in retaliation by the inhabitants of the boma. These fences have proven to be cost-effective and environmentally friendly because they are constructed from local Commiphora trees, material much easier to collect than wooden or metal poles found in distant Arusha. (Photo by Charlotte Thorson, caption by Joseph Peralta)

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.

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A Maasai warrior takes a closer look at recent paw prints left along a well-worn path. The Maasai people share their home in the savannah of Northern Tanzania with predatory animals including lions, leopards, and hyenas, which pose threats to their livestock and therefore the heart of their economy. The Living Wall project has been successful in many Maasai bomas in the region, shielding livestock from predators and allowing the people and wildlife to live in peace. (Photo by Sitara Pal, caption by Fefe Malton)

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.

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Sources for this post:

Hirst, M.A. (1972). Tribal mixture and migration in Tanzania: an evaluation and analysis of census tribal data. Canadian Geographer 16: 230-248.

Miguel, E. (2004). Tribe or nation? Nation-building and public goods in Kenya versus Tanzania. World Politics 56: 327-362.