Lion populations are dwindling all over Africa, with now over 90% of their historical range sadly having been lost. The KopeLion project aims to reverse this trend in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area by partnering with local communities to build a region rich in fauna and tolerant of lions.
KopeLion started as a collaboration between scientific researchers and the local pastoralist communities of Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area in 2011 to stem the loss of lions resulting from human wildlife conflict issues. The name KopeLion comes from an abbreviation of the ‘Korongoro People's Lion Initiative’.
KopeLion is a nonprofit organisation in the USA and in Tanzania, and in 2020 made the shift from being a research project to an International NGO. Their mission is to enable permanent coexistence between the lions of the Ngorongoro Crater and the people who call this area home. Their vision is to see lions not only survive but thrive alongside the people of the Ngorongoro Conservation area and the surrounding landscapes.
KopeLion have strived to create a “corridor of tolerance” within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). The NCA is part of the contiguous Greater Serengeti Ecosystem, including nearby and bordering areas of high-density lion sub-populations in Ngorongoro Crater itself, Ndutu and the Serengeti National Park. It is a key ‘hub’ for the distribution and connectivity of the lion meta-population of Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya’s Maasailand.
Animosity between the lions and the pastoralists is caused because of lion attacks on livestock, which are easy prey, resulting in significant financial burdens for the NCA residents and this in turn can prompt retaliatory or pre-emptive lion killings.
As a result, lions have vanished from much of this historical range which has isolated the population in the Crater from those in the greater Serengeti ecosystem, greatly reducing their genetic diversity. This is critical because these conditions increase the odds of extinction through creating populations with less fit individuals.
The ecosystems which traditionally supported healthy lion populations have also been changed, meaning there are fewer ideal areas for these predators to thrive. Degradation of habitat through pressure from livestock grazing, population growth, and the introduction of various infrastructures in these areas all exacerbate the problems faced by lions today.
Kopelion’s approach is three-fold – they work to monitor lion populations and behavior, mitigate conflict, and increase tolerance amongst the locals. They way in which they achieve these objectives is ingenious, and critical to the success of the work because it is ensuring that the communities are fully engaged in their conservation efforts and earning quantifiable benefits, directly linked to lions.
KopeLion employs twenty-one warriors from the local communities in which the lions are threatened, and they become “Ilchokuti” (custodians) whose role it is to monitor lions, find and retrieve lost livestock, treat wounded livestock, prevent retaliation killings, and warn herders of the presence of lions.
Working with these traditional pastoralist communities and their warriors, many of them former lion killers, has clearly been instrumental in the creating of this stable organisation, actively making positive changes in people lives as well as conserving wildlife.
The “Ilchokuti” are trained in first aid, livestock nutrition, wound treatment and digital data collection. Many of them are also able to track those lions fitted with radio collars using telemetry and provide an invaluable early warning system for herders.
Villages are rewarded for helping to achieve conservation goals, such as an increase in carnivore numbers, and KopeLion’s latest impact report has some very encouraging statics. They have seen a 12% increase in lion observations since 2017.
They report that 93% of all lost livestock are being found and returned to their owners. Additionally, 4 groups of male lions have safely dispersed between the Serengeti plains & Ngorongoro Crater, proof that this vital link to increase genetic diversity has been restored.
Because KopeLion operate in an incredibly restricted area, and to boot work with dangerous predators, this means that as a tourist one is not allowed to take part in certain activities such as tracking. KopeLion are however keen to engage with tourists as they feel their activities should be supported and funded by the authorities and also by people who really do appreciate experiencing both the wildlife and the cultures of Ngorongoro.
They also realize that conservation and tourism are intrinsically linked and should be approached in a collaborative way. It is therefore possible to meet them and support them on your safari to Tanzania by:
Even if you aren’t able to visit the team and see them in action during your vacation, they welcome photos of any lions you see in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). They recognize lions by their unique whisker spot patterns, ear notches and scars and so close up photos are most useful if they include shots of the lion’s face.
There are numerous luxury safari properties in which one can stay near to the KopeLion project. A firm favorite of mine would be Entamanu Ngorongoro Camp, which is on the remote northwestern edge of the Ngorongoro Crater rim.
Meaning ‘circle’ in Maa (the language of the Maasai), it is the only place where you can enjoy unspoilt, unparalleled views into both the Crater and the Serengeti. Equally, Nomad’s other offering in the NCA, Entamanu Private is a stunning retreat offering you exclusivity and privacy.
The newest kid on the block in the NCA is Asilia’s property, The Highlands, which redefines the Ngorongoro experience. Set atop a ridge overlooking the sweeping highlands with views of the Olmoti volcano and the Gol Mountains, the Highlands strikes a balance between a true wilderness experience and a stylish, contemporary antidote to a safari.
This highly visited African attraction was once an enormous volcano, but is the now world's largest inactive, unbroken and unfilled volcanic caldera.
High season is most of the year in Northern Tanzania, from July through into March, and all of these months are great times to visit. However note that one should plan the descent into the Crater early in the morning or late the afternoon in an attempt to avoid the maddening crowds.
With this in mind, the main April to May rainy season is often considered the best time to visit the Ngorongoro Crater for exclusivity as there are far fewer visitors and the crater is wonderfully lush and green compared to the dusty dry-season landscape. However these two months can see road conditions become very muddy indeed, and many of the lodges choose this time to close their doors for annual refurbishments.
For more information on how The Explorations Company supports conservation and community initiatives in Africa, Asia and Latin America and how you can incorporate these into your own meaningful safari or holiday, please do get in touch with me. You can also learn more about our Charitable Partners in our Philanthropic Handbook.
Images used by kind courtesy of: KopeLion (copyright to Monica Dalmasso) - header image and lion whisker spot image. Asilia Africa and The Highlands, Nomad Tanzania and Entamanu Lodge.