Elephants in Tanzania

Monday, 7 October 2013

The Masai as Conservationists

Masai girl, Tanzania
Young Masai girl, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Reports of Masai “corruption” regarding African wildlife are creating confusion amongst tourists and the general public. In this blog, I want to address the rumours and try to explain what’s really happening.

Most recently, an ABC radio broadcast in Australia about elephant poaching in Kenya reported that, “the spears and poisoned arrows used to fell this elephant point to Masai tribesmen as being responsible for its death”. (PM, October 11, 2013.)

Locally, Tanzania’s own National Parks Department has written in its quarterly publication that in Tarangire National Park, “... the lion population, which was threatened by the Masai attacks, has nearly stabilized... However, poaching for ‘possibly’ subsistence meat is still an ongoing issue.” (TANAPA Today, October 2010.)

Other people have told me they’ve heard stories about elephants dying slow and painful deaths inflicted by Masai spears and arrows, and that Masai rangers who are supposed to protect wildlife are on the take. 

Such information is giving the erroneous impression that the Masai are hunters and involved in some kind of wide-scale misconduct. Worse, it reflects a growing culture of blaming the Masai for East Africa’s complex conservation problems, rather than delving into the real causes: conflicting national policies that encourage hunting on lands adjacent to protected parks; ridiculous rhetoric that hunting somehow saves wildlife and habitat for future generations; the move away from community-based conservation models towards central government control and private game reserves; and finally, an insatiable and immoral worldwide demand for horns and ivory — with all its tragic consequences.

Setting the record straight
In defense of the Masai villages I’ve had the privilege to work with for more than 20 years, let me provide some background. 

Masai tribes are found only in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. They live the same nomadic pastoralist existence they have for centuries, especially in Tanzania. They don’t hunt. They don’t eat or trade in bush meat. They raise goats and sheep, systematically rotating grazing areas according to season and year so the land can regenerate. This system benefits domestic and wild animals alike, and it has allowed the Masai to live harmoniously with wildlife for generations. Even today, richly biodiverse habitats and traditional Masai grazing lands are one and the same in the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and Tarangire in Tanzania, and the Masai Mara and Amboselli in Kenya. 

Wildlife encounters are uncommon and most often resolved with loud noise or by calling rangers to chase away a marauding elephant. Rarely does the situation escalate further. The only time an elephant is killed is if it develops a habit of raiding crops, which is unusual.

Next, I know of no Masai morani, or warrior, who will throw his spear at an elephant, if for no other reason than the chances of inflicting a deadly wound is difficult enough with a high-powered rifle. He also knows that to do so risks enraging the elephant, leaving the warrior unprotected and inciting the animal to rampage, endangering families, crops and huts. 

Even the traditional Masai manhood ritual, (now illegal in Tanzania), when an emerging morani had to kill a lion, did not involve spear throwing. Instead, the lion was provoked to charge and the warrior stood his ground, spear firmly planted so the lion impaled itself. In short, the only instance I know of where a Masai man will throw a spear is to appease a tourist!

And Masai on the steppes surrounding Tarangire National Park don’t use bows and arrows. 

A new reserve
The damaging speculation that the Masai are involved in poaching operations must also be put to rest.

In April this year, seven Masai communities bordering Tarangire National Park collectively agreed with the Government of Tanzania to set aside more than 580 square kilometres of community lands as legally protected wildlife habitat. The new reserve, known as the Radilen Wildlife Management Area, is about one-fifth the size of the adjacent park. Hunting and charcoal burning is strictly off limits, and so are grazing and permanent human settlements.

The new reserve has a rather long history. My brother and I first established the area in 1993 through private leases with three separate Masai villages. Together, we chased away poachers, illegal farmers and charcoal burners. We built three safari lodges and camps and helped create a place that now gives refuge to the fastest growing population of elephants in Africa

We pushed community-based conservation further by encouraging the villages to collect user fees from visitors. Back in 2007, this revenue stream provided more than US$280,000 to the three communities. They used the money to build schools, dispensaries and water reticulation projects. Unfortunately, the government has curtailed this activity since by establishing its own competing lodges and camps. But my point is that such undertakings would not have been possible if the Masai were involved in poaching the elephants we set out to protect more than 20 years ago. 

Essential conservation partners
The suggestion that the Masai are “corrupt” simply isn’t credible. Of course, some individual could be tempted, but it would be almost impossible to continue over the long term. Of all the tribes in Africa, the Masai have one of the most sophisticated systems of survival and self-government. Community leaders are quick to recognize any kind of threat to the tribe’s harmony; a self-defeating activity like poaching is impossible to hide and would be stamped out immediately by removing the perpetrators from any positions of power.

It’s this very spirit of community governance, together with the Masai’s successful landholding experience over generations, that makes them essential partners in modern conservation efforts. In recent years, the travesty facing African elephants has gained greater global awareness. Many organisations have leveraged the situation to raise funds for so-called protection programs. However, I am of the opinion that the only way to protect East Africa’s elephants and other wildlife is to work sincerely and respectfully with the local Masai. After all, it’s their land. Who better to protect and manage it?

Traditional Masai landowner, Tarangire, Tanzania
Masai Askari, Boundary Hill, Tarangire


Maria F said...

