In this guest blogpost, our partners, KopeLion, tell us about the work they do to ensure that people and lions can prosper together for the future.
Could you provide a brief introduction to KopeLion? What are your mission and vision concerning lion conservation?
KopeLion works to foster human-lion coexistence in Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), where intensifying human-wildlife conflicts due to diminishing space, degraded landscapes and poverty have impacted lion populations and have largely isolated the Ngorongoro Crater lions. To enable lasting coexistence between people and lions in Ngorongoro, we improve pastoralists’ livelihoods and ensure lion connectivity across the Greater Serengeti ecosystem. Our vision sees Ngorongoro as a healthy, balanced landscape that benefits both people and lions, and a future where living with lions is not only possible, but is considered to be economically and ecologically valuable.
Over the last 25 years, lion numbers worldwide have plummeted by about 50%. Tanzania is home to one-third of the world’s wild lions, meaning that the country has a crucial role to play in the survival of the species. With a long-term goal of facilitating lion population recovery in northern Tanzania, at KopeLion, we envision a community-driven choice and enterprise model. In other words, reviving the lion population should not be merely a conservation effort, but a collective decision by the community that shares the ecosystem with lions. This approach incorporates a shift towards sustainable conservation that benefits both the lions and the people of Ngorongoro.
Community involvement in lion conservation is the cornerstone to success. As people and wildlife share the same landscapes, managing coexistence is essential. Communities hold invaluable knowledge of their surroundings and wildlife, including traditional ways of living with lions, that when harnessed, can shape conservation strategies that are locally viable and globally significant.
Furthermore, fostering a sense of stewardship among community members ensures the longevity of conservation efforts. Introducing economic incentives can provide tangible benefits that strengthen local support for conservation, and through the provision of information and increased awareness, communities better understand the role that lions play in the ecosystem that supports them and their livelihoods. Coexistence models need communities' full engagement to trigger attitude changes and reduce harmful behaviours, such as retaliatory killings. In essence, community involvement isn’t just a part of lion conservation - it’s the heart of it.
How does KopeLion go about raising awareness about lion conservation in communities?
One way we raise awareness about lion conservation is by sharing stories locally about the lions we know. Storytelling is very powerful and engrained in pastoralist culture. These stories inform people of lions’ whereabouts. We regularly facilitate community meetings to discuss safety when herding and in homesteads, and we have produced films from Ngorongoro to remind people about culturally appropriate traditions and ways to keep safer. We have 30 community members employed in the field to provide support to people to live with lions on a daily basis.
We recently published a children’s book called ‘Living with Lions’, together with WildAid and PAMs Foundation, and we make it a priority to ensure that communities are fully engaged, especially children, to make certain that when living alongside predators, they are also safe.
Most recently, we initiated a series of activities to co-create conversations that will promote active participation, open dialogue and respectful listening and instigate positive behaviour change surrounding coexistence.
Can you provide examples of successful community engagement initiatives undertaken by KopeLion in the past / Can you provide specific examples where community involvement has had a positive impact on lion conservation?
Through our Ilchokuti programme, we employ and train traditional warriors, who work within their own communities to inform people of the whereabouts of lions and move livestock herds away from them, treat livestock injured by carnivores, repair homesteads breached by carnivores, and find lost livestock. We are additionally trialling a three-year project to pay for the presence of lions in six villages in NCA.
Our daily presence in the lives of people over a number of years has slowly but surely had a positive effect on lion conservation. Our results indicate improved conditions for lion connectivity through observed lion movements, dispersal success, and presence, which have increased across the human-use habitats of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and in 2021 and 2022, no lions were killed by the traditional ‘Alamayo’ custom of the Maasai.
How do you approach sharing stories about individual lions with the community? Can you share an example of a story that had a significant impact?
Our close partners, the lion research project in NCA, can put a GPS tracking collar on up to eight lions. This enables us to follow these lions and their prides, and warn people of their presence. We also give the lions a local name, which usually resonates with people locally, providing them with a closer link to and understanding of an individual.
We had one huge, handsome black maned lion, called Kalamas, who stayed by himself, never caused problems with livestock, and was seen regularly by community members. When doing the conservation incentives payments trial, the chairman of the village asked us to print out a large photo of Kalamas so that they could hang it in their office and remember the lion who was providing them with community funds.
Could you expand on KopeLion’s educational initiatives? What are the main messages you try to convey, and what methods do you use to deliver these messages?
Through our educational initiatives that take place in community meetings, workshops and schools, we have a clear set of messages we aim to communicate. We want to make sure that communities understand that people and lions can exist in the same place, that lions in Ngorongoro have disappeared from much of their historical rangeland, and that the ecosystems that support lions are an excellent indicator of environmental services, e.g. water, fuelwood, grazing. Environmental threats to lions in Ngorongoro signify an equal threat to pastoralist communities.
How have these community engagement initiatives contributed to the conservation of lions so far?
Supporting people to live with lions, in particular treating wounded livestock and finding livestock that is lost and therefore vulnerable to lion attack, has brought KopeLion extremely close to the community. Lion presence in the community areas has steadily grown since 2017, at approximately 8% per year, with males successfully traversing between the two main lion hubs of the crater and Ndutu. We have this year opened a second ‘corridor of tolerance’ to facilitate the safe passage of lions between the crater highlands and the lowlands of Kakesio and beyond, to Makao Wildlife Management Area.
But it is not always that simple, and recent increases in lions and humans in the landscape, coupled with severe drought, and other complexities have recently arrested the improvement of human-lion coexistence in the NCA, highlighting the need for continued work to ensure the future of Ngorongoro’s lions.
How can individuals who are not part of the local communities still contribute to KopeLion’s mission?
Ngorongoro is a popular tourist destination known for its rich wildlife, including lions. While tourists can learn about lions from the lodges they stay in, there is also an opportunity to directly engage with us at KopeLion and hear more about human-lion coexistence and our work with communities. We always welcome good photos of lions spotted in community areas and Ndutu, clearly showing their whisker spots so that we can identify them and know who’s out and about.
By understanding challenges faced by pastoralists, and their connection to climate change, visitors to Ngorongoro can gain a deeper understanding of the importance of environmental conservation to both people and lions. They can then take this knowledge back home and make conscious efforts to take better care of the environment, reduce their consumption, minimise waste, and mitigate their impact on the global south. These individual actions, when multiplied, can contribute to a more sustainable future and support the conservation efforts in Ngorongoro and other similar regions around the world.