Wildlife and the Maasai

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The Story of East African Parks

Since the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, there has been a growing movement among conservationists to designate large parcels of the earth as national parks or reserves. Concern over the disappearance of landscapes and wildlife fuels this worldwide movement. With thousands of endangered species listed in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red Data Book, there is good reason to call for the protection of such creatures as the Bengal tiger or the Black rhino. Often, refuges are successful in saving such animals from extinction. Unfortunately, however, the worldwide conservation movement has rarely examined the impact of park development on indigenous peoples. "The creation of national parks has incurred restrictions on the rights of local human populations without compensatory actions on the part of the government".

The Tenth General Assembly of the IUCN in New Delhi defined the term "national park" as "a relatively large area where the highest competent authority of the country has taken steps 16 prevent or eliminate as soon as possible exploitation or occupation in the whole area". This stipulation confirms what has been common practice in launching new national parks. Such areas are cleared of human occupation. The IUCN and other conservation organizations have only recently begun to take into account the needs of those peoples occupying these pristine lands. Wildlife biologists, however, recognize the important niche man has filled in many ecosystems, most of which have been molded for thousands of years by interaction between man and his environment.

Indigenous peoples in East Africa, like such people throughout the world, lived in relative harmony with wildlife for thousands of years. As Western Europeans moved into East Africa, they viewed the landscape as barren "wilderness." Yet "wilderness" was largely a creation of Western thought since most areas they called wild were in fact used by the native inhabitants.

The situation in North America in the nineteenth century was in some respects quite similar to that of Africa today. The American Indians, like many African tribes, were forcibly removed from their land so that newcomers could settle them. Chief Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux Indians sums up what many indigenous peoples must feel about their land:

We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills and winding streams with tangled growth as "wild." Only to the white man was nature a "wilderness" and only to him was the land "infested with wild animals and savage people." To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.

Today, Chief Standing Bear's point of view is shared by leading conservationists and environmentalists. As conservationists establish East African national parks to preserve important ecosystems, they are actually trying to preserve East Africa under the tutelage of its native peoples: the Maasai, the Rendille, the Kikuyu...It is ironic, then, that one of the first steps in establishing a national park is to rid the region of its original caretakers.

The Maasai, pastoral peoples of Kenya and Tanzania, depend on their cattle herds. They have never been united in a single political unit. Instead, Maasailand is divided into twelve geographical sections, each of which has its own name, dialect, ceremonies and leaders. Because of their large population and vast amounts of land, the Maasai have been affected by more parks than any other people in East Africa.

In order to understand how the need for parks arose, it is essential to briefly examine the history of the Maasai and their interaction with Europeans. Humans have long inhabited East Africa, and pastoralists have a long history in the region. The East African pattern of pastoralism, with its dependence on cattle, can be traced back to the Beja peoples, who lived west of the Red Sea some 4,700 years ago. By around 1000 AD, Nilotic peoples, ancestors of the Maasai, had adopted pastorlism in East Africa. The Maasai themselves settled in the Kenyan highlands in the early seventeenth century and for the following two centuries expanded into present-day Tanzania. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Maasailand, or at least the Maasai's "raiding radius," covered most of present day Kenya and extended south into central Tanzania.

The early Europeans reported a Maasailand heavily populated with villages in a country full of big game. The peoples inhabiting the region were as much a part of the environment as the wildlife. The Maasai's success in conserving their environment without threatening the existence of the region's wildlife can be attributed to pastoralism itself. Most pastoralists lived on marginal land largely unsuitable for agriculture. Like hunter-gatherers, pastoralists migrate over a large territory, leaving the land time to recuperate before returning to it. Dr. David Western, who has worked extensively with the Maasai in the Amboseli Game Reserve in Kenya, points out that a move between wet and dry season pastures is a deliberate attempt to conserve dry season fodder. In the Amboseli region, this annual migration results in a 50 percent increase in carrying capacity. This system of migration allowed the Maasai to exploit their ecosystem to its fullest without damaging it.