Thanks Simon for your insight into your interactions and knowledge of the Maasai of Tanzania and the Tarangire area specifically. It is useful for me to come to some understanding with regards to political and social borders within the country and interactions of government and tribes. However, in sense of good debate, I will play devil's advocate and ask whether this conservation mentality is representative by all; and, one knows, it only takes a few 'bad guys' to paint an entire population. Also to raise the question; are the Kenyan and Tanzanian Maasai the same? Kenyan Masai might beg to differ and even say Tanzanian Maasai are not even true Maasai. In reading of them, they state that Tanzanian Maasai broke off some time ago, because they were not warrior enough to stay with the Kenyan tribes. They settled south and became more agrarian. I have gotten so used to the concept, that I don't even spell the tribal name the same for both countries. Kenya seems to prefer the single 'a' over the double 'aa' of Tanzania, though I realize that many use them interchangeably. So I beg to differ that extensive knowledge of Tarangire Maasai can be attributed to all Ma(a)sai.
Also, I am one that assumes that the ivory hunting in Kenya is in part by Masai as does the sited news article. As a recipient of regular David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust newsletters and updates, rarely a month goes by lately when there isn't a reference to treating one of the wild bull elephants for poison arrows. These are the elephants that recognize the Trust properties in Voi and Tsavo East have humans that help rather than kill, so come for treatment. Who knows how many are left to suffer and die in other areas of the park? Due to the locations, one may just assume that it is the local tribesmen doing the hunting, as for us who may not know the tribal physical boundaries, we assume 'Masai".
In these cases, the hunting isn't done using traditional spears. With a bow and arrow, one doesn't need to be in the same striking distance as a spear. One shoots, then waits for the poison to do its job. It takes patience on the hunter's part to track the elephant until it is either too weak to defend itself, or the poison actually kills it. The reward for the patience may then be abundant. However, the question still is - who wields the bow?

Simon King said...

Hi Maria,

It definitely does take only a few “bad guys” to discredit an entire population.

I think the Kenyan Masai are speaking with some tongue in cheek when referring to the Tanzanian Masai as agrarian, although in some places this is true in Tanzania. The Masai that live in the border regions, near Natron and Amboselli, cross over with pretty much impunity. In fact, during the dry season of 2010-11 there were Kenyan Masai with their cattle grazing in the Tarangire area. Although the local authorities were very quick in moving them on, it still shows that to the Masai, the international border is only a line on a map; they really only recognise Masai geographic areas, not political boundaries.

Although most Masai history is aural, there’s wide consensus that the Masai migrated down the Nile valley over several centuries, starting sometime in the 1400s. In the early 1880s, they reached their most southern extent, just north of Dodoma in Tanzania. This was the period when the Masai were most populous. From the 1880s onwards, their numbers declined, first from
smallpox (introduced via European settlement) and next thanks to the rinderpest plague in the early 1890s. Contemporary reports suggest severe starvation occurred amongst the Masai during this period. It’s referred to as the Emutai “wipeout” because up to two-thirds of the population is believed to have perished. It’s estimated up to 60 percent of Masai livestock was lost, too.

In the early twentieth century, with Masai populations still weakened from the Emutai, several treaties between the colonial settlers in Kenya and the Kenyan Masai saw the Masai moved out of the Rift Valley. They were replaced with ranches and reserves. Up to 10,000 Kenyan Masai were resettled in northern Tanzania but most were settled near Kajaido and Narok.

When I first went though this area in the early 1980s, you could still see the traditional Masai herds. However, over the past 10 years, most of this area has been subdivided into fenced ranches. So the suggestion that the Tanzanian Masai are not true Masai is not correct, as they share a common history and still intermingle to the present time.

There are new tribes that have come into being as the Masai have raided south down the Nile Valley, the Samburu in Kenya, and the Warusha in Tanzania. They are more sedentary people, with their existence based around family land and farming. This is different to the traditional Masai concept of community land for grazing. There are also instances, particularly in the Monduli Juu area of Tanzania, where a policy of Ujamaa (“villagilization”) was introduced after independence, and this resulted in Masai being resettled into clusters of bomas. Then, in 1976, those in Moduli Juu were resettled and given three acres of land to farm. The Masai here have became known as “non-Masai”, as they farm maize and bean and graze less cattle than traditional Masai.

On the plains of Tarangire though, large areas of the Masai steppes are still grazed on rotation. The people here are governed by village councils and mostly adhere to the same nomadic lifestyle as their ancestors. We still see bomas made from thorn bushes and plastic tarps, which shelter older Masai men who tend their livestock far from the women and children left in the family bomas.

With regards to the use of bows and arrows, I have rechecked with some of my Masai friends and must confirm that the Masai don’t use bow and arrows. In the Masai steppes area, bows and arrows are belong to the Sandawe or Dorobo tribes. My contacts also confirmed that nearly all the elephants poached in this area are attacked with guns — not spears or bows and arrows — which would suggest greater sophistication and organization is behind the elephant poaching in this area.


Maria F said...

As you outlined, the history and progress of Maasai from Nile Valley to Kenya and Tanzania is as I have also read. Perhaps it was at the breakoffs of the Warusha that their feelings of not a 'true' maasai came to be. I recall there was an historical point, and perhaps even discord amongst themselves. Driving between Moshi and Arusha NP, one drives by land parcels. My driver referred to them as 'local' Maasai, but clearly they are settled. Still wear their shukas, but land use and housing is definitely different to Tarangire and Ngorongoro regions.
I agree that what I hear and read is that ivory is taken with guns in Tanzania, but who is hunting the elephant in Voi and Tsavo? And why poisoned arrows? Still a question in my mind.
Inherently, the Maasai's basic culture, roots and traditions will be similar regardless of political borders, but are their lifestyles truly still the same? Howe can it be when there may be differences in their relationships with their geographical governments?
I know you have spent many years working with the Maasai in Tarangire and they truly are committed to a conservation stewardship; but is it truly reflective for entire populace? Describing them as Masai, and referencing Kenya maybe be what is confusing me as to whether that is the point you are trying to make, or whether you are truly meaning to focus on the Tanzania Maasai.