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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Photo Essay

Turning the lion hunters into lion defenders

An NGO is attempting to convince a rural community in Tanzania to give up their old ways.

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Beneath Mwayangi Hill, men from the Barabaig tribe dance for their future wives. Traditionally only men who have speared a lion are allowed to partake. However, with lion numbers dwindling, the age-old practices of the Barabaig are beginning to change with the help of an NGO.

Park Life

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The Barabaig people inhabit the outskirts of Ruaha National Park. Sprawling across central Tanzania, the park is larger in size than Northern Ireland.

Buffalo, zebras, giraffes, leopards, cheetahs, and wild dogs are all found in the park. The lion population, numbering in the thousands, is one of the largest in Africa.

Village Land

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Beyond the National Park’s invisible boundary lies village land. Here, amongst the acacia scrub, are the thorny enclosures of the Barabaig.

Pastoralists by nature, their daily lives are dictated by the needs of their cows and goats. Lion attacks on livestock are common. A family’s wealth is decided by head of cattle, so losses are keenly felt.

Nomadic hunters

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The Barabaig are renowned as skilled hunters. Defending their livelihoods from ‘simba’ – lion in Swahili – has always been a central aspect of their culture.

Nomads by birthright, the tribe arrived in Ruaha in the 1970s, concluding a 200-year journey from Ethiopia.

Cheek by jowl

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This paw mark (above, left) was found inside a family’s enclosure.

When cattle are taken by lions, a retaliation hunt is typically initiated. A group of young warriors, armed with spears, give chase to the lions.

Powerful culture forces bear down on these men. A successful hunt confers status, wealth, and maybe even a wife.

In love and war

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The Tanzanian government, alongside conservation NGOs, are trying to eradicate the practice of tribal lion hunting. However, the tradition runs deep.

In Barabaig culture, a warrior must spear a lion before he can partake in a courtship dance.

Defending the enemy

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A local NGO, the Ruaha Carnivore Project run the Lion Defender programme. Respected lion hunters from each village are paid to prevent lion hunts taking place.

Like the act of hunting a lion, accepting the role of lion defender gives the social status of Barabaig a lift. However, it comes with significant challenges, often putting them in direct conflict with tribal elders.

Lion defender Julius (above) contemplates his role over a feed of goat.

Dead Lion

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A dead lion is significant event for both locals and the team at Ruaha Carnivore Project alike.

A team will be sent out to assess the lion. The key question from RCPs point of view is whether the hunt was a traditional Barabaig hunt. The signs are obvious – spear wounds and specific body parts such as the left paw, teeth and tail removed.

It was not possible to determine how the lion above died, a relief for the lion guardian in this area as there are serious consequences for not stopping a lion hunt taking place – they could potentially be let go.

Good medicine

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A cow is seen here being tackled to the ground to administer medicine. 80% of livestock mortality in the area is due to illness.

The Carnivore Project gives basic medicines to the pastoralists in the hope that occasional lion depredation will be tolerated if overall losses are reduced.

Lion Proof

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Lion defender Musse stands in front of his predator-proof cattle enclosure.

Traditional enclosures are made from thorny vegetation. Lions can jump over these easily, even with a goat in their mouth. Failing that, the lions will circle the enclosure and spook the livestock, who panic and break out.

The Carnivore Project offers these upgraded enclosures to local families for a heavily discounted price. So far, no livestock have been lost from these enclosures.

Hearts and minds

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A young mother experiencing problems after giving birth leaves her village, located deep in the bush.

The Carnivore project runs an unofficial ambulance service in on the outskirts of the park. It is one way of showing a sometimes sceptical community that they are there to help.

Another is to offer lifts along the long dusty roads.

Competing for predators

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A Hyena strolls through village land in the dead of night.

The Carnivore Project builds goodwill and harnesses local knowledge of animal movement by running a monthly camera trap competition with a $2,000 prize.

The results are a valuable source of data for the NGO. Camera trap research has indicated higher predator densities on village land than exist inside the park.


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Life in the bush can be demanding. Western conservation agencies can struggle with keeping staff in the field.

A lack of continuity can cause problems, especially when hard-earned community relationships have to be reset.

Michael Chamara (above, left) born under Kilimanjaro, is part of a new highly educated group of Tanzanian conservationists. He is completing a PhD with Oxford while managing the lion collaring work at the Carnivore Project.

Tomorrow’s world

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This young Barabaig boys faces an uncertain future. If the Barabaig are to the tolerate thee old enemy living in their midst they must see real benefits.

Currently tourism provides no dividends to this tribe. Unless something changes, lions will remain a nuisance in the eyes of the Barabaig, one that shows up late at night to steal their wealth.

All images by Raymond Foley, with additional photography by Cian Kearns.

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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