Laly Lichtenfeld Interview

February 2018


Image by African People & Wildlife / Cameron Zegers

Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld co-founded African People & Wildlife in 2005 to help rural communities conserve and benefit from their wildlife and natural resources. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University for novel research combining wildlife ecology and social ecology in an interdisciplinary study of human-lion relationships, interactions, and conflicts. Laly specializes in human-wildlife conflict prevention, species conservation focusing on lions and other big cats, community empowerment and engagement in natural resource management, conservation education, and the development of conservation incentives for rural people. Laly is a National Geographic Explorer and a recipient of the 2016 Lowell Thomas Award for Open Space Conservation from the Explorers Club.

When you talk to local people, what is your key message to them? Why would rural communities care to preserve wildlife? What are the main community-level benefits from conservation?

We have to think about this in the context of rural Africa. In Tanzania, about 75 percent of the total population live in rural areas, and their livelihoods depend on wise natural resource management. Whether they are livestock herders with cattle or agriculturalists working the fields, they need healthy environments. Also, of course, for their daily livelihoods, they require clean water and resources to construct their homes. All of this comes from the natural environment around them. What we work very hard to do at African People & Wildlife is to understand from the community point of view why they would want to protect those resources. In the landscapes of northern Tanzania where we work, healthy pastures are absolutely critical for the Maasai people, who depend on livestock for their economic wellbeing as well as their social identity.

We work very closely to link their concerns with wildlife conservation. For example, if your concern is a healthy pasture for livestock, that healthy pasture also benefits wildlife. Tanzania has a very strong reputation for wildlife tourism and offers some of the best wildlife viewing possibilities in Africa. We need to help rural communities get access to those benefits. One of the things we’re doing is supporting community-based wildlife tourism. For example, we’ve helped a community to set up their own campsite so that they can host visitors and show them their local wildlife. Tourists can also interact with the people and learn about their lives. There are a lot of opportunities for wildlife tourism outside of formal protected areas like national parks and game reserves.

I want to really emphasize how strong the ties with wildlife are in many of these communities. For instance, the Maasai people have had a relationship with lions for centuries. Lions have been their greatest wild foes, but at the same time, the people respect the lions. Lions mean something in terms of who the Maasai are as a people. These communities understand that there is value in having lions around them. What we’re trying to do is help local people to express their long-standing relationships with wildlife in a modern context.

Could you tell us more about the Warriors for Wildlife program? It’s an incredible idea. Whose idea was it and how did it come about?

The Warriors for Wildlife program originated with a young Maasai gentleman who lives in one of the communities where we work. He had been helping us to collect information about conflict between the people and big cats—lions, leopards, and cheetahs—as well as hyenas and African wild dogs. We were looking at why all those animals were attacking the livestock, what the conditions were, what was happening, and how this impacted the community. Elvis Kisimir, who is the head of our Human-Wildlife Conflict Prevention program, recognized that the local people are the greatest resource for both understanding the conflict and how to resolve it. With better access to information, people can prevent conflicts with the big cats. In all the rural communities where we work, Warriors for Wildlife are collecting information about conflicts and relaying that information to community members. They can then say things like, “We’ve got lions in this part of the community, so you may wish to herd your livestock in another area.” When conflicts do occur, the Warriors get right on site. Just in the last six months, they’ve prevented more than fourteen retaliatory lion killings. So, they are keeping lions safe and they are keeping livestock safe, and they are doing it all with information that they collect. For us, it’s very important that this information is in the hands of the community. They are the ones who need to make the decisions about the existence of wildlife on their lands in the future.

Image by African People & Wildlife / Felipe Rodriguez

The local people are the greatest resource for both understanding the conflict and how to resolve it.

How many people does it involve?

Right now we have 34 Warriors for Wildlife across northern Tanzania. We are in the process of adding about ten more individuals, so the program is growing. There’s a lot of demand across northern Tanzania. One of the wonderful things about this program is the use of modern technology. All the Warriors for Wildlife are equipped with smartphones, so our monitoring and evaluation team at the Noloholo Environmental Center gets information in real time. It’s the best way to protect both the large carnivores and the local livestock.

Your basic model involves a four-step process, which is described on your website in general terms. Could you illustrate it with a specific example or a specific project?

