Maasai land rights and wildlife conservation

By: ERIN O'NEILL


posted on: August 21st, 2018

Recently, there has been much discussion around the Maasai and the land they live on. Pressure from wildlife groups has led to the government creating larger nature reserves. In doing so, many Maasai people are being forced from their traditional homes. It has led to much talk over whether it is right to put the needs of endangered species over indigenous communities. It also leaves us to wonder whether farming communities can coexist with conservation.

THE MAASAI AND THEIR LAND

The Maasai are a large indigenous group that live in the grasslands of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They live in the regions of the African Great Lakes, which support the Maasai as well as thousands of wild animal species.

The Maasai community are pastoralist, meaning they herd livestock. Cattle are especially precious to the Maasai as they drink their milk and blood. For hundreds of years they have lived in the grasslands. In doing so, they possess many valuable traditional survival skills that could help similar communities in the face of climate change.

Recently, the Maasai have been forced to change their pastoral traditions. An increase in Maasai population and a decrease in cattle populations means that the Maasai have begun to rely on farming crops like rice and potatoes. This is seen as culturally negatively compared to cattle herding.

MAASAI LAND OR NATURE RESERVE?

Many critically endangered animals live on traditional Maasai land. These include rhinos, elephants and lions which are threatened by poachers. These animals are valuable as powerful and beautiful icons of the traditional African landscape. They also bring wildlife tourists which provides for the African economy. In an effort to save the animals, the government created national parks. This included moving farming communities like the Maasai to make more room for endangered animals. It also means traditional hunting is banned.

Since 1904 Maasai lands have been reduced. It began with the British reducing their land in Kenya by 60% to make room for ranchers. Therefore, many people see the forced moving of traditional communities as similar to colonialism (when Africa was controlled by foreign empires). In the last few decades land has been taken to create larger wildlife reserves. It was decided recently to create a 1,500-square kilometre wildlife protection zone in Serengeti National Park. This is to protect the migration route of wildebeest. This threatens to move thousands of Maasai to new land.

African governments are trying to encourage the Maasai to leave their traditional pastoral lifestyle. Many Maasai have done so, but others are demanding grazing rights in the national park. There is a great fear of losing cultural practices.

CAN MAASAI TRADITIONS COEXIST WITH WILDLIFE CONSERVATION?

Many Maasai are understandably bitter towards conservation efforts. To them, it has brought nothing but hardship for many years. This could make it difficult to reconcile the two together. It is also difficult as Maasai population increase leads to less land for wildlife.

However, there are many who think that wildlife conservation could be most effective with the help of the Maasai. Tribal groups are very protective over their traditional land. The Maasai are fierce warriors. If the Maasai were allies to wildlife conservation, they could help to prevent illegal hunting or poaching. Local conservation has been proven to be more effective than national conservation. The Maasai know the land and its animals. Protecting wild animals is easier if local people like the Maasai are involved in managing it.

The Maasai have lived alongside wild animals for centuries. They do not generally eat game or birds. Therefore, they would be unlikely to hunt endangered animals for food. In fact, the Maasai are more likely to hunt wild animals if they are not given enough grazing room for their cattle. Animal migration is also affected by displacing the Maasai. Animals trying to leave park boundaries where the Maasai have settled are stopped or killed. This is turning parks into isolated islands in a sea of human development.

The Maasai should be the guardians of the wild animals that live alongside them. If they are displaced, they will only grow more hostile to conservation efforts. Wildlife conservation can only succeed in the long term if the Maasai are allies to conservation.

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