Photo: Jason Najum

“Look, a Maasai” whispered my travel companion, elbowing me gently in the ribs. My friend’s admiring tone and the young Maasai’s striking appearance set the mood of that first encounter—long thin limbs protruding from his dark red checkered tunic, walking the streets of Tanzania’s biggest city carrying an elongated daggered spear.

The Maasai are warrior-pastoralists, living in Tanzania and Kenya for centuries, shepherding their flocks and building a reputation for their rich cultural traditions and brave feats in battle. However after just a few days in today’s Africa, one gets a very different view of one of the continent’s most famous tribes.

Along the popular vacation beaches of Kenya and Tanzania, the sight of roaming Maasai men quickly changes from anthropological interest to tourist cliché. Large wildlife conservation projects have either forced the Maasai off their land or so restricted their access to grazing resources that their ancestral lifestyle has become unsustainable. Many Maasai are now forced to tourist towns, wearing their traditional outfits and telling their tales not as a means to pass on their cultural history, but as a sales-pitch introduction. One quickly learns to expect the inevitable bracelet or tourist trinket to soon be pulled out of their bag.

The forced migration of local tribes is an unfortunately common and often unreported side effect of many modern development projects. The Maasai’s exodus began in earnest with the establishment of the famous Serengeti National Park. In 1959, the British and the Maasai signed an amicable agreement for tens of thousands of locals to voluntarily leave the Serengeti for the nearby Ngorongoro region, leaving space on the plains for a human-free wildlife reserve. The deal was generally well-received by all involved, but did not last long. By the 1960s a new sovereign Tanzanian government was in place, and enticed by foreign investment and acceptance, began evictions of local tribes in favor of tourist-friendly, and wildlife-centric, parks. By the 1970s the Maasai were facing sometimes violent evictions, a trend which continues today.

As recently as this August, according to this report by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), “an estimated 185 Maasai bomas (homesteads) were burned down by Serengeti National Park (SENAPA) and Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) rangers… it is estimated that approximately 6.800 people have been rendered homeless, had most of their property destroyed and been left without any shelter, food or water.”

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At a local roadside eatery in Nungwi, Zanzibar, we began speaking with a young Maasai. His name was Longishu, and he walked us through the dark back roads and along the tourist beach, escorting us through the night. He told us about his family, and the various Maasai rites of passage, elaborate trials and ceremonies that carries one through childhood to adolescence to young adulthood and defines one’s place in Maasai society. His English was quite good, saying he picked it up talking to tourists like us. He did not pester or pressure and seemed to enjoy our time chatting, yet at the end of our walk he did what he had to, and with hesitation asked if we wanted to see some of his wares or pass by the Maasai market in the morning.

He was young, and had already been here for a few years trying to scrape together a living from the bottom of the tourist industry barrel. I don’t know if he ever had a chance to complete the rites of passage he seemed so proud of, or if he had been forced to leave home instead.

The plight of the Maasai is just one example of what’s happening to local tribes across the globe. These ethnic groups, often with rich cultural histories and limited resources to protect their heritage, are being slowly pushed off their lands in favor of bigger conservation projects.

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Wildlife parks bring in not only tourist dollars but also funding from western governments and other aid organizations looking to support conservation efforts. This allure of development dollars causes short-term thinking, and also highlights a dilemma for conservationists and ecotourism supporters.

As reported in this Project Earth piece, some African national park programs are doing a decent job of protecting wildlife and supporting local businesses. But like most complex issues there is another side, and the success of tourist-oriented wildlife conservation is coming at the price of indigenous tribes.

This in-depth Guardian report highlights many of the tribes being affected by government-run conservation efforts. From Botswana to Bangladesh, sweeping “people vs wildlife” thinking is leading to large-scale implementation of policy that sees local residents not as important players to consider, but as roadblocks in the way of (well-funded) national parks.

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“Most of the world’s 6,000 national parks and 100,000 protected places have been created by the removal of tribal peoples. Hundreds more parks are being created every year as countries commit to meeting the UN’s goal to protect 17% of land by 2020.”

Stopping at a gas station on the way to my Tanzanian safari, about a dozen Maasai scrambled around our car window, elderly women in purple and red dresses, literally begging us to buy something, anything, holding onto the window as we drove away.

Respecting the rights and lands of indigenous groups is the right thing to do, and according to some reports, can be an effective and affordable way of preserving natural habitats and even fighting climate change. They should be included in the conservation equation.