What’s really exciting about our four-step process is that it works vertically through all our strategic priorities: our human-wildlife conflict program, our youth and adult community learning activities, our active management of natural resources, the support to communities to help get things done on the ground, and in our sustainable enterprise programs. All of this, of course, culminates in wildlife and habitat conservation. And, it also works horizontally across each program. I can give you an example.

In the human-wildlife conflict program, working horizontally, the four steps in the process are 1) to prevent conflict, 2) to build capacity, 3) to help actively manage situations on the ground, and 4) to ensure that it’s all focused around an incentive-based system. We are targeting our conflict prevention efforts on the interactions between livestock owners and large carnivores. There is a clear conflict that people want to resolve, and that’s really critical. We recognize that the traditional pastoralists have an incredible amount of knowledge about these issues. We merge that knowledge with modern scientific principles and technology. This helps people build their capacity to bring in, analyze, and evaluate information, and then to return that information back to the communities.

You have to then actively manage the situation in terms of a conflict prevention strategy, such as Living Walls—environmentally-friendly, predator-proof corrals that are cost-shared with the communities. We get a lot of attention for Living Walls because they are very innovative and they were a Maasai idea in the first place. So, we are not just taking in information about conflicts without working towards solutions. We are actually solving the problem by preventing carnivores from getting to people’s livestock at night. It’s all built around the most crucial piece of the Maasai people’s livelihood – their livestock—and keeping those animals alive. The people are intimately interested in resolving this conflict in a way that creates long-term sustainability.

Image by African People & Wildlife / Felipe Rodriguez

We can follow this same process across all of our programs. Take, for instance, our Sustainable Rangelands Initiative, which is a very exciting and relatively new effort of ours. Again, it’s focused around a conflict. In this case, the conflict is between pastoralists—or herdsmen—who want and need healthy pastures for their livelihoods, and agriculturalists who are coming into this landscape as immigrants and cultivating the land. From the pastoralists’ point of view, every acre of land that’s lost to agriculture is an acre lost for their livestock. So they need to make a decision about how much land they want to see managed for cultivation and how much land is to be managed for livestock.

We then start to work with capacity building: How can community extension officers or community volunteers actively monitor the quality of their rangelands? We want to avoid the concentration of livestock in one area, which creates overgrazing and erosion. So they look at the height of the grass, the color of the grass, and the presence of invasive species. They take pictures from select points every month that they can show their community leadership and say things like, “The quality of the rangeland was good in December, but in January it’s getting dry. So we may need to move our livestock to a different part of the pastures to avoid overgrazing.”

We also support the communities with small project funds. They can apply for up to $5,000 of support to manage their rangelands. We are doing a project right now to help one of these communities to make access to water more readily available for the livestock and more dispersed across the landscape. The work involves actively helping them to set up dry season grazing areas that are protected with signposts and by community members who are out there ensuring that people are not grazing the livestock in these areas in the wrong times of the year. We are already seeing very significant results in terms of the increased height of grass in these monitored spaces, fewer areas of bare ground, and the return of important plant and wildlife species. This progress is due to the initiative of the communities. We’re just supporting them around an incentive, which is the protection of healthy pastures for the pastoralists. Without ever talking about wildlife, we’re also protecting those spaces that are used by different wild herbivores throughout the year, who are then followed by the carnivores. It’s a really exciting way of turning the conservation question around and looking at it from the local point of view.

What about your youth environmental education program – do you observe a difference in how younger people see wildlife and their own role in protecting it?

Revocatus Magayane, who heads our youth environmental education programs, has seen notable differences in the attitudes of people who live in communities where our youth programs are present versus those we haven’t reached yet. Young people are such incredible messengers, and they are so excited about learning new information! At the same time, we recognize the need to learn from the youth and from these cultures. It’s a shared learning experience. The youth go back to their families and their communities and become incredible advocates for the environment. Northern Tanzania is their home. They see the watersheds and they see trees, and they know what it would mean for them and their futures if it were all destroyed. So they are a very powerful force for environmental conservation. It can be challenging to evaluate impact with education programs, but in our youth environmental camps we measure attitudes and knowledge, both at the beginning of the camp and at the end. We see a significant increase in knowledge and awareness about the natural world, as well as a shift in attitudes about wildlife. At the end of the camps, the youth incorporate many more environmental aspects when they draw pictures of their homes. There are more trees and more wildlife, such as elephants and lions, appearing in their artwork. We then track and watch how they go back to their communities and teach their fellow students about what they learned. They share the experience of the camp with their families and communities, and they get them more excited about environmental conservation.

