Combating human-wildlife conflicts through Living Walls

A 10-year study in Tanzania offers strong scientific evidence for the effectiveness of using “Living Walls” as predator deterrents, saving lions by reducing the need for human retaliation against the big cats. Homesteads using these environmentally friendly, predator-proof enclosures report an almost 100 percent reduction in lion attacks on livestock. The research was publishedin the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

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The study, conducted by Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld, Charles Trout and Elvis Kisimir, all of the African People & Wildlife Fund, reported areas that installed Living Walls — enclosures that combine fast-growing thorny trees as fence posts with chain link fencing — from 2008 onwards demonstrated a 99.9 percent success rate in preventing attacks on livestock, resulting in a halt to retaliatory lion killings. The number of lions killed dropped to zero immediately.

Top predators, including lions, are quickly disappearing in the wild, victims of conflict with humans, prey depletion, and habitat loss or degradation. A 2012 study published in Biodiversity and Conservation reported lion populations in Africa had dropped as low as 32,000, down nearly 90 percent in the last century.

“We set out to show that by working with local, indigenous populations and modern resources, we could save lions, and that’s exactly what we did,” said Lichtenfeld, who co-directs the African People & Wildlife Fund with partner Trout. Co-author Kisimir, a Maasai from the town of Narakauwo, heads the organization’s human-wildlife conflict prevention program. Lichtenfeld’s work is also supported by the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative (BCI).

“Living Wall” is a term coined by Lichtenfeld and her colleagues at the African People & Wildlife Fund. Traditional homesteads in this region, called “bomas,” are built with a main outer ring of fencing that encloses the family’s houses and with a smaller, inner ring for keeping livestock. The Living Walls are constructed around the inner ring. They are assembled using living trees native to the area, called Commiphora africana, as fence posts, which is a Maasai innovation, and chain link fencing. As the thorny trees grow, the enclosures become an environmentally friendly, long-lasting physical and visual barrier to predators. During the study period, the researchers compared large-carnivore attack rates at 84 unprotected bomas with 62 bomas that were fortified with Living Walls.

At an average cost of $500 per Living Wall, with the owner contributing just 25 percent of the cost, the protection of livestock and the resulting benefit to lion populations become affordable for conservationists and accessible to community members.

“Dr. Lichtenfeld and her team closely engage local communities to understand and solve the problems that lions cause them,” said Dr. Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation ecology at the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke University and a BCI advisory board member. “The Living Walls save lions cheaply and effectively, providing global lessons for reducing wildlife conflict.”

Living Walls also had an intriguing effect on lion behavior in the rest of the community. Unfortified bomas near those bomas fortified with Living Walls were attacked significantly less, with overall boma depredation rates declining by 90 percent. The study’s authors suggest that this may indicate that attacks of livestock within bomas are a learned behavior and that the Living Walls break that behavior pattern, resulting in an overall reduction in local attacks.

The Living Walls program continues to grow across northern Tanzania, reaching new communities through word of mouth from enthusiastic boma owners. More than 400 Living Walls have been installed to date by the African People & Wildlife Fund with support provided by BCI and other generous sponsors, protecting 80,000 head of livestock on a nightly basis, providing peace of mind for some 7,500 people and saving an estimated 80 lions annually from death by spears, guns and poisons.

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