Climate Change Joins Lions and Livestock in an Unlikely Partnership

In the coming years, climate change will transform the world in ways that we have not predicted. The king of the big cats has already survived two major periods of change, but with humans quickly taking over valuable grassland habitat, will they be able to survive another? On the Maasai Steppe of Tanzania, lions have long shared the land with herds of cattle that require the same large tracts of grassland as they do. With a common goal, perhaps these age-old enemies can find truce – their survival might depend on it.

By Deirdre Leowinata, African People & Wildlife Fund

The rolling sea of long, golden grasses that characterize Africa’s savannas serve not only as representations of the unique ecosystems of this expansive continent but also as symbols of a quietly but precisely balanced climate. Its inhabitants, such as the thorn acacia, whose stiff barbs threaten to impale anyone who dares to let his mind wander as he walks, may be built to withstand both heat and jaws, but the combination of climate change and human population growth could threaten the resilience of the plains.

(Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Laly Lichtenfeld)
The earliest lion is thought to have lived in East Africa 5 to 1.8 million years ago. Numbers expanded until, for a time, lions were the most widespread terrestrial mammal on Earth, after humans. Changing climates and human expansion have both contributed to lion decline around the world, and are now threatening the remaining lions here on the Steppe. (Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Laly Lichtenfeld)

The modern lion, the flagship species of Africa, has already survived two global freeze-thaw cycles characterized here by rhythmic expansions and contractions of deserts and forests that separated populations, creating genetically different subspecies. Widespread aridity in northern and southern Africa during these periods reduced lion populations in these regions. Today, the estimated 32, 000 lions of the continent are sentinels of intact ecosystems, but these areas are undergoing huge changes.

Between 1960 and 2010, the human population of sub-Saharan Africa increased four-fold from 229 million to 863 million and is expected to double by 2060. In the Tarangire ecosystem of Tanzania where we work, we may have one of the remaining lion strongholds, and we are working very hard to ensure that it remains that way. Because our goal is to keep lions around for the long run, and not just the next few years, we must to take into account long-term changes, such as the potential effects of a changing climate.

(Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)
Pastoralism can contribute to important ecological processes by fertilizing the soil and promoting nutrient cycling and vegetation growth while leaving room for wildlife. The Maasai people have herded their cattle in lion territory for years, but agricultural encroachment is threatening both the Maasai grazing land and the lions, and reductions in habitat lead to rising numbers of human-wildlife conflict incidents. (Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)

In these semi-arid landscapes, pastoralism, if done sustainably, is a productive use of land. It benefits the ecosystem and the wildlife that inhabit it through grazing movements that fertilize the soil and promote new vegetation growth. But as climates change, another creature is showing signs of peril: the Maasai cow.

Increasingly erratic rainfall is now threatening livestock populations with more frequent droughts, leaving many Maasai to rely more on small stock that have lower feed requirements such as goats and sheep. Smaller stock in larger numbers mean a faster rate of rangeland degradation, rendering the challenging task of sustainable grazing even greater as resources become scarce. In this part of Tanzania, current reports predict a 1.8- to 3.6-degree increase in temperature over the next 50 years, along with even less rainfall and a large increase in monthly evaporation. Undoubtedly, this will lead to losses in livestock and a discouraging economy for pastoralists. Contiguous rangelands will become more important than ever.

(Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)
As years get drier, water availability becomes unpredictable and droughts become more frequent, affecting limited grazing land. This forces many Maasai to become more and more dependent on small livestock such as goats and sheep when cows are lost to starvation and thirst. (Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)

“The paradox of pastoralism is that it needs security to protect its flexibility.” (Galvin, 2009)

A loss of water security can give families incentive to privatize grazing land and also (somewhat counter-intuitively) to start farms to supplement their livelihoods. In the poor soil and already uncertain climate of the Steppe, meager stalks of corn struggle towards the sun; want of income is quickly splitting the golden sea with stretches of attempted cultivation. Compartmentalizing the landscape means losing ecosystem function, connectivity and resilience, so small stochastic events like droughts are more likely to affect larger proportions of both livestock and wildlife, endangering the famed Maasai cattle herds and the lions they have shared the land with for so long. The bottom line: The pastoral/wildlife system that is crucial to the functioning of the Maasai Steppe will collapse unless the land can be managed to maintain the movement of both livestock and wildlife.

(Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)
Agriculture is a prevalent activity here, though the soil and the weather mean low crop success rates. With more government support for farms than for cattle, the savannas are being plowed to make room for uncertain crops. (Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)

The situation has resulted in a rather unusual opportunity for truce between big cats and cows. The question now is: Can predator and prey – who require the same habitat to survive – equally benefit from improved rangeland management on the Maasai Steppe?

The idea might not be so absurd, given the importance of both to rangeland inhabitants. In fact, it is a golden opportunity for conservationists to link the future of a natural, social, and cultural treasure to the continued existence of the Maasai’s greatest status symbol – the ultimate example of killing two birds with one stone. But the truth is that we are also dealing with two icons that have clashed for ages, and the quarrels may only get worse as the population grows, habitats shrink, and water becomes scarce.

(Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)
A team meeting at our headquarters (Noloholo) in Tanzania, July 2013. With officers working hard with the local communities in our four programs of human-wildlife conflict prevention, environmental education, rangeland management, and conservation enterprise and development, we are doing our best to make sure the cats, the cattle, and the pastoralists of the Steppe can stay for a long time to come. (Photo by African People and Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata)

Our team at Noloholo might just be what these two particular animals need. With wildlife conservation a main priority, and happiness of the community a necessity, the lions and cattle of the Steppe are our premiere clients. Our four main programs are poised to tackle the still somewhat ethereal problem of climate change with a long-term, whole-system approach to conservation. Elvis and his expert team of Big Cat Conflict officers can mediate any squabbles while our education and conservation enterprise teams help the community not only learn the best ways to manage their rangelands, but how to do so in a manner that provides environmentally-friendly opportunities for growing economically.

