This is certainly not the first time that indigenous people and livelihoods have been displaced in the name of conservation. However, the lands that the Maasai are being excluded from will not become a conventional conservation area; access has been granted to a private company for the purpose of high-end trophy hunting.
There is much about this conflict between Maasai and conservation that is unfortunate. There is also much that is unnecessary.
Amongst the Maasai, increasing population and wealth has led to more cattle being grazed on pastoral lands. Limited access to banks means that pastoralists tend to invest savings in more cattle. At the same time, climate change is putting additional pressure on the pastoral lands of Tanzania and Kenya through more frequent and prolonged dry periods.
The lands the Maasai use for grazing cattle are largely communal and there is little systematic management. Heavy and near continuous grazing has meant that long-lived grass species have been replaced by seasonal species, triggering a host of associated ecosystem effects which serve to further degrade the rangelands.
Combined, these trends make the land less able to support wildlife, and increase the likelihood of conflict between wildlife and pastoralists over the limited remaining resources.
Some of this is the pretext given by the Tanzanian government for excluding Maasai from grazing their cattle on a 1,500 square kilometre stretch of land adjacent to one of the continent’s most iconic national parks – the Serengeti - and for setting up a hunting park.
The merits of trophy hunting as an activity compatible with conservation are fiercely debated. There is contention about the demographic effects on wildlife populations (as a result of targeting large, old males), the extent to which legal hunting aides or hinders anti-poaching efforts, and the amount of revenue it actually contributes to conservation and local community well-being. In Tanzania, there are deeply concerning accusations about practices within the trophy hunting industry, including using machine guns and keeping orphaned animals as pets.
The perception of conflict between conservation and indigenous groups has harmful ramifications for conservation well beyond Tanzania. Much of the international conservation community has worked hard to address the not-entirely unfounded criticism that conservation is a special-interest cause often executed at the expense of indigenous people. In the case of Loliondo (the district of Tanzania in question), excluding Maasai does not simply reduce the land available to them, it also greatly restricts movement between remaining communal lands. This interrupts an important, if struggling, seasonal cycle of land use. There is no place for simply excluding indigenous people from their traditional lands in the name of conservation.
While there might be conflict between the current pattern of Maasai land-use and sustainable wildlife populations, this does not mean that the solution must also engender conflict. The “fortress” approach to conservation being proposed in Tanzania is unnecessarily blunt and crude.
In north-central Kenya, less than 500km from where the conflict with the Maasai is taking place, there are similar tensions between traditional pastoral livelihoods and wildlife conservation. Instead of necessitating a choice between the two, the solutions being employed show that pastoral livelihoods and wildlife conservation can be compatible.
Through the agreement of community-run conservancies, sections of communal pastoral lands in northern Kenya are set aside as grass banks. These areas are reserved for wildlife to graze but can be used by traditional pastoralists as emergency grazing lands for cattle in times of drought.
The grass banks are complimented by establishing rotational grazing practices that encourage pastoralists to graze their animals together and in a systematic fashion, allowing land to rest un-grazed for a period each year. Regular treatment of cattle for disease (a concern also in the Maasai lands) is provided as an incentive for collective grazing. A guaranteed price and safe transport of livestock to markets gives pastoralists the security to reduce their herd sizes. And the rapid spread of mobile connectivity and mobile banking technology is providing an alternative avenue for savings in remote rural areas.
With their lands better able to support wildlife, the communities of northern Kenya’s conservancies also benefit from tourism. Lodge concessions within the conservancies provide income and employment, and take advantage of strong demand for encounters with both wildlife and traditional African culture. Lodge operations include agreements about local employment and revenue percentage which helps provide both the motivation and resources to manage their lands to sustain healthy wildlife populations.
It is sad indictment of the Tanzanian government that the international public are being presented with an overly simplistic and unnecessary choice between wildlife and the traditional lifestyle of the Maasai.