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Tanzania wants Maasai off gaming land

The Maasai argue their way of life conserves the environment, but the Tanzanian government says they are destroying it.
Last modified: 30 Apr 2013 01:29

It is easy for outsiders to be romantic about the Maasai. The proud herders, dressed in traditional "shukas" and extravagant beaded earrings and necklaces, drive their livestock across the vast open grasslands of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

The community lives with their animals in thorn-bush compounds, shunning most modern luxuries (apart from the ubiquitous mobile phone). The young warriors – the Moran – protect their animals from savannah predators like lions and hyenas with spears and clubs.

They have been part of this landscape for such a long time that they - and researchers who've been studying the savannah - say it is a mistake to think of the ecosystem as natural without the Maasai and their livestock.

The scientists say the cattle, goats and sheep occupy an otherwise vacant niche in the environment. They keep the grass low for antelope and gazelles that welcome both the tender shoots and the space to see predators coming. At the same time, the Maasai have a traditional aversion to hunting eating wild animals.

In their own eyes and the view of many researchers, they are the ultimate conservationists, at once a part of the environment and its protector.  

But there is a population explosion on the savannah. Both the Maasai and their livestock are growing fast, and the Tanzanian government says they are literally eating the ecosystem to death.

The Maasai lands occupy a crucial gap between the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater. Together they form an extraordinary ecosystem that migrating animals such as wildebeest and zebras cycle between in a constant search for fresh grass.

The gap is known as the Loliondo Game Controlled Area – a 4,000 sq km conservation zone where the Maasai have been allowed to continue grazing their animals, as well as licensed hunting for six months of the year.

It is a system that seems to have worked relatively well for most of the past forty years – a Dubai-based hunting company, the Ortello Business Corporation,  has brought in wealthy clients mostly from the Gulf to bag trophies, while the Maasai grazed the land among the wildlife.

But because the government now believes the Maasai goats and cattle are over-grazing, it has de-gazetted 2,500sq km of the GCA to allow the herders the space to farm, graze and live as they please. The remaining 1,500sq km is to be left to the wildlife, and the hunters.

And that is the crux of the issue. The Maasai argue that they are the ultimate conservationists (and point to scientific papers to prove it). They also say they can not survive without those 1500 sq km, and crucial water-sources contained within them. To shut the Maasai out and leave only hunters is the ultimate hypocrisy, they say.

It is hard not to feel sympathetic to the herders. As traditional owners, they agreed to give up the vast Serengeti Plain (four times the size of the Game Controlled Area) for the sake of the wildlife, and they say the national park’s grasslands have suffered because of it. Now, they are being squeezed out once again, while rich shotgun-wielding foreigners roam the land without having to see a local.

But watching their goats gnaw at low-hanging thorny acacia trees, it is also easy to see why the government is convinced it is time they leave.