• 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 is a true African wildlife and conservation stronghold with probably the highest levels of ecological intactness at this scale remaining in eastern Africa. Encompassing roughly 92,500km2, more than 82% of the landscape is under some form of protected designation – the landscape incorporates 3 national parks, 10 game reserves, 3 forest reserves, 3 game-controlled areas and four community wildlife management areas as well as community and district managed forests. Two national priority wildlife corridors connect the eastern and western protected area complexes, contributing to the overall integrity.

Much of the landscape is above 900m above mean sea level and rainfall typically between 800-1100mm per annum. Miombo woodland is the dominant vegetation type where species including Commiphora, Acacia and Brachystegia are common. In the west of Ruaha National Park, elevations reach 1,850m and drypetes woodland can be found on the Isakaviola Plateau. The landscape’s watercourses feed four major national catchments, with water flowing into the 2,800km2 Lake Rukwa in the west, as well as into Lake Tanganyika from the Lwafi Game Reserve, north into the Ugalla-Moyowosi wetlands and south and east into the Greater Ruaha – a major tributary of the Rufigi. Other critical rivers in the landscape include the Mzombe, Ruaha and Koga Rivers.

It is no surprise that some of the nation’s most significant wildlife populations are found here. This includes more than 600 bird species, East Africa’s largest remaining elephant population (estimated at 19,883 +/- 2,198 in 2021), roughly 15% of Africa’s remaining lions and one of only three remaining meta-populations of more than 500 adult African wild dogs. Four critically endangered vulture species are also present as well as one of only two remaining populations of puku antelope remaining in Tanzania. Lake Tanganyika harbours significant levels of endemism in terms of fish stocks, due to the presence of roughly 250 species of cichlids.

The above natural resources are not only essential for the growth of Tanzania’s ‘southern’ tourism circuit, but also support the livelihoods of millions of Tanzanians one way or another in terms of ecosystem services such as water for domestic, livestock, irrigation, and power generation purposes; crop pollination services and the mitigation of climate change.


Over the course of the last decade, and with substantial support from WCS, ivory poaching has almost completely been brought under control across the landscape after years of some of the highest levels of persecution of elephants documented in Africa. Rangers continue to monitor and react to other forms of illegal wildlife trade, illegal fishing, logging, and mining – which remain issues of concern. In some cases, species are harvested illegally for the international pet trade.

Otherwise, the unplanned conversion of natural habitat to agriculture (or other human uses) is the most substantial threat to the landscape and its connectivity. Commercial scale charcoal production contributes to this, driven by increasing demand in urban centres. When natural vegetation cover is lost, and when water catchments are not protected, there is an inevitable and obvious knock-on effect to the wellbeing of human populations – the decreased flow of the Great Ruaha, and associated siltation of the Mtera dam are examples of how many hydrological catchments require increased management and protection.

Human-wildlife conflict is often associated with poor land-use planning and when the management of historic wildlife connectivity is not considered. For tourism to continue to flourish / diversify in Tanzania, ways of humans living with wildlife must be promoted.


WCS established a program in the Ruaha region in 2003, focused initially on supporting national park and adjacent communities, for example, between 2003 and 2017, WCS was amongst the partners in Tanzania piloting the Wildlife Management Area regulations with communities adjacent to Ruaha and Katavi National Parks. With a commitment to elephant management in sites across Africa from 2013 and on the back of dramatic elephant number declines driven by Africa’s second ivory crisis, the WCS program evolved to include a substantial focus on helping Tanzanian wildlife authorities and local communities tackle ivory poaching – which accounted for the death of an estimated 10,000 elephants per year in Tanzania between 2006 and 2013.

This work was supported in 2014 by the signing of a 5-year cooperative agreement with USAID (eventually extended to 8-years), and subsequently through significant partnerships with the U.S. State Department and private donors, foremost amongst which was the Wyss Foundation, in addition to the Dorothy Batten Foundation. Adapting to shifting poaching pressure and learning from what worked best, between 2015 and 2018, a program of site-based support framed around improved monitoring, protection and other management approaches was rolled out as the WCS footprint expanded to the 92,500km2 previously mentioned, including all key elephant sites within the landscape. This work aligned with framework Memoranda of Understanding with authorities including the Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) and Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority (TAWA).

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

Support to protected areas: To date our dedicated team of nationals have provided more than 550 individual training opportunities to wildlife authority 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, more than 9 ranger posts, boreholes, airstrips and 560km of protection road upgrades for example), equipment provision (including a small fleet of patrol vehicles, elephant monitoring vehicles, solar systems, radio systems, ranger equipment, boats etc.). Wherever possible, we seek to strengthen site-level management systems, including through working in partnership to develop protection strategies and general management plans for example.

Over time, our support at a national level has included the drafting of numerous standard operating procedures and national strategic plans (for rapid reaction and boat teams for example). In some cases, monitoring approaches – such as SMART – are being adopted and rolled out at national level by our government partners and we are grateful to both the International Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) and the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund for their support.

Elephant protection & monitoring: Aviation support has been an essential component of monitoring and coordination and almost 2,000 hours have been provided to date – all within the landscape. WCS also funded the first landscape-level systematic aerial survey in 2018 and repeated this in 2021, providing essential baseline/trend estimates. The results of this work confirm that elephant poaching is now at the lowest level since the second great ivory crisis began around 2006 and that the numbers of elephant carcasses now being detected are indicative or natural and not man-induced mortality. With evidence that the elephant population has now stabilised at roughly 20,000 individuals, we expect the next aerial survey (planned for dry season 2024) to show a further recovery in terms of elephant numbers. The CITES-MIKE program is also supporting improved elephant monitoring in various sites across the landscape.

While we remain vigilant with our partners in terms of monitoring illegal wildlife trade, the easing of the substantial pressure that elephants faced has at least allowed us to focus on other important landscape opportunities.  

Wildlife corridor managementWCS has supported national priority setting for wildlife corridors across Tanzania since 2009 - including those key to elephant movements. Since 2018, we have been working with local communities, district authorities and other national government bodies to bring two national priority wildlife corridors that link the east and west of the Ruaha-Katavi landscape, under improved management.

Tanzania's very progressive community forest management legislation provides a framework for this approach keeping local communities at the centre as managers and beneficiaries (recalling that much of the landscape is already gazetted / protected land, with limited political appetite for more). On the back of ratified Village Land-use Planning with nine villages, three Joint Village Land Forest Reserves have since been established – helping ensure that the most fragile areas of connectivity habitat are brought under improved management. Work continues to build the management structures and capacities needed for effective impact and we are grateful to RTI, Harvey Bookman and the New York Community Trust for specific support here.

Carnivores & 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 found here. The word 'roughly' is significant in that much work still needs to be done to establish accurate lion numbers in many sites - work WCS plans 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. This work continues with a provisional estimate of roughly 22 packs of wild dogs (some as large as 35 individuals) present outside of Ruaha National Park (where a further 15 packs were identified in recent years).

The plight of lions and vultures overlap when it comes to the poisoning of lions (and indirectly as a result, vultures) linked to retaliatory killing of large carnivores by pastoralists. Working in partnership with the North Carolina Zoo, we monitor five endangered vulture species. Since 2015, small backpack satellite transmitters have been fitted to over 20 birds, providing amazing insight into vultures’ habitat needs, threats to their survival and our ability to detect carcasses in even the most remote parts of the landscape. We are grateful to the Disney Conservation Fund for their support here. 

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.