Image by African People & Wildlife / Felipe Rodriguez

Without ever talking about wildlife, we’re also protecting those spaces that are used by different wild herbivores throughout the year, who are then followed by the carnivores. It’s a really exciting way of turning the conservation question around.

Which of your accomplishments as an organization are you especially proud of? What would you say are APW’s most important innovations?

I think what APW is most known for is our ability to work with communities toward locally relevant and sustainable solutions. We are incredibly skilled at engaging with local people and getting their points of view into the conservation dialogue. As a result, we have some very big wins. Our Living Walls Initiative is our flagship project and probably the one we’re most known for. There are now more than 850 of them—and counting—across northern Tanzania. They impact more than 12,500 people on a nightly basis. We’re also excited about some of our newer projects like our Women’s Beekeeping Initiative, which has been running for the last few years. We’re helping women to improve their livelihoods by earning their own income. What that is doing in the communities, of course, is bringing the women’s voice to conservation and empowering them to transcend their traditional roles. The women have said they get more respect from their husbands and that they are more involved in family discussions because they are now contributing to the family’s resources.

In the long term, our biggest win is going to be our Sustainable Rangelands Initiative. It’s easy for people to understand poaching and what’s happening to the elephants and the rhinos. But what’s harder for people to understand are the implications of habitat loss. If we lose habitat for wildlife, we’re not going to be able to maintain these incredible populations and diversity of species. It’s a much more difficult problem to articulate, but if we can work hand in hand with communities to sustainably manage pastures and keep those areas open for both wildlife and livestock, then, I think, we’ll make a tremendous impact on conservation in Tanzania.

Image by African People & Wildlife / Laly Lichtenfeld

At APW, quality is always more important than quantity. We want to make sure our programs are extremely effective before we expand them.

Looking further ahead, are there any projects, ideas, or components of your work that you would like to implement but have been unable to do so far?

There so many more things that we would like to do! One of them is to diversify our sustainable enterprise program that is currently focused on beekeeping. We made a strategic decision to initially just focus on one livelihood activity to get that right, which is key. At APW, quality is always more important than quantity. We want to make sure our programs are extremely effective before we expand them.

The other thing that we’re talking a lot about as an organization is how to take this very successful impact that we are having in northern Tanzania and scale that over a larger part of the country—and even beyond. How do we reach other communities without having to duplicate our footprint, which is relatively expensive and difficult to do? One of the things that we are working on is engaging more with Tanzanian institutions like the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority and the Tanzania National Parks Authority so that we can help bring our model to them.

How does the public—not just the local populations you are directly engaged with, but the general public in Tanzania and the authorities there—respond your work? How supportive are they?

We’ve been very fortunate in that regard. I think it’s the result of being so intimately tied with communities and the strategic decision to base our headquarters out in the field. You won’t find a big APW office in the town of Arusha or the city of Dar es Salaam. You’ll find our headquarters out in the bush. Because we live among the local people, we’re increasingly known across northern Tanzania as an organization that comes from the people. Many of our staff are community members from the villages where we work, and that really means something. We are not just coming out to deliver a seminar or calling in with an idea, dropping it off, and then going away. We’re always out there in the community, and I think that gives us an incredible amount of support. The impact on the ground shows very clearly. You can go visit the Living Walls and you can see the beehives from the Women’s Beekeeping Initiative hanging in the trees. This means a lot, but what we need to do better here in Tanzania is to promote the conservation message among the citizens more broadly. We need to get more of them excited about conservation, about wildlife, and about what’s so remarkable about their country. There are some great examples in Kenya of TV shows and initiatives that highlight various projects and heroes for conservation. We really need to do a better job with that in Tanzania, and that’s something we hope to work on over the next few years.

Image by African People & Wildlife / Felipe Rodriguez

How can local communities and individuals help to protect wildlife from external threats, such as poaching, given that it’s driven by global demand and there are international criminal syndicates involved? Do you think there’s a role for local people in protecting wildlife from these kinds of threats?

