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Living Walls Save Lions by Saving Livestock

In Tanzania’s Tarangire ecosystem, lions and the Maasai people live alongside one another outside the borders of Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks. People and lions come into direct and frequent conflict when the big cats attack and kill the Maasai’s livestock and harm people. Intense retaliatory killing of lions occurs on a regular basis....

In Tanzania’s Tarangire ecosystem, lions and the Maasai people live alongside one another outside the borders of Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks. People and lions come into direct and frequent conflict when the big cats attack and kill the Maasai’s livestock and harm people. Intense retaliatory killing of lions occurs on a regular basis.

Now, with support from the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, a project called Living Walls, using a unique combination of chain-link fencing and fast-growing trees as fence posts, is creating special enclosures in Tarangire to keep cattle safe from lions, and lions out of the way of Maasai spears.

Background to this series:

Eight ways to save Africa’s last wild lions >>

Living Walls is part of the Maasailand Lion Conservation Program that integrates lion research, lion-livestock conflict prevention, lion habitat protection, and lion conservation education with the aim of improving the lives of lions and people alike.

Through this program, the African People & Wildlife Fund is building the capacity of Tanzanians to scientifically monitor their lion populations, to reduce direct conflicts with lions via lion-livestock conflict avoidance techniques, to protect lion habitat, and to improve ecological knowledge about lions among Maasai youth.

Laly Lichtenfeld, co-founder and executive director of APW, in the center of the photo below, explains in this interview how she is using her grant from the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative to support the Living Walls project.

APW Team and Maasai livestock owners installing Living Wall.African People & Wildlife Fund.JPGPhoto: A team from the African People & Wildlife Fund works with Maasai livestock owners to install a living wall. The project to build durable barriers of chain-link fencing supported by live trees is funded in part by the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. The hope is that if livestock can be protected from predators, there will be less incentive for herders to kill wild lions.

Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund

Laly Lichtenfeld interviewed by David Braun

Tell us about yourself. How did you get interested in this line of work and how did you come to be involved in lion conservation in East Africa?

I grew up with a love of wildlife, being outdoors and exploring new places. Ever since I was little, I dreamed of traveling to Africa and seeing the magnificent cats that I am now fighting for. I first landed on the African continent in 1992 with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) on a summer semester in Kenya. During this trip, I witnessed conflicts between people and wildlife for the first time, and I found the issues both fascinating and terribly worrying. I knew somehow I wanted to make a difference.

Big Cats Initiative Grant

Grantee: Laly Lichtenfeld

Project: Maasailand Lion Conservation Program

Geographical Area Served: AfricaTanzaniaTarangire ecosystem–3,000,000 acres outside the borders of Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks

Field Work: 4/1/2010 to 4/1/2011

Project Description: The project directly decreases the number of lions killed annually in the Tarangire ecosystem by installing the African People & Wildlife Fund’s unique, culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable lion-resistant enclosures called Living Walls. Using a unique combination of chain-link fencing and fast-growing trees as fence posts, these special enclosures keep cattle safe from lions and lions out of the way of Maasai spears.

All blog posts by and about Laly Lichtenfeld

All posts about the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative

Then in 1996 as a Fulbright Scholar in southern Kenya, I witnessed my first cat–a young lioness–speared in the middle of the Kimana Community Wildlife Sanctuary. She had participated in a raid on local cattle and wasn’t able to evade the Maasai’s warring party that came after her in angry retaliation.

I felt incredibly saddened that day for the lioness and also for the family who had lost a cow–their livelihood. So, I began to see the conflict from two sides. It became overwhelmingly clear to me that the future of the wild lion in much of Africa depends on the tolerance of local people.

Following that experience, I focused my graduate research at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies on understanding how people and lions can manage to live alongside one another, a relationship that involves a fascinating mix of tension and respect.

During those years of lion research in and outside of Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania with my husband, Charles Trout, we became incredibly frustrated with the decline of lions, the increasing loss of livestock taken by lions, and the lack of action to prevent conflicts that we were witnessing. So we decided it was time to take a stand–to walk the talk–so to speak. We co-founded the African People & Wildlife Fund in 2005 and the Maasailand Lion Conservation Program was born.

Laly, Charles and Tomi on way to deliever a shipment of chain link.African People & Wildlife Fund.JPG

Chain-link being delivered.

Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund

Laly and Living Wall Recipient Kissau Majuka.African People & Wildlife Fund.JPG

Laly and Living Wall recipient Kissau Majuka

Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund

What is your assessment of the condition of wild lions in East Africa and what are the greatest threats and opportunities for keeping them in the wild?

