Maasai know our land
Maasai know our land as a rich apothecary with over fifty types of tree barks to protect human beings from viruses such as we encounter in the global pandemic. We also know that wildlife communities are intelligent, can be known through their individual histories, and negotiated with to share common resources. We are the rightful stewards of this land, and the people best equipped to Manage it.
As MERC founder 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.” Maasai love for cattle is entwined with our love for wildlife, as both are necessary to each other.
Today, Maasailand 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. MERC is devoted to a future where wildlife continue to live free and protected, a future which is only possible through a re-empowerment of Maasai culture to manage the care of wildlife on our land.
The threat to Maasai culture is the same threat to East African ecosystems and the wildlife they support; the people and wildlife will live or die together. Elephants, lions and other animals spend between 60 percent and 90 percent 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.
The region’s popularity as a tourist destination grew rapidly in the past three 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 and poaching has become a serious problem, as it severs the relationship between people and wildlife. 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.
Fortress conservation is another immense challenge, as Western approaches to saving the wildlife often involve separating all human activity from shared land, including the economies of Indigenous peoples with whom the wildlife has historically coexisted. Fortress conservation has failed in other parts of the world where profit motives subsume care for wildlife. MERC has thus emphasized the restoration of Maasai management of conservation on Maasailand.
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 our way of life in response to changing environmental conditions, and negotiating access to shared and limited resources.
Maasai are the original conservationists, and our love for wildlife is a precious thing that must be honored and recognized in any conservation coalitions.
Genuine conservation must happen from the ground up, and must acknowledge all the values and interests of all stakeholders on equal terms. It must recognize that coexistence is possible and that people and wildlife can thrive together, and that leadership of conservation efforts must be led by the cultures that know the land.