Maasailand is frequently plagued by droughts. Despite these frequent weather and vegetational changes, Maasai population remained fairly stable before the arrival of the Europeans. By driving their cattle into seldom used regions during periods of drought, the Maasai were able to sustain themselves. Because many of these unused lands were of low nutritive value or ravaged by disease, some cattle died and the Maasai changed their diet to include the meat of the dead cattle. Traditionally, Maasai did not eat their cattle but drank milk and blood instead. During a severe drought, wildlife was occasionally hunted. Such a system enabled the Maasai to retain a fairly stable population. Wildlife also thrived. Hence, the Maasai, their cattle and the large mammals all shared the same ecosystem.

In 1891, this equilibrium was upset and has never been fully righted. In that year Maasailand was the site of a triple disaster. Smallpox decimated the human population, rinderpest annihilated the cattle herds and a plague of locusts destroyed much of the grassland. Within ten years the Maasai had mostly recovered, but in the interim the colonists arrived. With the Maasai tribes in such a devastated condition, their land appeared a virtual paradise, free of human interference. The early Europeans thought they were settling empty lands. Through a series of treaties, the Maasai were forced to relinquish their lands and assigned to reserves centered in semi-arid regions. One result of these moves was that the Maasai lost a large portion of their dry season grazing area to farmers. In addition, the Maasai were confined to a smaller area and pressure on land increased.

Other factors aggravated the situation. Changes in medical care and childbirth practices led to increases in population and further pressure on local resources. In addition, Maasai culture has been radically altered as a result both of voluntary acculturation and deliberate attempts to weaken it. Today, many Maasai have given up traditional pastoralism and have adopted agriculture. Many Kenyan Maasai and some Tanzanian Maasai now make their living in the tourist industry.

In 1945, a series of national parks and reserves was announced throughout Maasailand. In most cases, Maasai were excluded from these reserves, furthering pressure on the overpopulated savannahs. Most parks were located around a dry season watering area where wildlife was present in large numbers, and this interfered with the Maasai's traditional practice of pastoralism.

The Maasai have been dispossessed by Nairobi National Park and the reserves at Amboseli, Maasai Mara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Lake Manyara. The separation of man and wildlife is beginning to have negative consequences for both. Many of the parks are being strangled by development along their borders, some of it controlled by Maasai farmers. The remaining Maasai pastoralists are forced to compete with neighboring farmers for land. Since Maasai culture revolves around cattle herding, it is threatened by the loss of land.

Some very small cultural groups have already been forced into virtual extinction due to national park development. One example of such a small, isolated tribe is the Ik, a people described by Colin Turnbull in his book The Mountain People. In 1958, an area of northern Uganda was named Kidepo National Park. The local inhabitants of the region, the Ik, were forcibly removed from their homes and delegated to the hills outside the park. Before the establishment of the park, the Ik were dependent upon the wildlife of the region for their sustenance. When Colin Turnbull visited the Ik, he reported that they were starving to death and told of the breakdown of their culture. Many have asserted that the Ik predicament can be linked to the establishment of the park. Whether or not the park is the sole factor in the Ik's decline or just a contributory one is unclear. Nevertheless, nearly every park involves some interference with the rights of local people.

Before the establishment of parks and the proliferation of farms, wildlife and cattle shared similar migratory behaviors. Both grazed the dryer savannah regions during the rainy season and then migrated to the wetter regions as the grassland dried. During the 1940s, when most of the park borders were established, little was known about these migratory practices. As a result, parks are centered around dry season watering areas where large numbers of wildlife congregate for half the year. These areas are now unavailable to Maasai cattle. Thus, cattle are forced to utilize dryer savannah regions all year long. Under such continual stress, many lands of minimal rainfall are easily overgrazed.

