Maasai hopes and fears

Posted: 2 July 2001

Author: David Lovatt Smith

Nowhere is the clash between tourism and the wellbeing of local people more obvious than in the East African rangelands which are, at once, the traditional homeland of the Maasai people and a wildlife magnet to tourists from all over the world. David Lovatt Smith talked to Paul Ntiati, a Maasai leader from Kenya, about the problem - and possible solutions.

In 1973 the Maasai people were evicted from Amboseli National Park by government decree and since then they have been excluded from the area which covers some 150 square miles of their former grazing lands.

Today the rest of the Amboseli ecosystem, covering about 2,200 square miles is owned and ranched communally by some 25,000 Maasai landowners who remain bitter at the loss of what was an important dry weather grazing and watering place for them. tribesmanMaasai tribesman© Fritz Polking/WWFThe community came to resent the Park and the 'government animals' that wandered into their grazing area at certain times of the year. As a result, Amboseli's wildlife declined at an alarming rate. Some species, such as lion and rhino, disappeared altogether, although a small pride of lions has since returned there. There are now no rhinos in the whole ecosystem, but lion numbers are thankfully building up once again.

Protecting wildlife

Recently, things have begun to change. A new enlightened leadership within the community and a change in the Directorship of the Wildlife Service has altered the way that the wildlife is viewed. The Maasai are beginning to see the value of protecting wildlife and setting aside areas within their own lands for wildlife conservation and tourism.

One of those leaders is Paul Ntiati, who has mixed feelings about the future.

"We have to be hopeful" he says, "but to the Masaai there is a positive and a negative value to wildlife conservation. Before, we used wild animals for sport and for carrying on our traditions."

He relates how many of the traditional proverbs and folk stories centre around wildlife. "Many of our songs are about wild animals and the beauty of them. Even now in daily diet we use a great many herbs from indigenous plants that grow on our grazing lands. But there is a big difference now.

"Before, when we were masters of most of southern Kenya, we used to look upon wild animals as our own. Now, we are told that they belong to the Government. That makes us resent their presence. We have to put up with someone else's property on our grazing lands and when they kill out livestock and we are not allowed to kill them, it makes us angry. farmersMaasai farmers© Betty Press/Panos PicturesFor the last seven years the Maasai have received some money, as a share of the Amboseli tourist revenues. But they believe this hand-out is not sustainable.

"The trouble," says Paul Ntiati, "is that the KWS has a different agenda to the communities. The KWS are only interested in preserving wildlife, and when they found out that 70 per cent of Kenya's wildlife exists outside the protected areas, they thought they'd better do something to keep us sweet. So they gave us some money. But we are more interested in grazing, watering places and salt licks. These are our growing fields, our livelihood."

Maasai woes

I asked Paul whether the community realized the potential value of the wildlife in their midst as a resource which could be used to bring them income. "They do," he replied. "But my fears are that if we designate specific areas within our ranches for wildlife sanctuaries, the government will come along one day and take them from us as they did with Amboseli, saying that these wildlife areas are a national asset, so the nation must control them".

I suggested to him that if areas were not set aside for conservation, now, the wild animals will soon cease to exist, because Amboseli National Park is too small on its own, to preserve the wildlife. He agreed and said that if the wildlife of the Park could not migrate into the Maasai lands at certain times of the year they would die and both the nation and the Maasai would be the poorer for that.

"But there is another problem we conservationists have to confront," Paul went on. "We are being pressurized by the government to sub-divide our land. At the moment the land is communally owned by seven different Group Ranches extending to areas of up to 100,000 hectares each, and we can graze cattle anywhere within them, making the best use of the grazing. If sub-division comes, it means that each Group Ranch will be divided into tiny ranches of a hundred acres or so, and the individual owners will be allowed to put up fences, start cultivation, build houses and even sell the land. This will also mean the end of the wildlife.

For myself," he concludes, "I believe the future of the Amboseli Maasai lies more with wildlife tourism and pastoralism, than it does with dry-land cultivation and pastoralism. We know that wildlife and pastoralism can exist side by side, but we have to educate the people and tell them what their alternatives are. It is very difficult to persuade someone whose family and children rely on cattle for their livelihood to set aside areas for wild animals which do not belong to them and which can kill their livestock and even themselves, sometimes. We have to persuade them that they will actually be better off with wildlife tourism."

Fair tourism

tourismTourism in Maasai Mara© Penny Tweedle/Panos PicturesThis leads us on to the subject of accountability. "You know," said Paul, "the Maasai are always suspicious of those who are responsible for looking after money. We do not trust each other with money - even our elected leaders! If tour operators bring visitors into our areas and pay a lot of money for that privilege, who is going to look after that money? Who is going to be accountable? How do I know that I will get my fair share? All these questions will need answering before the communities will agree to tourism."

He agreed that tourism would bring employment to the area, and that if the hotels or tour operators were contracted to employ only local people in preference to outsiders, it would have a big impact on the communities' decision to allow tourism. "If my cattle are going to be restricted in their grazing areas, but am I going to make up my losses through employment, then that is a good balance," he said.

"Most of all it is our culture we must protect. Before the people will agree to opening up our land for wildlife tourism, thereby changing so radically our farming habits and risking our livelihood, it must be made clear how the negative impacts will be overcome by the positive ones. If we can be sure we shall be better off by changing, then we shall welcome tourism."

David Lovatt Smith is a former warden of Amboseli. He is advising the communities at Amboseli on the use of their wildlife resource and is helping to set up sanctuaries outside the National Park, in areas that still hold good stocks of wildlife, from which the local communities can benefit, through the carefully controlled development of wildlife tourism.