“As a single white woman living in a tent studying lions, I was considered very strange indeed.“

Scientist, National Geographic Explorer and big cat conservationist Dr Amy Dickman on the perils of fieldwork, being compared to a honey badger – and building bridges between people and big catsWednesday, 5 February 2020

Dr Amy Dickman is a conservation biologist and a National Geographic Explorer. Her fieldwork is based in Tanzania, where her Ruaha Carnivore Project has been working with local tribes to find ways for humans and big cats to avoid conflict – and to coexist to the benefit of both. She is the Kaplan Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU).  

For some reason big cats in particular have always enthralled me. So my lifelong dream has been to become a big cat conservationist. There is something so magnificent about the power, beauty, and sheer wildness of big cats. I believe that we have a responsibility to make sure that human actions don't wipe them out. Not only because they have a right to exist, but because I think that future generations should know and be able to experience these incredible wild animals.

Big cats have been central to human culture since the very evolution of humans. Therefore I think it is terrifying that within the next 20 years, what we do will decide the future of big cats and other wildlife. If we really want to, we can help secure their future, but if we do nothing, the outlook is very bleak, both for them and for future human generations. It is that urgency that really makes me think that I want to do all I can to help save them, and help ensure that our generation's grandchildren, and beyond, live in a world where big cats and other wildlife still roam out in the wild.

In the beginning, as a single white woman in a remote part of Tanzania living in a tent studying lions, I was considered very strange indeed. Local tribes did not even really see me as a woman, as I did not play any kind of traditional ‘womanly’ role – I drove cars, I was the leader of a team of men, and I had no husband or children. People were genuinely concerned about me, and some Maasai women once offered me cattle in the hopes that it would help me find a husband! Interestingly, although we worked closely with the communities for many years, it was only when I became pregnant that some of those barriers broke down, as finally there was irrefutable proof that I was in fact a ‘proper’ woman!

I think in many ways, being a woman in this field has been positive. I am probably seen as less threatening than a man might have been, and it has enabled us to work more closely with the women. It quickly became apparent to us that it was vital to engage with the women in the communities as they wield considerable influence over the actions of the young men. The women used to reward the men for killing lions, by dancing with them and sleeping with them, but now as the community sees benefits from live lions, the women are now influencing the men to stop hunting.

“I think it is terrifying that within the next 20 years, what we do will decide the future of big cats and other wildlife.”

Amy Dickman

Local people are the most important partners we have in conservation, and they have to feel truly engaged. We found that one of the particular issues in our area was that the local tribe doing most of the lion killing – the Barabaig – felt very excluded from wildlife conservation. Simultaneously, the community were saying that they wanted better educational materials for their children, as a lack of literacy is a major issue.

We therefore developed a storybook about a boy called Darem from the Barabaig tribe. It shows how he works with the project to help protect lions and other carnivores, thereby empowering his local community. With text in both English and Swahili, and beautiful illustrations by Kayla Harren, the book is being distributed to schools and families around Ruaha and beyond. It is raising awareness of our Ruaha Carnivore Project work to conserve carnivores in partnership with local communities, and engages local children in reading. It will be of particular significance to local people from the Barabaig tribe, who are often marginalised and, to our knowledge, have never been featured in a storybook. It has been amazing to see that people read it and recognise that they are really at the heart of the conservation story in Ruaha – and it is their actions and communities which have such value and power.

What is your greatest strength?

Probably resilience – I absolutely hate to give up. Someone once compared me to a honey badger (small, but unexpectedly fierce and persistent), and I chose to take that as a positive comparison! I am happy to change an approach if something is not working, and I am very open to listening to new ideas, but I will be endlessly dedicated to achieving something if I feel it is important to do so. I am also truly passionate about this work and believe that we can really make a difference if we all work together. 

What is the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome?

Fieldwork is full of hurdles. On my very first night in the field, a big male lion came and slept right against my tiny one-man tent, nearly crushing me and making me very scared indeed! Some hurdles are expected, such as navigating terrible roads in bad vehicles, dealing with snakes, spiders, and charging elephants, and some are less so – I found it very frustrating how long it took to try to engage and build trust with the communities as such an outsider. Finally achieving that, and now working with the communities as true partners, is probably the most important hurdle we have overcome.

There are personal hurdles too —being so far away from my husband, children, family, and friends, eating beans and rice for 1000 meals in a row, and not doing the small fun things like seeing friends or going out for dinner. However, the benefits far outweigh the challenges, and I am always eternally grateful that I am able to have this kind of life and try to make some difference to wild cat conservation.

“Fieldwork is full of hurdles. On my very first night, a big male lion came and slept right against my tiny one-man tent, nearly crushing me and making me very scared indeed.”

Amy Dickman

What was your ‘breakthrough’ moment?

It took two years to really engage the Barabaig tribe in conservation. This is a sister tribe to the Maasai that is known to be very secretive and hostile, and we were told they would never work with conservationists. They were doing the majority of the lion killing in our study area, so we did all we could to start conversations with them, but were getting nowhere using traditional approaches. It took over 2 years for us to get any communication with them at all. In the end it was something we least expected – we had put up solar panels at camp, and they came to recharge their mobile phones! Over the past eight years we have built a really good relationship with them and other tribes, and they have worked with us to prevent many lion killings, so that has been wonderful.

What is the most important challenge that women face today?

I think it is finding the voice and the power to make a real difference. People are so aware now of all these issues in the world, including climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, social injustice and so many other things. It can be so easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless, and as if nothing you do will make a difference. I think most people feel like that – but women are often starting from positions of even less power and with less of a voice, particularly in many developing countries where those problems are particularly acute. One of the biggest challenges is for women (and men) to come together, achieve voice and power, and recognise that their individual actions are extremely important in creating a better future.

What is the most important change that needs to happen for women in the next ten years?

I think that women need to truly take their place as equal decision-makers at all levels, and have the voice and the power needed to shape their own futures. We have come so far, but there is much more to be done – particularly in terms of empowering women in developing countries, and ensuring we all support one another to make the world a better place.

What advice would you give young women today?

That it is so important to believe in themselves, and also to work together to achieve greater impact. We undoubtedly live in very challenging times in terms of environmental threats, but it is also the time when committed individuals can drive immense change. Look at Greta Thunberg: she was passionate and started her protest alone on the steps of the Swedish Parliament, and now has inspired millions of people and is driving real global change. You have more power than you think you do – follow your dreams, be supportive of others, keep going through the hard times and you can really make such a difference.

Big Cats: How we're helping 

The National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative supports scientists and conservationists working to save big cats in the wild. With your help, we’ve supported more than 120 innovative projects to protect big cat species in 28 countries and built more than 1,800 livestock enclosures to protect livestock, and save big cats from retaliatory killings. Together we’re helping big cats and communities thrive.

Video: Learn more about Amy Dickman's work

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