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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Deirdre 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.
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