When a lion kills a person or livestock in East Africa, the locals often kill one of the felines in revenge. That’s been the custom among the Sukuma people, farmers in western Tanzania. Traditionally, Sukuma men who’ve dispatched lions perform celebratory dances in villagers’ homes while wearing a costume made from their prey’s pelt (photo). Homeowners then reward these avengers with one or more cows. But the increasing number of tourists allowed to hunt lions and the Sukuma’s retaliatory killing have taken a toll on the animal’s population in the area—which used to be one of the remaining strongholds for the big cats. (Lion numbers have declined by 60% across Africa since the mid-1990s; only 30,000 to 40,000 remain.) As a result, the number of lion depredations has also dropped dramatically , scientists report online this week in Biological Conservation. Yet the lion dancers persist—only now, these men are no longer avengers, but hunters, the researchers say, because they’re adorned with the teeth and claws of felines they’ve killed in nearby Katavi National Park instead of cats found lurking near the family corral. Villagers, however, take a dim view of these “wa-feki,” a Swahili-English word which roughly translates to “fakers,” and do not condone the killing of lions in the park. After interviewing 129 heads of households, the researchers discovered that 72% know that the dancers have hunted the lions solely for the money, and not to protect the villagers and their animals. Some have begun refusing to reward the dancers. That shift in social attitudes is already helping protect the park’s remaining lions, which number around 200, the scientists say. They’re now working with villagers on a lion conservation campaign, targeting local bylaws and customs that could lead to new conservation approaches elsewhere.
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