Laly and Buddy looking out over the vast village land of Loibor Siret
About Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld
Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld is a woman with a passion for Africa. She lives in Tanzania and is co-founder and Executive Director of the African People & Wildlife Fund (APW) 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 as a wildlife conservationist. Dr. Lichtenfeld specializes in large carnivore conservation and community-based approaches to wildlife and natural resource management and conservation. She received her PhD from Yale University in wildlife ecology and social ecology. A National Geographic Explorer, Dr. Lichtenfeld is a member of the African Lion Working Group, the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, the Yale Large Carnivore Group as well as a recipient of the Fulbright Award. She is married to Charles “Buddy” Trout, who is co-founder and Director of Programs of APW.
About The African People & Wildlife Fund (APW)
APW builds the capacity of rural Africans to engage in environmental conservation and sustainable livelihood strategies that promote the dual objectives of biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. APW emphasizes the importance of community-led initiatives that support the collective management of natural resources for the mutual benefit of people and wildlife.
APW works primarily in the Maasai Steppe (an ecosystem encompassing approximately 40,000 square kilometers) of northern Tanzania. APW is headquartered at the Noloholo Environmental Center, located on the village land of Loibor Siret. The village of Loibor Siret incorporates more than 550 square kilometers of primarily Maasai rangeland adjacent to the eastern/southeastern boundary of Tarangire National Park.
For more information, please visit: www.afrpw.org
So, it all started with lions, right? Or did it? Tell us about how you got your start in conservation and your research on carnivore-human conflict.
Well, I do love lions! But the answer is no... well, sort of. I always had a passion for Africa growing up. During my freshman year in college, I participated in a program with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Kenya. The experience really opened my eyes. I became fascinated with the relationship between people and animals. Then, in between college and graduate school, I received a Fulbright Scholarship to study community-based conservation in Kimana (just outside Amboseli National Park), Kenya. The study eventually led to my Master’s thesis, (which I co-authored) at Yale: “Community-based Natural Resources Management: Promise, Rhetoric and Reality.” So, no, it didn’t exactly start with lions though I spent every spare moment looking for them. But there is no question that lions became one of the focal points of my thinking toward community-based conservation, because especially in Maasailand, human-lion conflict is a paramount issue.
You started as an academic researcher but later on transformed into a more active on-the-ground conservationist. What prompted this move? How did it happen?
There was a 3-year period when I was doing field research in Tanzania for my PhD when I often got frustrated observing obvious conservation issues that weren’t being addressed. In the meantime, I fell in love with the Maasai Steppe in Tanzania. I decided to stay and become more of an applied scientist, or on-the-ground conservationist... whatever one wants to call it.
Do you still get the urge to collect scat samples and such?
Yes. Definitely! Everything we do is based on scientifically monitoring and measuring success.
What were the early days of APW (when it was actually called People & Predators Fund) like? How did it start and what were the main programs?
When I received my PhD in mid-2005, Buddy and I had already made up our minds that we would stay in the Maasai Steppe to continue our work but in the context of a non-profit organization. We moved pretty quickly. By August 2005, we incorporated the People & Predators Fund (APW’s former name), originally focusing our efforts on reducing predator-human conflict at the household level through research. We wanted to facilitate the Maasai to find their own, new solutions to preventing carnivore conflict.
Our collaboration with the Maasai resulted in the invention of “Living Walls”. A Living Wall is a structure which combines traditionally planted indigenous Commiphora tree species, interlinked with chain link fencing, to reinforce corral walls in order to prevent lions and other large carnivores from penetrating the livestock corral and panicking livestock (Commiphora grows along and around the chain link fencing, adding density and height). The use of live trees as fence posts contributes to habitat protection by reducing the need to repetitively cut, non-regenerating thorn trees for corral or “boma” maintenance, a time-consuming activity that results in widespread clearing of native species. Since inception, we have helped the Maasai put in over 100 livestock enclosures using the Living Wall concept. Those Living Walls are protecting over 25,000 head of livestock and have significantly reduced lion-livestock conflicts and the retaliatory killing of lions.
Let me interrupt you for a moment. I understand from the Maasai point of view how these Living Walls benefit them, but what are the possible long-term effects of Living Walls? Don’t they contribute to further sedentism, which may not be so good for the ecology in the long-run?
