• The Ruaha-Katavi Ecosystem


    The Ruaha-Katavi Ecosystem

    comprises miombo plains, forested highlands, significant rivers, lakes and wetlands. It is the most important area in terms of elephant numbers in East Africa and key habitat for endangered and vulnerable species including lion, wild dog, giraffe, hippo, vultures, sable and roan.

  • The Ruaha-Katavi Ecosystem


    The Ruaha-Katavi Ecosystem

    Ruaha elephants

  • Southern/ Highlands
  • Ruaha/ Katavi
  • Tarangire/ Ecosystem
  • Zanzibar/ Forests
  • Marine Program

The Ruaha-Katavi Landscape Program works to conserve some of Eastern Africa’s most critical habitats for wildlife conservation as well as human livelihoods reliant on agriculture, irrigation and tourism. Its focus includes the protection of elephants, vultures, carnivores and wildlife corridors, and broader activities aimed at landscape valuation and improved ecosystem management.


The Ruaha-Katavi landscape features miombo plains, the Isunkaviola Highlands to the southeast, the Ihefu wetlands in the southern Usangu Plateau and the tail end of the Eastern Rift Valley. Together with the influence of the Commiphora, Acacia and Brachystegia vegetation communities, these attributes provide a complex and diverse array of flora and fauna including more than 600 species of birds. This area is especially known for its elephants and large carnivores such as lion and African wild dog, and their prey including greater kudu, sable and roan antelope. The elephant population totals approximately 20,145 individuals, the largest population in East Africa. Tanzania is estimated to harbour roughly 40% of Africa's remaining lions and the landscape is also one of the most critical for lions in Tanzania. Likewise, the Ruaha-Rungwa area is one of only three known areas providing refuge to more than 500 wild dogs in Africa.

The Ruaha-Katavi landscape is immense - nearly three times the size of Switzerland - and remains one of the largest ecologically intact savannah ecosystems in Africa -  a true African stronghold, making it imperative for conservation. The landscape incorporates 2 national parks, 4 main game reserve complexes, open land and a number of key wildlife corridors, all of which contribute to the area's conservation integrity.  

The eastern portion of the landscape is dominated by the Great Ruaha River which is the most economically important water course in Tanzania. Rising in the Southern Highlands, it winds north and east before merging with the Rufiji and on to the Indian Ocean having passed through the Ruaha landscape. The Great Ruaha provides vital ecosystem services, most particularly in the Iringa and Mbeya Regions. Its hydro-electric dam at Mtera serves up to 42% of the country, and the river supplies tens of millions of people with water for domestic, livestock and irrigation use across the south and southwest. The landscape contains 2 national parks (Ruaha and Katavi), 4 game reserve complexes (Rukwa, Lwafi, Lukwati-Piti and Rungwa-Kizigo-Muhesi), 4 WMAs (MBOMIPA, Waga, UMEMARUWA, Mpimbwe) and 7 forest reserves (including Mlele and Itulu Hills, Rukwa, Mulipa, Lukwati and Luasi River).


The commercial wildlife trade continues to pose an issue for many species across Africa. In recent years, elephants in particular have been targeted for their ivory, but we remain vigilant for other examples of species collected for their trophies/products/or for the diverse global pet trade. Other challenges include unmanaged fires, wildlife disease and unmanaged grazing. Meanwhile, woodlands are cleared for charcoal and agricultural encroachment, associated with poor land-use planning and management, fuelled by immigration and population growth. Human-wildlife conflict is an issue of critical conservation importance, especially for carnivores. More than 85% of local communities depend on the region’s natural resource base, and agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of their livelihoods. Misuse of water for irrigation, and other uses have led the increasing drying up of the Great Ruaha River each dry season since 1993.


WCS established a program in the Ruaha region in 2003, focused on support to Ruaha National Park and surrounding communities. A decade later, the impact of Africa's second ivory crisis was driving conservation priorities in many areas across the continent. Government aerial surveys in Tanzania confirmed dramatic reductions in elephant numbers in landscapes such as the Selous (66% reduction in elephant numbers between 2009 and 2013) and Ruaha-Rungwa (33% decline in elephant numbers between 2009 and 2013). Overall the country was estimated to be losing roughly 10,000 elephants a year to poaching. 

