I'm an ecologist at the University of California at Davis, and I work in different parts of Tanzania (far west and way north) on conservation issues. I came to the Southern Highlands to start a new research project asking questions about conservation conflicts (wildlife eating crops and livestock) and cooperation (people organizing to manage resources and generate revenue).
A bit of background: Ruaha NP, particularly outside the southern boundary along the Great Ruaha River, exhibits all the classic problems of people-and-parks in southern Africa. There are (somewhat) healthy wildlife populations living nearby poor rural households. People are almost entirely dependent on agriculture and livestock keeping for their livelihoods. Bushmeat is a big source of protein and revenue for rural people, and ivory more recently is a big potential cash source. Wildlife are hungry and mobile, which means they eat lots of crops and livestock. There aren't safety nets for families, and lots of kids die to early (1 in 5 before their 5th birthday, though this statistic varies widely in Tanzania).
For decades, big development agencies and organizations have been trying get communities involved in conservation and resource management. Ruaha includes one of these long running efforts- the Wildlife Management Area. The idea is that donors and NGOs help communities near the park set aside some land along the border, communities protect this land conserving it for wildlife, thereby attracting tourists for trophy hunting and photo tourism; shooting lions, with guns or cameras, can be quite profitable. But, for lots of reasons, community-based management faces challenges.
I'm interested in a few general reasons affecting these challenges. First, how do rural people make choices about their livelihoods, including why might they choose to cooperate in support or break the rules of a community run conservation area? Second, are all these agency and NGO projects (ie, dollars) working or failing?
I came to Ruaha to ask these questions, and that's how I met Paul, along with Leonard and Innocent and Kepha, and all the young guides at Mkuyu.
At a new research site, the first two priorities are to find a mechanic and a field assistant. The assistant is absolutely critical, especially for household-centered research. They're trusted in the communities, know the landscape (social and ecological), keep bumbling researchers safe from all sorts of traps (again, both social and ecological), and are instrumental in turning stuffy, confusing scientific ideas into answerable questions.
So, Leonard and Innocent run Mkuyu Guide School to train young people in skills of nature and all things important to tourists. These latter things- how to keep tourists happy- are particularly difficult yet necessary for tourism-based conservation. I can't emphasize enough how important these kinds of links are for grand development schemes to work. These are also the links that are usually overlooked. As it turns out, young guides make great research assistants, owing to the fact that researchers are much more like tourists than we like to admit.
Leonard and Innocent introduced me to Kepha, a recent Mkuyu graduate from Makifu village. Makifu is a founding member of the Wildlife Management Area, and so Kepha not only knows the local landscape and people in all the villages along the southern RNP boarder, he also knows through experience the challenges of living near the park. He arranges interviews with local leaders, translates between kiswahili and kihehe, and takes care of the logistics related to research and everything else. So far, Mkuyu serves as a welcome stop over field camp, where on an rest day I can join twice-daily birding walks with the 20 resident guides who id everything by call. And, Kepha has been excelling at all things research, in what amounts to his role as project manager. Mkuyu is certainly training more than safari guides.
Big thanks to Jon for this blog. We hope Mkuyu can continue to help in the progress of your research.
You can get in touch with Jon at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kepha (left) and Leonard (right) at Mkuyu.