There definitely is. And I think many organizations, including ours, will tell you that the local people are a critical part of information networks. They know when people are coming into their communities from the outside to do something potentially illegal. When we have communities that are engaged in conservation and benefiting from their surrounding wildlife, they start to appreciate the value of those animals and become very willing to protect them. You have to make sure that the communities have an incentive and a reason to turn away poachers, because obviously there are some individual benefits involved. Like anywhere in the world, not every single person will ever be one hundred percent supportive of wildlife. But you need enough community members who are experiencing ample benefits. When that happens, local people do become ambassadors and champions for wildlife. Without those people on the ground, we’ll never be successful in keeping open these important spaces outside of protected areas. And even where there are protected areas that are large enough to support healthy wildlife populations, we still see that around the edges, those community areas can be the gateways for poachers. Those surrounding communities have significant knowledge and information about what’s happening in terms of poaching on the ground. So they are incredibly important partners, and I think it should be recognized more in the conservation community just how valuable they are.

When we have communities that are engaged in conservation and benefiting from their surrounding wildlife, they start to appreciate the value of those animals and become very willing to protect them.

Looking globally, why do you think there aren’t more organizations like yours? Given the critical tipping point we have reached, one would think conservation would attract scores of people anxious to preserve the environment and wildlife. Why do you think this is not happening?

I think we are seeing a change, but the work that we are doing – finding the balance between people and nature – is not easy in any way. The perception may be that we are out following lions, leopards, or other animals around all day. That’s not what we are doing, not even five percent. Most of the time is spent working with local people. That requires incredible communication skills, patience, and the ability to understand issues from a local point of view. It’s very rewarding work, but also very challenging. Historically in the conservation community, we’ve seen people coming from the science backgrounds like wildlife ecology. But we also need individuals with backgrounds in social sciences who have the skills to work with rural communities. We have a lot of young people reaching out to us now about internships because they understand how important balance is in their own personal lives and for the environment. We’re seeing that change and it’s really exciting.

The work that we are doing – finding the balance between people and nature – is not easy in any way.

I’d like to ask you about a different kind of balance. That of challenges and rewards. How do you balance, on a personal level, the desire to see quicker, more sustainable results and the need to deal with daily hurdles and challenges of the conservation work? What helps you to stay focused on what you do?

Certainly, we want to see results as fast as possible. Sometimes you look out and you think: You know, we are not doing enough.We need to more. But after seventeen years of working with local communities, I recognize that the pace has to be driven by the community. The more you push and the faster you try to go, the more steps you are going to end up taking backward. So, patience is something I’ve learned in my field and in this work. If you take the time to establish the foundations of your work correctly, the outcome in the long-term is far more sustainable. For me personally, although we get so involved in the areas where we work—in six different landscapes in northern Tanzania— it is also important to widen the lens, to back out, and to interact with other colleagues and organizations. In the coming years, I think you’ll see African People & Wildlife having a larger voice on an international scale. We’re working on thought pieces and on ways we can convey our message not just in Africa, but in other parts of the world in areas where people and wildlife interact.

My final question – one I almost always ask, particularly of conservationists: what makes you an optimist? What makes you optimistic about the prospects of preserving the endangered species, about winning the race against time?

Yes, you have to be an optimist to keep the energy up and to keep going. When I first started my research as a Ph.D. student, we lived in a very beautiful part of the Tarangire ecosystem. And I would never go through a week without hearing the roar of lions. Then there was a period of time when the roars disappeared. It became a very lonely period when hope was difficult. But as the result of the impact of some of our programs over the last few years in that same ecosystem, the roar of the lion has been returning. It’s a very hopeful sound – the sound of wild Africa that gives me energy on a daily basis. We’re also seeing the return of some important species. In the last couple of years, around our environmental center, we’ve had large herds of the fringe-eared oryx—an extremely endangered population in Tanzania—coming back to this landscape repetitively. That’s very rewarding. And so is looking at the scholars we support in our youth program, hearing them talk about their futures, and seeing some of them studying wildlife management. I also feel optimistic as I watch the local capacity growing, see the early success in our Sustainable Rangelands Initiative, and talk to people who are saying things like, “I can sleep well at night now because I have a Living Wall.” It’s the stories, the people, and the tangible changes happening on the ground.

There are many successes, and many organizations around the world are bringing species back from the brink. They are protecting habitats and improving the livelihoods of local people. We need to do a better job of communicating those wins because we want to get people excited about conservation and the critical need for balance.



Image by African People & Wildlife / Felipe Rodriguez
Image by African People & Wildlife / Laly Lichtefeld

No part of this interview can be reproduced without citing Thinking Animals United.

144983677032472 Interviewed by Nik Makharadze, freelance writer living in Moscow.