Maasai communities have lived in harmony within the rich ecosystems of East Africa for centuries. As Meitamei Olol Dapash says, “In the balance our ancestors found with the natural environment, people shared the land with elephants, giraffes, rhinoceros, and other majestic wildlife. We see ourselves as custodians of the land, which to us is a sacred living entity...
... The land contains our history; it is the keeper of our memories and culture, and protector of our forefathers' bones. The Maasai believe that the land is entrusted to the living for safekeeping, to be passed on to future generations.”
Beginning in the last decade of the 19th century, the Maasai were devastated by disasters from which they have yet to recover. Smallpox ravaged the people while their herds fell victim to rinderpest, a disease of cattle. Both diseases were introduced by European colonists who partitioned the land into British Kenya and German Tanganyika. The two regimes implemented policies of land alienation and cultural annihilation against the Maasai. Settlers claimed the watered lands, the forested areas, on which the community relied for survival during droughts, for medicine, that fed the streams and rivers on which life in an arid land is made possible. When Kenya and Tanzania attained independence in the early 1960's, the new African states inherited these policies from their colonial predecessors. Weakened by the assault on Maasai economy, left behind in colonial and post-colonial education systems, and weakened by disease borne of poor and insufficient water and food, the Maasai people have struggled for over a century for basic human needs, and for the survival of their culture.
The threats to Maasai culture and society are intricately related to the threat currently posed to the wildlife that inhabit their land. Today, Maasailand in Kenya and Tanzania is one of the last great wildlife refuges in the world and Maasai territories provide habitat for 80 percent of East Africa's wildlife. In fact, the Maasai Mara-Serengeti ecosystem supports the highest concentration of wildlife on Earth. Encompassing the cross-border region of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, this land is the native home of such noble animals as the lion, the elephant, the rhinoceros, the cheetah, the giraffe and the roan antelope, and home to the world famous annual wildebeest migration.
That wildlife of Maasailand is threatened by the same factors threatening Maasai culture. One reason is because the elephants, lions and other animals spend between 60% and 90% of their lives outside of the protected areas, on Maasai community land, sharing that dynamic ecosystem with Maasai people and their cattle, goats and sheep. As community land is diminished, privatized, converted to large scale agriculture, elephant and other migrations are interrupted, conflict ensues, and wildlife is destroyed. Poaching and trophy hunting The region's popularity as a tourist destination grew rapidly in the past two decades, and too many large-scale tourist facilities have been built in previously pristine areas. Habitat is also being lost to large-scale agriculture and commercial development. Population pressures from the surrounding regions of Eastern Africa are further distressing the land and its resources. Traditional migratory routes for wildlife are being lost, as indiscriminate development fragments Maasailand. All of these pressures, plus pollution associated with the tourism industry and illegal bush meat trade, are bearing instantaneous and irreversible impacts on the wildlife of Maasailand.
The most serious potential loss in the removal of Maasai people from their land is the loss of the Maasai cultural relationship to that land.
For thousands of years, Maasailand has been a place of cultivated fenceless co-existence between humans and wildlife. As they are dependent on productive grazing lands for their herds of cattle and goats, Maasai have necessarily been custodians of the natural habitat. Maasai people see the land itself as a sacred, living entity, a source of medicine and a place of worship to be protected for future generations. Maasai cultural relationship to wildlife is complex, not romantic. Wildlife is not a commodity or a fantasy for the Maasai who live with them; elephants, buffalo, and rhino are respected and sometimes aggressive neighbors whose needs must be known and considered. Compared with history in many Western societies of containing, driving out and exterminating problematic wildlife such as wolves and mountain lions, even to the point of extinction, Maasai have negotiated negotiate fence-free herding amongst predatory wildlife for thousands of years.
Until recent years, the Maasai have retained much of their traditional way of life. But their culture's survival depends on the survival of the land. As a rural, traditional people whose culture instills a strong code of honesty, many Maasasi communities have been poorly equipped to defend our rights in the modern legal and economic world, and they have been left out to a large degree from conservation efforts, which have emphasized removing people from landscapes to “protect” wildlife.
One of the greatest potential gifts the Maasai culture has to offer the world is its knowledge, tested and refined through centuries of how to share land in ways that promotes biodiversity. This knowledge is a form of science. Maasai have practiced that science by continuously adapting and evolving their way of life in response to changing environmental conditions, negotiating access to shared and limited.
Truly effective conservation needs to do the same, by acknowledging that success is dependent upon small changes over time. The Maasai people have a lot to teach the conservation community about living within a landscape and alongside populations of wildlife in a way that ensures the preservation of both themselves and the wildlife.
If conservation is going to be truly participatory, and equal in terms of rights and power, then the knowledge and insights of the Maasai must be acknowledged and welcomed. Genuine locally-inspired conservation must happen from the ground up, and must acknowledge all the values and interests stakeholders on equal terms. In essence, effective conservation is not simply about the preservation of particular species or habitats, it is about devolving power and decision-making to the local level so that the rights of local communities are ensured.
As a global community, we all have a role to play to ensure the future of this priceless heritage for the sake of unborn generations.
Be sure to check out our Publications Page to find some of the latest research related to Conservation.
~ Maasai Elder