Post submitted by Eric LeFlore and Andrew Stein.
It’s 6am on a Friday morning and the kettle has just boiled for morning tea when the phone rings. After some pleasant introductions in Setswana, the main reason for the call comes up. The conversation is quick but the angst is apparent. I hear from the other end, “The lions have come to Teekae cattle post and killed my cows.” After getting a few details, I express my sympathies, ask him to preserve any evidence and tell the farmer I will see him in 15 minutes.
Teekae is one of the larger cattle posts in our study area in the eastern Panhandle of the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Over 100 people live in scattered clusters of mud huts. Amongst the huts are many livestock enclosures which are locally called “kraals.” Some are made from thorn branches others are made from tree trunks and a few are made of wire and upright branches.
As I drive up to the cattle post, it is clear where the events transpired the previous night. About 35 people and a good number of village dogs are standing around a kraal that was short but sturdy. It was clear that a lot of effort had gone into the construction of this kraal but there were a few problems; first, it was only about a meter tall and second predators could easily see their quarry through the wire fencing and branches. The people were peering in as a few men were standing over carcasses of two calves. I got out of the truck and was approached by 8 men ranging in age from about 18 years old to their mid-40s. Again, after some pleasant introductions and handshakes, it was easy to tell these men were furious. Though there was no way I’d forgotten, I was immediately reminded that this cattle post had been under siege this week – this was the third attack in 5 nights. Various members of the community had lost cows in the last few nights and now these two made it 5 in same number of nights. Since many of these villagers are subsistence livestock farmers every loss can significantly impact their livelihoods and status within the community. They have a right to be upset as they see their income and status significantly diminished in one night.
The man who speaks the best English took charge and whisked me over to very clear lion tracks approaching the kraal. The scene was laid out before me in the wet sand and I was able to envision the attack clearly. Two lions approached from the northeast out of a dense bushland and moved towards the kraal. They clawed at the ground near the fence of the enclosure, scratching away sand, almost trying to dig their way in. After failing to gain entry, attempt number two followed, they leapt over the sturdy but short fencing and left tracks inside the kraal. They quickly encountered and killed two calves, leaving claw marks on their flanks and bite marks in the necks. There was no evidence of actual feeding, lining up with the villager’s accounts that the lions were scared off by dogs and people before they were able to eat. Then the lion tracks led back out on the same path they came in.
Situations like this make filling out my data sheets a breeze but it soon became apparent that this morning was about so much more than data. The conversation with me is mostly in English and my broken Setswana but the conversation around me was flying by in Setswana. I was able to pick up the general flow of the conversation. I heard words like “track”, “kill”, and “lion” in the same sentence. It became clear they wanted to go hunt these lions. Usually people don’t talk openly about killing lions in retaliation to losing their livestock because it’s illegal. This morning, however, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) was not able to respond so conversations were candid in the heat of the moment.
I changed gears from gathering data to talking about killing lions with the men who seem to be in the mobilizing hunting party. With a calm tone and a bit of perseverance, I was able to diffuse the anger in the situation. I shared information about our research with the villagers. We discussed our early-warning system associated with the collars we use – as collared lions approach the village, we receive a text message alert and can warn livestock owners of impending danger. Then I shared what I knew about the lions in the area and explained that the kills in the past week were not caused by lions we have collared. They immediately asked why we hadn’t collared these lions yet and when we were planning to. They wanted to know when these lions were moving towards their cattle post. I assured them that as our project continued we would be putting more collars out to expand the coverage of our system and we would focus our efforts on their area. They were elated and kept repeating that they thought the project was “a good idea and would work”.
I also stressed the importance of solid livestock husbandry practices, securely enclosing animals in kraals at night and then actively herding them during the day. These are not new ideas, recent shifts in land-use and culture have changed the way people tend their livestock away from traditional pastoralist husbandry. We merely share the information learned from other community members rather than prescribe Western solutions to African socioeconomic realities. Some of the men had seen the kraals we constructed in neighboring cattle posts. They praised the strength and design of them and asserted these kraals would keep predators out. We talked about ways they could build their own and also about how Teekae would be included in the next round of our kraal building. We went on to discuss herding and the establishment of our herder training program. We are planning to work with the Holistic Rangeland Institute of Zimbabwe to reintroduce traditional herding techniques paired with subsidized, respectable salaries for those that keep their stock safe from lions and other predators. Again, they believed this was a great proposal and wanted to make sure they could be included in the program. I assured them they would be. We also talked about the local photographic safari jobs created from having these wild animals around; many of these men had people in their families who worked with the lodges just outside the villages. With this extended conversation the mood was mellowing.
The discussion did circle back around towards hunting lions. From their words it sounds like they don’t want to resort to killing lions. They said it’s dangerous and they do realize the benefits from having lions around. They presented it as a last resort to protect their cows and their livelihood. Their perspective was that the livestock should be allowed to graze freely and the government should be responsible for making sure the lions and other predators don’t kill their cows. Furthermore, when there are losses, the government should reimburse farmers. Currently, there is a compensation program in Botswana, however, with limited resources and extremely isolated circumstances, not all claims are investigated and compensated. This only breeds contempt for the predators and farmers decide to take matters into their own hands. I asserted that the goal of our project, Pride in Our Prides, was to collaborate with them to protect their herds against predator attacks while offering employment opportunities and comprehensive solutions. They were happy to have us working in the area and were excited to see how we could continue to help them. We came to the agreement that they would not kill these lions as long as we promised to focus some of our future efforts in their area and also help connect them with DWNP for compensation.
Over the course of the few hours I was with these villagers, the usual easy going quality of everyday life in rural Botswana was restored. I was amazed at the conversation I just had; it’s rare that you are able to talk this openly with people around such a sensitive issue. While it was challenging and tenuous at times, we came to a successful resolution that worked for both the farmers and conservation. In the coming months, I hope to strengthen the relationships that I have developed with the cattle post farmers at Teekae and other throughout our focal villages. We hope to bridge the gaps between the needs of the local people and wildlife conservation by establishing a holistic approach to human-lion conflict mitigation. In future, our local field staff will take the helm of our program creating a self-contained, community based program run by locals for locals. We have lots more work to do as we build, but it’s energizing to know that our project is having a direct impact on the conservation of such an integral and iconic species.
We would like to extend a big “thank you” to National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative and their supporters for their commitment to our program. If you would like to read more about our work, please visit our project’s webpage at http://www.clawsconservancy.org/pride-in-our-prides. Thank you!
Photographs courtesy of Eric LeFlore.