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Tech by VICE

How Texting Helps Maasai Farmers Avoid Lion Attacks in Rural Tanzania

Cellphones are still relatively new in some parts of Tanzania, but have drastically impacted the way farmers work.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Mar 30 2016, 4:15pm

Image: Matt Biddulph/Flickr

It's probably been awhile since you've had any use for your old, dumbphone but for Maasai farmers in some areas of Tanzania this kind of tech has lots of uses: like letting your boss know a lion is eating one of his cows.

Farmers in areas of Tanzania where human-wildlife conflict (HWC) is high, like rural communities that border national parks, have only started to widely adopt cell phones in recent years. In many of these areas, landlines are still rare, but cell phones are now commonplace and have drastically changed the way farmers interact with wildlife, according to a paper published this week in Environmental Management.

"In 2010, fewer than half of household heads had phones. There were just not many phones around, it was just becoming popular," said Timothy Baird, an assistant professor of geography at Virginia Tech and co-author of the paper. "Now, almost everybody has a phone."

Baird and his fellow researchers spent the summer of 2014 embedded with Maasai farmers in northern Tanzania to investigate how this newly-adopted technology was affecting different aspects of the Maasai's lives.

Before cell phones were widespread, information like this would have been communicated by having a young herd boy run as fast as he can several miles to get help

This paper is the first published from this work, and specifically looks at the impact on HWC through data collected both via interviews and surveys. Although we'd need more data to categorically say cell phones have diminished the frequency of HWC, it does show that people are using phones to avoid, manage, and react to conflicts with wildlife.

When it comes to wildlife impact on humans, the farmers face three major problems. Those are, in order of frequency: animals eating their crops, animals eating their livestock, and animals attacking people.

Cell phones have provided a new way to manage all of these issues, the study showed. Farmers text and call each other to organize events to drive away baboons (who are notorious for eating crops) by marching through the fields creating loud noise to push the baboons into the forest. They also call and text one another to alert employees and other workers about signs of wildlife, the study showed. If a shepherd sees some fresh lion prints heading towards a particular field he might shoot his friends a text to let him know not to bring their flocks through there. When there is a wildlife attack (on crops, livestock, or, rarely, humans) phones provide a quick and easy way to mitigate that attack, too.

"During one group interview, respondents described a recent case where herders were able to call for help during an attack where lions seized multiple cattle," the study reads. "Warriors quickly arrived on the scene and scared off the lions and then arranged for the carcasses to be transported back to the homestead. This meant that the families would retain the meat even where they lost the cattle. The respondents described how, in the past, the lions would have consumed the meat before much could be done."

Before cell phones were widespread, information like this would have been communicated by having a young herd boy run as fast as he can several miles to get help, Baird explained. Baird said the Maasai are using phones for lots of different tasks, but farming is one area where it's become a particularly integral part of the way things are now done. "Boys that know how to read and write [so they can text] and know how to use a phone, are extremely useful herders now," Baird told me. "It's no longer just about being cunning or brave or strategic about the landscape or wildlife or whatnot. Knowing how to use a phone is a prerequisite now. When you send herders out, they need to have a phone with them."

Baird said there are a number of other papers in the works exploring the other aspects of farm and daily life that phones have impacted, like how farmers looking to sell their livestock can show prospective buyers a photo on a phone rather than having to bring the animal itself to market.

It's a bit of a no-brainer that cell phones would have a major impact on all areas of life for Maasai farmers, just as they have for us all, but Baird said because it's a new phenomenon, there's been little documentation of what these changes look like until now.