Like a fable of Aesop in itself, the moral “United we conquer, divided we fall” echoes true for the inhabitants of the Steppe. Since we already know the moral, there’s no reason this story shouldn’t have a happy ending.

NG_Climate.APW and Deirdre Leowinata-10

Deirdre_Leowinata-1Deirdre Leowinata started as a biologist, completing her Bachelor of Science at the University of Ottawa in 2012 with a specialization in evolution, ecology, and behavior. That degree ignited a passion for novel science communication, leading to a post-graduate certificate in Environmental Visual Communication through a joint program between Fleming College and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. She fell in love with the wilds of Africa in 2009, and now acts as the media and communications coordinator at the African People and Wildlife Fund, based on the Maasai Steppe in Tanzania. Find her or them on Facebook and Twitter.

Sources for this post:

Barnett, R., Yamaguchi, N., Barnes, I., and A. Cooper (2006). The origin, current diversity, and future conservation of the modern lion (Panthera leo). Proceedings: Biological Sciences 273, 2119-2125.

Chardonnet, P. (2002). Conservation of African lion. Paris, France: International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife.

Creel, S., Becker, M.S., Durant, S.M., M’Soka, J., Matandiko, W., Dickman, A.J. et al. (2013). Conserving large populations of lions – the argument for fences has holes. Ecology Letters

Galvin, K.A. (2009). Transitions: Pastoralists living with change. Annual Reviews of Anthropology 38: 185-198.

Msoffe, F.U., Said, M.Y., Ogutu, J.O., Kifugo, S.C., de Leeuw, J., van Gardingen, P., and R.S. Reid (2011). Spatial correlates of land-use changes in the Maasai-Steppe of Tanzania: Implcations for conservation and environmental planning. International Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation 3: 280-290.

Msoffe, F.U., Kifugo, S.C., Said, M.Y., Neselle, M.O., van Gardingen, P., Reid, R.S., et al. (2011). Drivers and impacts of land-use change in the Maasai Steppe of northern Tanzania: an ecological, social and political analysis. Journal of Land Use Science 6: 261-281.

Packer, C., Loveridge, A., Canney, S., Caro, T., Garnett, S.T., Pfeifer, M., et al. (2012). The size of savannah Africa: a lion’s (Panthero leo) view. Biodiversity and Conservation 22: 17-35.

Riggio, J., Jacobsen, A., Dollar, L., Bauer, H., Becker, M., Dickman, A., Funston, P., Groom, R., Henschel, P., de Iongh, H., Lichtenfeld, L., and S. Pimm (2013). The size of savannah Africa: a lion’s (Panthera leo) view. Biodiversity Conservation 22: 17-35.

Schuette, P., Creel, S., & D. Christianson (2013). Coexistence of African lions, livestock, and people in a landscape with variable human land use and seasonal movements. Biological Conservation 157: 148-154.

Tadross, M., and P. Wolski (2010). Pangani River Basin Flow Assessment: Climate change modeling for the Pangani Basin to support the IWRM planning process. IUCN Water and Nature Initiative & Pangani Basin Water Board.

Turner, A., & M. Antón (1997). The big cats and their fossil relatives. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Deirdre started as a biologist, completing her Bachelor of Science at the University of Ottawa in 2012 with a specialization in evolution, ecology, and behaviour. That degree ignited a passion for novel science communication, leading to a post-graduate certificate in Environmental Visual Communication through a joint program between Fleming College and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. She fell in love with the wilds of Africa in 2009, and now acts as the media and communications coordinator at the African People and Wildlife Fund, based on the Maasai Steppe in Tanzania, just steps away from Tarangire National Park.
  • mememine69

    Fear mongering with the climate blame exaggeration is a crime.
    Remaining “Believers”; 32 more years of science being their laughable; 95% certain that it only “could be” a crisis is anything that you want it to be except sustainable.
    Science is 100% certain smoking will cause cancer and the planet is not flat but have refused for 32 years to say the same for the worst disaster imaginable; a global CO2 climate crisis. And science has NEVER agreed anything WILL happen, just “could be” a crisis. We need to save the planet…………..maybe. Help my house is on fire maybe? The planet is 100% not flat but there is a 95% chance evil Human CO2 “could” flatten it?
    You and your mob of determined believers must cease this needless panic that you all gleefully inflict on our youth as you lie to them saying that science “believes” as much as you do.
    And get up to date;
    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.
    *Canada killed Y2Kyoto 2 years ago with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit). What did YOU do about it planet lovers?

  • Deirdre Leowinata

    Hi Mememine, thanks for your comment. My sincere apologies if I offended you in any way, but the last thing that I wanted to do is to monger fear or exaggerate any facts. Of course science is never 100% certain, which is why I used the term “potential”, but there is at the moment quite a large consensus on the issue of climate change, for better or for worse. I did not mention anything about CO2 or my own beliefs, but tried to stress the idea of planning to adapt to change (not just of the climate kind), because over time things will change.The changes might not be from climate, but you must admit that it’s always good to have a backup plan, right?

  • Alison Nicholls

    An excellent post explaining some of the complex issues faced by pastoralists on the Maasai Steppe. Scientists hardly ever agree 100% on anything. It is not in their nature to do so. But the people of the Maasai Steppe are well aware of these issues as they live with them on a daily basis. Thank you and keep up the good work!

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