There is no question that the wild African lion is facing a crisis. Population numbers are plummeting and until recently very few people were aware of this. This is one of the exciting aspects of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative–it is helping to give the great cats a voice so that the rest of the world can learn about these natural treasures that we are losing.

In East Africa, lions are facing a number of threats, many of which are overlapping. Habitat loss and fragmentation, habitat degradation, loss of prey populations, intense human retaliation for livestock killing and in some cases over-exploitation, all threaten their future.

In many areas, national parks are not big enough to sustain wildlife populations year round. For example, in Tarangire National Park, a protected area that is 40 kilometers (25 miles) across at its widest point, a large majority of the herbivores move out of the park for six months of the year and the lions follow.

This movement is crucial to the survival of Tarangire’s wildlife populations, but it also places them at greatest risk outside of the park where they encounter people, farms and livestock.

“Keeping lions in the wild will depend on the tolerance of the people who live among them.”

Keeping lions in the wild will depend on the tolerance of the people who live among them.

In some instances, where protected areas are large enough, like the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem and the Selous Game Reserve, significant populations of lions can be conserved within their boundaries, while human-lion conflict is mitigated around the borders.

But for the smaller parks, the future of the African lion is held directly in the hands of the rural communities surrounding them; in my case, the Maasai people living on the high steppe to the north, east and south of Tarangire National Park. Here, not only are the Maasai visited by lions wandering out of Tarangire national park, but they also live among resident, non-park lions that make the steppe their home.

Opportunities to save these big cats are tied to the incredible tolerance that African people still have for wildlife. Opportunities lie in partnerships and in the co-development of strategies to prevent human-lion conflict. And, great opportunities exist to help rural Africans to derive direct benefits from the wildlife they live among.

What is the Maasailand Lion Conservation Program? When did it start, who is involved, and what success have you had?

Based in the Tarangire ecosystem, also known as the Maasai Steppe, the Maasailand Lion Conservation Program focuses on the conservation of one of Tanzania’s most threatened lion populations.

Because lion prides in this ecosystem frequently move in and out of Tarangire National Park, and because resident, non-park prides are also found outside of the park, conflict with Maasai pastoralists and their livestock is frequent and hostile.

The program began in 2005 following the completion of my doctoral research on human-lion conflicts. It is run in partnership with local Maasai villagers who want to reduce lion attacks on their cattle and to live peacefully with wildlife.

Empowering Villagers with Skills

The program emphasizes the importance of empowering villagers with the skills they need to collect comprehensive information on lion-livestock conflicts and to utilize their information to develop and implement preventative measures that minimize the attacks of lions on their livestock.

Participating villages progress through a fluid, four-step process:

  • Village-based monitoring
  • Information exchange, education and strategic development via community forums
  • Implementation of conflict avoidance strategies
  • Long-term monitoring and project evaluation

Information collected by village livestock depredation officers has shown that attacks by lions, leopards and hyenas are responsible for an economic loss of more than U.S.$10,000 per year, a huge cost for people living below the poverty line.

We use the information the livestock depredation officers collect to guide our local team in the development of strategies to reduce conflicts with lions. For example, after learning that nearly 60 percent of all carnivore attacks on livestock occur at night at the boma (homestead) where livestock are corralled, our Maasai team decided to find a way to prevent these attacks from occurring; our unique Living Walls project was born.

Your National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grant is specifically to support the Living Walls project. Can you tell us about this project, how widely it is deployed, and what success you have had?

Working together with Maasai villagers, APW’s Maasailand Lion Conservation Program is finding innovative solutions to lion-livestock conflict that are culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable.


APW’s Living Walls project is an important example of how people, cattle and lions can all be kept safe. Using a unique combination of chain-link fencing and live, growing trees as fence posts, these special enclosures keep cattle safe from lions and lions out of the way of Maasai spears.

In high demand, APW uses three years of data collected by the Maasai themselves to prioritize households for fencing by the number of attacks that have occurred.

The design of the fences is inspired by Maasai knowledge of a local tree species called Commiphora africana.

Drought tolerant and both fire and termite resistant, Commiphora Africana is a resilient and widespread species throughout eastern and southern Africa. If properly harvested and pruned, it is easily grown from cuttings–a skill the Maasai have cultivated over many years.

In cooperation with Maasai herdsmen, cattle corral walls are planted with the Commiphora africana trees and reinforced with chain-link fencing. The use of the live trees as fence posts enhances the long-term sustainability of the enclosure by reducing the need to repetitively cut down and replace acacia thorn trees for corral maintenance (which contributes to habitat loss).

Click here to find out more about the Big Cats Intiative. Photo compilation courtesy of Beverly and Dereck Joubert

As the trees grow, they also add height to the fence. The Maasai pay for 25 percent of the cost of the wire, harvest the trees themselves, and install the fence with oversight by our Living Walls team.