There is a common misconception with respect to how Maasai tend to move around or settle. At least in this day and age, even if herds are temporarily grazing far away from “home”, there is always a “home” (or hub) where the entire family resides and keeps livestock 365 days a year. Ordinarily, this hub is where the children are based – where they go to school from and where people have access to civic centers. There are many permanent structures around. So, these hubs are not readily movable. Many people plant the Commiphora around the outside of these homesteads – this is where the idea came from – we just helped them apply the concept to the inner livestock corral. So, most Living Walls have been installed in these permanent settlement areas, limiting people’s need to deal with problem animals by preventing contact in the first place. It is also significant that the Maasai see real tangible benefits. Living Walls are one of the key reasons why trust between the Maasai and APW has been established. Our other programs would not be nearly as successful without that trust.
Laly and Buddy helping installing a Living Wall
Interesting. Please do go on about other programs.
Environmental education was and is key to everything we do. It started with just children, but we are now welcoming adults as well at our environmental center. We hold classes and distribute educational material. We help start wildlife clubs. We organize trips into Tarangire National Park. We organize environmental summer camps for children. We hold seminars in rangeland, watershed and natural resource management. At first, we were running all our programs near the village center of Loibor Siret in a makeshift little camp. The Maasai elders took quite a liking to what we were doing, and in 2006, perhaps in empathy for our “charming” camp, they donated a parcel of land on which the Noloholo Environmental Center was to be built. The building of the Center began in 2008, and it has since become our home base for all of our educational programs and outreach efforts. The Center is now often used to accommodate village meetings as well.
Adult environmental education has led to an important new initiative: rangeland and watershed management. Essentially, the concept is to protect, through zoning, the permanent watershed area in Loibor Siret from agriculture or intensive grazing. The idea actually came from the Maasai themselves after viewing photographs, vegetation maps and other ecological information provided by APW. It turns out that they used to have a system prohibiting heavy usage of the watershed area in the past, but that arrangement ebbed over time. Now, once again, the area is set aside as a conservation area where no agriculture is allowed and only small calves are allowed to graze, thereby eliminating the potential for soil erosion from overgrazing. The Maasai’s efforts will ensure a healthy water supply for years to come for more than 5,000 residents.
APW also funds and trains village game scouts. We call them “Warriors for Wildlife”, and they are essentially the eyes and ears of the community. They report poaching activity to TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks) rangers; they report and take action with the village on such things as fires, illegal charcoaling, and grazing policy violations. They are also, of course, instrumental in preventing human-wildlife conflict.
We are engaged in a lot of different efforts – all interlinked by the goal of maintaining the ecological integrity of the Maasai Steppe for both people and wildlife. More information can be found on APW’s website and recent events are posted on our Facebook page.
Living Walls and the watershed management initiative appear to have a common thread: they appear to be led by the Maasai. How important is that?
So important that I don’t even know how to convey it appropriately. There is no question that if things are forced upon people, they tend not to work in the long-run. I believe there is an inherent sense in people of what is sustainable and what is not. Certainly, the Maasai have a sense of the increase in human and livestock populations and the now restricted rangeland availability. But they just don’t have a clear sense of exactly how much or what to do about it. We are in essence simply supplying them with the information on what’s going on, how much land is being converted, the potential impacts over time, and we are providing up-to-date information regarding mitigation techniques. In doing so, we are enabling them to make informed conservation decisions themselves.
There are interesting “green” aspects of the Noloholo Environmental Center. Please tell us about those.
Obviously, it is important for an “environmental center” to be constructed in an ecologically sensitive manner. We steered as much as possible away from using wood. Where we used wood, we mainly harvested dead trees from the local landscape. Surface stones were used instead of mined stones for the main buildings. Abandoned termite mounds were used as mortar. We put in an extensive rainwater harvesting system for capturing roof water and surface water runoffs. Electricity is supplied by solar power. We find that the “green architecture” of the Noloholo Environmental Center itself creates a special learning environment for the community – a sense of place and a respect for the beauty of where they live.
What is the terrain of Loibor Siret and its surrounding areas like? The vegetation, wildlife and so forth...
