By Kizito Makoye
MANYARA, Tanzania (AA) - As part of its efforts to empower women economically and protect the environment, a local initiative in the East African country of Tanzania has trained hundreds of Maasai women who work as beekeepers to preserve sanctuaries for big cats that are being encroached and degraded due to increasing human activities.
Lions, leopards and cheetahs in the sprawling Manyara-Tarangire ecosystem -- all classified as vulnerable species -- face increasing threats which highlight growing human and wildlife conflicts.
The women’s beekeeping initiative – a new approach to wildlife conservation and community development – has successfully managed to protect habitats for wild cats in remote areas through training, mentorship and knowledge sharing.
“When we destroy the environment, we are paving the way for our own suffering. We must protect forests for our own benefit and for the benefit of other creatures,” said Maria Sukumai, a leader of the group.
Under the initiative, the women have been trained to design beehives which not only protect critical wildlife habitats but also deter harmful activities such as cutting down trees for making charcoal and harvesting timber for construction purposes, she said.
“We want to provide a safe haven for bees and any other wildlife that happens to share the natural habitats,” she told Anadolu Agency.
Sukumai said the initiative has helped empower women from the male-dominated Maasai ethnic group to become financially independent and more aware of environmental issues.
“All members of our group have become powerful advocates for conservation. Even Maasai women have a means for supporting their families,” she said.
In an effort to protect the dwindling population of wildcats, the Maasai women have hung over 1,200 environmentally-friendly beehives containing more than 50 million bees.
- Prohibited by law
According to Tanzanian law, trees holding beehives cannot be cut down. By placing beehives in strategic locations, the women have conserved a large swathe of the landscape that the big cats rely on to survive.
Julius Malifedha, a warder at Tarangire National Park, said the populations of big cats in the area have lately come under huge pressure due to the loss of habitats, the lack of animals that lions and leopards eat, and recurring conflicts with humans.
“We have seen many retaliatory killings of lions and leopards. People take the law into their own hands because humans and wildlife have come into closer proximity,” he told Anadolu Agency.
In the dusty Manyara region, economically marginalized women have been taking part in environmentally harmful activities including charcoal making and bush meat poaching.
However, under this program, thousands of Maasai women have been trained to develop their own environmentally friendly livelihoods.
The Maasai women, who traditionally lack decision-making power since they are usually not financially independent, have increased their incomes as entrepreneurs and raised their social status while reducing the environmental impact, Sukumai said.
In this ecosystem which sprawls across Tarangire National Park, it is not unusual to see Maasai women in their dazzling outfits hiking through a dense patch of forest to inspect beehives precariously hanging on trees that act as habitats for endangered leopards and lions.
In Manyara, lions and leopards spectacularly climb on trees and rest on tree branches, which serve as their habitats.
“When the loggers come here and find a beehive hanging on the tree, they usually hesitate to cut it down,” said Edna Naipanoi, a beekeeper.
- Environmentally friendly hives
Members of the group have placed hundreds of environmentally friendly beehives, hanging them on acacia and baobab trees dotting the park, to preserve habitats for big cats and other wildlife while generating a sustainable source of income.
In a dense patch of forest, Lozi Maneno carefully inspects one of the hives perched from a dead tree trunk.
“You have to keep silent so that you don’t upset the bees,” she said.
For Maneno and her fellow villagers, beekeeping is a profitable activity thanks to the growing demand for honey and other products such as beeswax.
“As a beekeeper, I take care of the environment since beekeeping depends on good water sources and the transfer of pollen by bees,” Maneno said.
With weather patterns becoming more erratic, harvests from rain-fed agriculture are increasingly unreliable, forcing many farmers to look for other ways to keep up their income, local experts said.
“Beekeepers protect our forests and at the same time are making money for their families,” said Maneno.
Teresia Nkumilwa, a conservation expert from Mwenge Catholic University, said bees are important pollinators that many ecosystems depend on for their existence.
“Generally, honey bees are responsible for the healthy development of the environment through enhancing the transfer of pollen grains which necessitate the genetic diversity of different species,” she said.
The women also lead local projects like cleanups, tree planting, watershed restoration, and public education on environmental protection, she added.