In this post Sara Blackburn discusses her paper ‘Human–wildlife conflict, benefit sharing and the survival of lions in pastoralist community-based conservancies

Recent work on African lions indicates that they’re in trouble. Widespread declines have been identified across the continent, except in intensively managed fenced reserves, signposting a bleak future for free-ranging lions. This is due to conflict with people; lions kill livestock and, understandably, they are killed in retaliation. Cattle are hugely important to the Maasai, and for people who don’t benefit from the presence of lions and other large carnivores on their land they are a financially damaging and frightening problem.

Despite suggestions that fences are critical to the long term survival of lion populations, land managers have sought other approaches to allow people and wildlife to coexist. Community Conservancies – privately protected (and unfenced) regions set up alongside the community to allow people to benefit from the existence of wildlife – are one approach. As they focus on integrating people and wildlife, Conservancies may have huge benefits for conservation and mitigating human-wildlife conflict. However, their effectiveness in protecting large carnivores has not yet been quantified. We attempted to understand if – and why – Community Conservancies contribute to the future survival of free-ranging lions and could be an alternative approach to fencing wildlife regions.

In our study, we looked at the survival of lions utilising Community Conservancies north of the Masai Mara National Reserve (MMNR) in relation to aspects of their environment, the presence and activities of people, and important elements of their social behaviour. Our aim was to determine what was affecting their survival – was this down to the availability of prey? Or were humans playing a role?

Importantly, we found no significant impact of environmental variables (rainfall, vegetation cover, prey density) on lion survival, indicating that the MMNR and Conservancies provide an ideal habitat for lions to hunt successfully and raise offspring. This was expected; local rainfall is high, the habitat favours hunting, and the region supports high prey densities year-round. However, when we looked at the impacts of people, there was a different story to tell.

When we considered the presence of human settlements – in particular, those used by pastoralists to house livestock (Livestock Settlements) – we found that some significantly affected the survival of lions that could encounter them within their home-range. Crucially, the number of Livestock Settlements that were NOT members of a Conservancy had a significant negative effect on the survival of lions that may come into contact with them. This sole variable was the most influential driver of survival outside of lion social ecology. In contrast, the presence of Livestock Settlements that WERE members of a Conservancy had no impact on survival. Similarly, the density of grazing livestock within pride home-ranges was also non-significant.

These results indicate something substantial – the formation of Community Conservancies positively impacts the survival of lions; not through habitat improvements or by attracting more prey, or by controlling livestock grazing, but from the inclusion of communities in the benefits of wildlife. Specifically, it indicates that Conservancy membership may mitigate conflict between lions and livestock to the point where it no longer drives population declines. When broken down, Conservancy membership may bring many positive factors – income from tourism; job security; compensation for depredated livestock; improved education and health benefits, and many others. Ultimately, the benefits of Conservancy membership allows people to gain from the presence of wildlife, financially or otherwise. This brings about increased tolerance, respect and understanding of large carnivores – in this case, lions – which in turn mitigates the effect of conflict. If wildlife brings something positive to you, there is less reason to eradicate it. In contrast, pastoralists who are not Conservancy members have no reason to protect the lions that are an otherwise costly problem.

This important work offers key insights into possible ways to stall regional lion declines, giving an alternative to fencing. Now, it is essential that further work addresses exactly what aspects of Conservancy membership contributes to this observed increase in lion survival. We suggest that Conservancies are developed both geographically and logistically to build on their positive aspects and that they receive recognition for their positive role in wildlife conservation. Our work cements findings that changing attitudes to predators and mitigating their costs to the people with which they coexist should be a focal point of large carnivore conservation.