Annual migration of wildlife has also been altered. Development along the periphery of reserves interferes with animals trying to migrate out of the park. Large numbers of animals are often killed by farmers when they leave the reserves. Thus, the parks are becoming isolated islands in a sea of human development. Since the majority of wildlife still lives outside of the parks, many experts are beginning to question whether the parks will actually save animals. Thus, the development of parks has been a factor in the breakdown of pastoralism. At best the parks protect only a small number of animals from continual encroaching development.

The ever increasing number of tourists in the East African parks has also created many problems. Tourism has been advocated as the savior of wildlife since it makes wildlife more economically valuable than ivory or skins. For governments, tourism makes wildlife profitable and draws foreign capital into the economy. Some conservationists praise tourism because it provides the impetus for continued protection of national parks and wildlife; others have criticized it for its destruction of park habitat.

The Maasai view tourism equivocally as well. In most cases, Maasai recognize that they were forced from their land without compensation in order to create parks, in part for tourists. The tourist industry, however, tends to be highly centralized; tourists usually pay for their excursions in advance and use the facilities located within the park. Most Maasai benefit very little from the influx of international visitors. Nevertheless, some Maasai have been able to capitalize on the tourist trade and have become wealthy. Local Maasai control the revenues of the reserve at Maasai Mara, and Amboseli has also accrued economic benefits to the local peoples. Tourism can create other problems, however. In some areas, the Maasai themselves are tourist attractions, posing for photos and working in tourist facilities. Despite some economic benefits tourism has not helped the majority of Maasai.

Tourism may not even be successful in saving African parks. By creating a sanctuary for wildlife, protected only by armed guards and artificial boundaries, national parks promote increases in the number of such wildlife. Unfortunately, wild animals do not stay neatly within the specified boundaries. Many species migrate over vast areas in pursuit of food. In the past both the Maasai and the wildlife remained relatively stable in number and both shared similar migratory patterns. Today, however, with both Maasai and animal populations growing, conflicts are inevitable. Since most animals migrate, they spend a large amount of their time outside of reserve boundaries and consequently compete directly with the Maasai for grass and water. Wildlife also competes with the growing agricultural community in the region. In making wildlife successful, parks could further alienate the human population from the ideals of conservation.

Although the Maasai and the wildlife have always competed with one another, they have also been very interdependent. In times of severe drought, the Maasai turned to wildlife as a food source. Similarly, wildlife biologists are now beginning to recognize the important role the Maasai played in East African ecosystems. Since the region has been the site of pastoralism for a thousand years or more, most of the vegetation which now thrives does so only as a result of previous human interference. Humans have regularly burned dead vegetation in dry season fodder zones in order to encourage the growth of fresh shoots over that of bushes and shrubs (Harris 1980). Without such planned fires, many grassland areas will revert to scrub brush, which is unsuitable for some herbivores.

There are other factors besides fire that cause parks to be "artificial islands." Because of the influx of tourists, the parks are zones of economic opportunity. As a result, new communities of human populations form on the parks' perimeters. Landless farmers have begun to settle along the roads leading into the parks, a development which interferes with animal migration.

The present system of park development may in the end endanger both the wildlife and the Maasai. Unless the ever growing conflict between the two groups can be diminished, park development may only serve to sustain troubled African economies temporarily. Conservationists are increasingly aware of the problems facing East Africa. Numerous schemes have been devised to coordinate the needs of tribal people and their governments with those of wildlife. The view that the needs of wildlife and those of humans are somehow separate is no longer held by those at the forefront of the conservation movement. Nevertheless, conservationists must expand their thinking to include indigenous peoples' knowledge of what is important at the local level. Understanding traditional patterns of Maasai pastoralism will provide answers to the relationship between wildlife and humans. Understanding the present needs of the Maasai and their neighbors will guarantee that this relationship is mutually beneficial. To save Maasailand from extinction, a new park development strategy needs to be implemented.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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