|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?
|Masai Askari, Boundary Hill, Tarangire|