In alignment with WCS's global 96 Elephants Campaign, the Ruaha WCS project was reconstituted in 2013 to support the Government of Tanzania and local communities in tackling this severe and escalating poaching crisis. This work was supported in 2014 by the signing of a 5-year cooperative agreement with USAID (support that has since been extended), and subsequently through significant partnerships with the U.S. State Department and private donors such as the Wyss Foundation and Batten Foundation. 

Building initially on the existing relationship with the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA), a series of aerial surveys (some of which were supported by WCS) between 2014 and 2015 identified the need to direct efforts particularly towards game reserves such as Rungwa-Kizigo-Muhesi. A suite of priority activities was therefore developed in consultation with the Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority (TAWA), aimed at strengthening the ability of reserve staff to react effectively to the poaching threat. Based on initial successes, the program was extended to other protected areas harbouring elephants in the landscape, including Lukwati-Piti and Rukwa-Lwafi game reserves. Community engagement was also strengthened in areas of critical habitat connectivity between these 'core' sites. By 2018, the Ruaha-Katavi Landscape Program conservation footprint encompassed an area of roughly 92,500square kilometres and since then we have been working to consolidate the gains made across what is now recognised as one of the key WCS wildlife stronghold areas in Africa. 

Our work since 2013 has therefore been centered around the following main areas: 

Support to protected areas: To date we have provided more than 256 individual training opportunities to government staff, focused around improved protection (through the creation and ongoing support to TAWA's first 3 rapid reaction and 2 specialist boat teams), enhanced law enforcement monitoring (using the SMART approach: https://smartconservationtools.org), infrastructural improvements (including reserve headquarters, numerous ranger posts, boreholes, airstrip and road upgrades for example), equipment provision (including a small fleet of patrol vehicles, elephant monitoring vehicles, solar systems, radio systems, ranger equipment, boats etc.), and aviation (WCS has provided roughly 1,550 hours of aerial support to protected area operations to date).  This collaboration with government counterparts has built a strong foundation to guide further engagement, at both landscape and national levels, including the development of various law enforcement operating procedures and national monitoring strategies. 

Elephant protection & monitoring: In 2018, WCS supported the first ever landscape-wide aerial survey to provide a key update on the status of the elephant population, as well as other important landscape species and human activities. One of the survey’s key findings was that for the first time since roughly 2006, elephant numbers had stabilized. The number of elephant carcasses detected had declined significantly, while carcass ratios were also falling towards levels considered to be natural rather than poaching linked. The elephant population for the entire landscape was estimated to be 20,145 +/- 2,665 elephants, making it East Africa's largest elephant population. While our support to elephant protection and monitoring continues - thus far showing sustained reductions of ivory poaching, our attention has increasingly shifted to other important landscape opportunities.  

Carnivore & vulture research & monitoring: The Ruaha-Katavi landscape is of global significance for large carnivores. Tanzania is home to around 40% of Africa's remaining lions and the Ruaha-Katavi landscape is understood to be one of their key refuges with roughly 10-15% of the continent's lions present here. The word 'roughly' is significant in that much work still needs to be done to establish accurate lion numbers in many areas - work we are planning to support. Similarly, the landscape harbours only one of three sub-populations of more than 500 African wild dogs – a significant proportion of the global population. In 2021, we initiated field survey work to gather much needed insight into the species’ distribution, numbers and behavior across the landscape. We continue to work in partnership with the North Carolina Zoo to monitor five endangered vulture species. Since 2015, small backpack satellite transmitters have been fitted to over 20 birds, giving us considerable insight into vultures’ habitat needs, threats to their survival and ability to detect carcasses across huge areas. 

Wildlife corridor protection: WCS has supported national priority setting for wildlife corridors across Tanzania since 2009 - including those of key importance to elephant movements. Since 2018, we have been working with local communities, district authorities and other national government bodies to bring two critical wildlife corridors across the Ruaha-Katavi landscape under improved management. Tanzania's very progressive community forest management legislation provides a framework for this approach. In one of the two areas, communities are in the final stages of safeguarding the natural habitat on their village through designation as a Joint Village Land Forest Reserve. This status enables communities to maintain ownership of local forest, while also assuring that any management linked benefits – such as the potential for carbon offsets, remain at village level. 

Tanzania's formal wildlife estate is indeed impressive, and the fact that the Ruaha-Katavi landscape is comprised of so many different protected area designations, in addition to important community lands, paves the way for WCS to explore many other opportunities to benefit wildlife, wild lands and local communities. At the same time, the human footprint continues to expand quickly and there is no room for complacency if a balance is to be achieved.