Thanks to the help of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative and other supporters, we now have more than 40 livestock enclosures protected, safely corralling thousands of cattle, goats and sheep at night and keeping the lions out of trouble.

More Living Walls are being installed right now.

Since we began, our Living Walls have been 100 percent effective, a win-win for all!

We are currently focusing our efforts on fencing all livestock corrals in the village of Loibor Siret (with a population of over 5,000 people), while expanding our project to the neighboring villages of Narakauo and Kimotorok via demonstration of Living Walls in each village.

All told, we are currently working in an area of approximately 886,000 acres, which is even larger than Tarangire National Park itself (640,000 acres).

While we are making great progress, there is a lot more to do–there are at least seven villages outside of Tarangire National Park that are critical for lion conservation. Over time, we estimate we will need to install more than 700 Living Walls!

Living Wall Initial Install. African People & Wildlife Fund.jpg

Living wall, initial installation.

Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund

Same Living Wall 6 Months Later. African People & Wildlfie Fund.jpg

Same living wall, six months later.

Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund

What kind of hedges are planted? Are there any implications for habitat and water to maintain them?

While experimenting with the Living Wall technique, we learned that Commiphora africana trees do not like to be planted in the rainy season. This was completely counterintuitive to me, but the Maasai knew it straight away.

When harvesting the live trees, it is important to cut them and then leave them to dry out for a week or two before re-planting. Then, it’s as easy as digging a hole and planting the cutting. No watering necessary! The trees are left until the rainy season arrives, when they miraculously spring to life, greening up immediately.

Warriors help install Living Wall.African People & Wildlife Fund.JPG

Maasai warriors help install a living wall.

Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund

In addition to conserving lions and protecting cattle, this project is making an important contribution to habitat protection. Traditionally, the Maasai cut acacia thorn to fortify their livestock corrals. However, the acacia does not regenerate in the wild, so they often kill the tree when harvesting the thorn bush.

And because the thorny branches that they cut dry out in the hot African sun, they have to re-fortify their corral walls every few months. Over time, this takes a hefty toll on the acacia and the local habitat with the Maasai having to go further and further from their bomas to find thorn.

But, with the Commiphora africana that we use, cuttings are taken from the live trees in the bush. This does not kill the tree–it re-grows in the bush. Back at the boma, once the Commiphora africana cutting is planted and the chain-link fencing is attached, the Living Wall is complete. The Maasai no longer need to harvest acacia thorn, saving them time while also saving habitat!

Laly and Charles Helping Install Living Wall.African People & Wildlife Fund.JPG

Laly Lichtenfeld and Charles Trout helping install a living wall.

Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund

How optimistic are you that lions can be restored and conserved in the wild?

Maintaining optimism is critical to our work; positive energy is catching!

Fortunately, lions can recover fairly quickly once protected because they have high reproductive rates. So, with the right measures in place on the ground that actually put a stop to the conflicts (rather than continually reacting to conflicts once they have occurred), I am very confident that we can still save these magnificent animals.

We are also extremely fortunate to be working with a group of people who do not want to see all lions disappear. Lions have great cultural significance to the Maasai. The key is to help them maintain this positive traditional relationship while reducing the negative aspects of lions living near cattle.

What can people in the global community do to help Africa’s people conserve their wild lions?

I am an avid believer in practical, applied projects that help find solutions which prevent conflicts between people and lions, and that find ways for local people to derive positive benefits from living with wildlife.

It is no question that Africa’s people will determine the fate of the African lion. The global community can help them to save this great cat by providing support, as the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative is doing, to projects that emphasize direct efforts to conserve lions in ways that are culturally acceptable and that directly reduce conflicts between people and lions.

We need to act now; there is no time to waste.

Dropping off Chain Link for Kissau's Living Wall.African People & Wildlife Fund.JPG

Dropping off chain-link fencing for Kissau Majuka’s living wall.

Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund

Laly Lichtenfeld pic.jpg

Laly Lichtenfeld is a woman with a passion for Africa. She lives in Tanzania and is co-founder and the executive director of the African People & Wildlife Fund and a research affiliate of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She has over 15 years of experience in East Africa working with large carnivores, local communities and village-based conservation programs. Lichtenfeld received a Ph.D. from Yale University in 2005 for her research combining wildlife ecology and social ecology in an interdisciplinary study of human-lion relationships, interactions and conflicts. She is a member of the African Lion Working Group, the Yale Large Carnivore Group as well as a recipient of the Fulbright Award. Her work has been featured on National Geographic Wild and the Discovery Channel Canada. Learn more about her work on her website: The African People & Wildlife Fund.

Learn more about the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn