A Beer at Bayfront that Lead to Laly
By Naples Zoo Director of Conservation Tim L. Tetzlaff
It’s September 3, 2014 and I’m driving down Goodlette Road to join National Geographic Explorer Dr. Luke Dollar for a late dinner down at Bayfront. I pulled in recalling when this corner was the Central Mall and I watched movies in the Kon Tiki theater. But tonight’s focus isn’t nostalgia. Luke was in town for his annual broadcast from Naples Zoo and whirlwind tour of schools to inspire thousands of fourth graders to be the next generation of scientists. I’d eaten, but said I’d join him for a beer. Time passes as we casually catch up on each other’s travels when he pauses and looks up from his steak. He’s got something good. “Do you want to know the project I found getting the most bang for the buck out there?” When one of the managers of National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative asks this, there’s only one response. I order myself another beer as I hear the name ‘Laly’ spoken for the first time.
Just like knowing Hamlet’s father is dead is foundational to understanding Shakespeare’s tragic play, a comprehension of one of the biggest issues in global predator conservation is core to our talk that evening: the challenge of human and wildlife coexistence. For perspective, when I host travelers like you on safari, we enjoy watching lions relaxing or feasting on a kill - with some thrilling exceptions. But when one recent group of local African herders was taken into a national park and saw lions lounging, they accused the guides of drugging the cats because herders know only of lions as ominous attackers in the night. Hunters pressed by shrinking habitats and prey availability to expand beyond their natural quarry. Herders like Raphael Siria in Tanzania would lose a quarter of his animals each year to lions, leopards, and hyenas. When the resource you depend on to feed your family is threatened, herdsmen often retaliate by killing the offenders. Similar scenarios affect over three-quarters of cat species from snow leopards in Mongolia to jaguars in Brazil, and even pumas in the US. Thus, the interface of livestock and predators becomes the frontline of conservation – as well as our topic over drinks that Wednesday night.
As I sip, Luke tells me about meeting Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld. She’s one of those committed all-in leaders who also believes in collaboration with local stakeholders that business gurus like Simon Sinek or Adam Grant would praise if they knew about her. After Laly’s first taste of Africa in the 1992, she educated herself in the field and at university – even spent three years living with her husband in the bush in a tent atop their Land Rover. Laly lives permanently in Tanzania and is a National Geographic Explorer, the recipient of numerous prestigious accolades, as well as being the CEO and co-founder African People and Wildlife (APW). An impressive person to be sure. But what was so efficient and effective that prompted Luke’s praise? That’s when I first hear about ‘Living Walls.’
Now I was familiar with traditional Maasai boma walls. Almost everyone who has visited East Africa on safari has seen these rings of dead thorny Acacia branches that encircle Maasai communities to keep predators away from livestock and people. The need to constantly replace the dead wood often contributes to deforestation while sadly being far from perfect in their main function. One long-term study showed large predators attacked the average community fifty times a year resulting in retaliatory killings of half a dozen lions or more. To address this, Laly worked directly with these communities to craft a more successful practice that also respects their traditional culture.
When Luke describes the Living Wall, it’s remarkably brilliant in its simplicity – not unlike being confounded by a seemingly impossible smart phone problem until someone shows you the simple fix. Instead of dead acacia, branches of living Commiphora trees are harvested. A furrow is dug in a circle and the branches are planted in the dry season. Chain link is then secured around this corral. When the rains start, the branches burst into life and this impenetrable barrier just grows stronger over time instead of degrading like the typical thorn corrals. Each relies on a $500 contribution by those of us who want a future for lions, but it also requires a cost share of cash and labor from the community.
But here was Luke’s kicker. In a ten-year long study they had just finished, Living Walls were found to be 99.9% effective preventing attacks. The predators can’t get in, so they stop coming. It’s like if you went to a particular Publix ten times in a row and each time the door was locked, you’d stop going to that store. Remember, Raphael Siria? After he helped create his Living Wall with APW, he went from losing a quarter of his animals every year to losing none. And that stops the motivation to kill lions.
With that profound return on investment, Naples Zoo began supporting African People and Wildlife as one of its long-term partners. On a zoo spreadsheet, that means investing tens of thousands of dollars. In Tanzania, it’s both saving the lives of lions and improving the wellbeing of the people who live among them. It’s a joy to share this reality with travelers on our safaris to meet with APW staff and visit a community that benefits from their impressive work. And a joy to share the work of extraordinary people like Laly with you.
That wasn’t the first or last meal with Luke that has led to great things for lions and other species. But those stories are for another time.
Join Naples Zoo on safari with Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld
Speaking of meals, over lunch a few months ago in Tanzania, Laly and I chatted about co-hosting a safari someday. Plans came together quickly and this October, Naples Zoo is offering the special opportunity for just 6 couples to travel with the two of us. If a no-compromise safari is on your wish list, explore this custom-crafted itinerary at www.napleszoo.org/travel.
Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens is an award-winning, 501(c)(3) nonprofit serving wildlife and families here and around the world that fully funds the salaries of 16 field staff in seven countries including two wildlife veterinarians. If you’d like to invest in our conservation efforts or join me in Africa, contact me at [email protected] More at www.napleszoo.org/conserve.