The village of Loibor Siret encompasses over 550 square kilometers (150,000 acres) and is adjacent to eastern/southeastern Tarangire National Park. The term “village” is really a misnomer for such a big parcel of land. The Noloholo Environmental Center is located very close to Tarangire’s Loibor Siret Ranger Post, and the village center of Loibor Siret is just a bit further southeast of Noloholo.
Just inside the park near the Loibor Siret Ranger Post, there are huge seasonal swamps which in the dry season turn into grasslands containing perennial pools. Hundreds of elephants gather there in the dry season. Once you are outside the park, the terrain changes dramatically. The land becomes hilly, and the vegetation can be very thick in places. It is one of the very few areas in northern Tanzania where greater kudus occur in good numbers. Beyond the rolling hills, you get all of the variations of the Maasai Steppe: open plains, beautiful open woodland, thickets, dramatic mountains in the distance, etc. As you know, when the rains begin, many of Tarangire’s animals leave the park and disperse into the vast Maasai Steppe. That is when our resident animals are supplemented by huge herds of migratory animals. But all year around, we have good game – everything you find inside the park occurs in the village land of Loibor Siret, including all the carnivores as well as the rare southern population of fringe-eared oryx. Unlike the village land north of where we are based, the Loibor Siret area has seen minimal conversion of land use to agriculture. There is still freedom of movement for wildlife.
Zebras outside Tarangire National Park on Loibor Siret village land
Do you get to see much of the southern part of Tarangire National Park, given your location?
Not as much as I would like. But the answer is yes. The southern part of Tarangire is so amazing. Well, the whole park is so amazing. But it’s a shame that there is really no tourist infrastructure in the south. The Mukungunero Pools area in the south... I’ve always had great wildlife encounters there. Just outside the very southern gate (called Kimotorok), there is a vast open plain. It almost looks infinite. The Kimotorok village abuts a swamp, and there is a perennial pool called Kambi ya Samaki, meaning “camp of the fish”. One cannot imagine that such a perennial pool exists in the middle of Maasailand where the few non-Maasai there fish for food. Then there are vast impenetrable thickets to the east. Buddy and I have been stuck in those thickets once or twice.
How have Tarangire and the neighboring areas changed over the 12 years you have been around?
During my time here, there is no question Tarangire has lost vast herds of zebras and wildebeests, primarily due to agricultural encroachment on the northern/northeastern boundary restricting their movements. There seem to be fewer buffalos around. Fewer carnivores certainly. Meat poaching has increased – this coming mostly from non-Maasai communities. But even with all that, the Tarangire ecosystem is by and large still intact. The elephant population is still very healthy. And there are some positive surprises. Grant’s gazelles, which we almost never used to encounter in Loibor Siret, are colonizing here. The fringe-eared oryx, so rarely seen in recent years, is making somewhat of a comeback. Loibor Siret’s lion population is improving in pride structure, including a new pride of 12 lioness, juveniles and cubs who spend most of their time on village land. Just the other day, there was a sighting of 7 cheetahs altogether on village land. Then, there are the wild dogs – we just spent an amazing afternoon watching adults return to feed their pups. Wild dog sightings are on the increase in southern Tarangire and the neighboring village land. We can’t help but feel that our conservation work has contributed to all of this.
You mention that conversion from rangeland to agriculture, which has adversely affected wildlife in the northern part of the greater Tarangire ecosystem, has been modest where you are in the southern part of the ecosystem. Why is that? And how do you prevent further conversion to agriculture in the area?
I think the “southern” part of the greater Tarangire ecosystem has escaped agricultural expansion simply by virtue of being farther away from the source of expansion (the north). Agricultural expansion is actually happening everywhere. It’s just that we are several years behind the northern part of the Tarangire ecosystem.
How do you prevent it? Well, if agriculture truly benefited people in the area, it would be hard to argue against it. The interesting thing about agriculture in the Maasai Steppe is that it doesn’t make economic sense due to the inherent unpredictability and lack of rainfall. Furthermore, the Maasai, as a group, don’t want it, as cultivated lands restrict free movement of livestock. But as individuals, some Maasai see the benefit of staking their own parcel of land or selling/leasing the land for money. It’s a classic case of “prisoners’ dilemma”: individuals gain at the expense of the greater good for the community. The important thing is that the Maasai know this, and the idea of zoning land use, which has always been around, is gaining more traction these days. The watershed conservation area in Loibor Siret is a case in point. I believe that if you provide the community, right down to the household level, with the right kind of information, the community will come up with the answer. In the village of Loibor Siret, zoning land use, including limiting agricultural land, is the hottest topic right now.
Land use policy in Tanzania being what it is, there is trophy hunting allowed on village land just outside of Tarangire, including Loibor Siret. Has this been a problem in any way with what you are trying to accomplish? Has there been any friction?
No, not really. We know the hunting operator, and luckily, we don’t have an adverse relationship. And, they have been responsive to our lion conservation efforts. The only difficulty I see is that whether it’s hunting or photographic tourism, the community really has no say and the benefits derived are few. I also believe, from a national point of view, the hunting industry could be better regulated and managed.
What do we know about your husband Buddy? How did you two meet? Is there a bush romance story?
Buddy was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is a 4th generation African. His great grandfather was a doctor and a missionary. So, Buddy has an intimate understanding of Africa, because, well, he is an African. We met over lunch in 2000. We hit it off immediately, because we both loved the bush so much. Before we knew it, we embarked on a week-long journey from Tarangire to the coast, camping all along the way. We married in 2009 and were treated to a wonderful Maasai ceremony, presided by many of the elders of Loibor Siret. It was very special.
How does your role differ from Buddy’s?
I think the simplest way to put it would be that I am the program developer and Buddy is the hands-on executor. He is the one who knows how to build things and fix things – essential skills in the bush. Furthermore, his Swahili is excellent, and he has a natural congenial manner about him that allows him to be very effective in bringing people together.
You and Buddy are unique in that you have lived alongside the community you work with for the past 12 years (there are remarkably few examples of conservationists actually being with the community for that long). How does this help you in your work? How does it hurt you?
You are right. We are unique in that regard. The advantages are obvious. We know everyone around us and they know us. There is a deep sense of trust. They know we are not going to have them sign on to some deal then pack up and leave. Without this trust, there is no way we can enable truly community-led initiatives. The one disadvantage is that we miss some of the happenings around Arusha, which is the hub of northern Tanzania in terms of all things safari and NGO.
There are still very few women involved in conservation in Africa. Has the gender issue been a problem for you in Africa? In the male-dominated Maasai society, have you experienced any discrimination?
Amazingly, the answer is no to both. The Maasai in the Steppe have treated me with nothing but respect. Perhaps it’s that education trumps gender in the modern Maasai society... I don’t know for sure. But they make an effort to always call me “Doctor”.
OK. The grand question: in the end, what would you like to accomplish in the Maasai Steppe?
Aligning community needs with conservation. A perfect example of that is the watershed management initiative. It’s great for wildlife and it’s great for the community. It’s hard to find mutually beneficial instances such as that one, but nobody said it was going to be easy. The key to accomplishing that, as I said before, is allowing the community to come up with its own ideas and to make its own rules. If we can function simply as enablers in that process, it will all have been a success.
In closing, can you tell us an anecdote? Perhaps an indelible memory of living and working in the Maasai Steppe?
It was during the early days (2003 or so) when I was trying to take ID photos of some Tarangire lions. This particular pride had been extremely elusive. Then one early evening, Buddy and I came across a not so fresh elephant carcass just outside the park. It was getting late and we were both getting hungry, but I insisted (over Buddy’s pleadings) that we have a stake out. It appeared that the carcass had been fed on by lions, and I knew the lions would eventually come back to feed again. And, the lions did appear later in the night. But every time we put the spotlight on the lions, they retreated (normally, lions are not bothered by lights but outside protected areas they are much more wary). So, this cat and mouse game continued well into the night, and I was not getting any workable photos. Then, it began to rain. Hard. So, we decided to head home. But of course, the car battery had been drained by the spotlight. Long story short, we ended up walking back to our camp in the mud in the wee hours of the morning after the lions abandoned the carcass. By the time we reached camp, which was located not far from the center of the village, everyone was waking up and readying for the day... basically everyone saw us (covered in mud). And smelled us! The elephant carcass was absolutely rancid, and we now were representing it. It felt like we saw everyone in the village we knew that morning... and their disapproving faces. I think that day is when they knew that we were somehow “different”.
Thank you, Laly.
Alison Nicholls (a wildlife artist and member of Safaritalk) recently visited APW. Her trip report and her various sketches can be found here
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.