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Monday, 6 September 2010

Conservation, Tourism and the Maasai


The Maasai (also Masai) are a Nilotic ethnic group of semi nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Due to their distinctive customs and dress and residence near the many game parks of East Africa, they are among the most well known of African ethnic groups. They speak Maa, a member of the Nilo-Saharan language family that is related to Dinka and Nuer, and are also educated in the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania: Swahili and English. The Maasai population has been estimated as 377,089 from the 1989 Census or as 453,000 language speakers in Kenya in 1994 and 430,000 in Tanzania in 1993 with a total estimated as "approaching 900,000". Estimates of the respective Maasai populations in both countries are complicated by the remote locations of many villages, and their semi-nomadic nature.

Although the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, the people have continued their age-old customs. Recently, Oxfam has claimed that the lifestyle of the Maasai should be embraced as a response to climate change because of their ability to farm in deserts and scrublands.

The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania have co-existed with wildlife for generations. The wildlife has survived because of the protection and respect that the Maasai have for the environment, having lived alongside most wild animals with an aversion to eating game and birds. Maasai are pastoralist and have resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. They have demanded grazing rights to many of the National Parks in both countries, as they have seen reduced much of the traditional grazing lands for their cattle as they became protected areas; in fact, Maasai land now has East Africa's finest game areas.

According to the Department of Remote Sensing and Resource Surveys (DRSRS), more than 60 percent of Kenyan wildlife is found on the tribal land called ‘group ranches’ belonging to the Maasai people. The popular National Parks and Reserves like Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Maasai Mara, Tsavo East and Samburu Game Reserve are all found in Maasai land. Their contributions to the local economy of Maasai people are minimal.

In Kenya, tourism is one of the principle sources of foreign revenues for the central government. Its direct and indirect contributions to the national economy are enormous. Other sectors like agriculture, transportation, or communication depend heavily on the tourism industry. But the tourism industry itself depends on wildlife resources as the main attraction with the government being the custodian of wildlife whether inside or outside the National parks.

The Maasai Mara National Reserve (MMNR), to mention an example of Maasai land, attracts 60 per cent of the nature tourists who visit Kenya every year, earning the country $75 million in 1996, yet a very little percentage of the revenue collected seems to trickle down to local communities. Today more than 80 per cent of wildlife, which belongs to the state, lives outside protected areas on the Maasai land. The most pressing issue is the ownership of the wildlife in communal areas at a time of rapid population growth. The land is under pressure from people and wildlife. Having wild animals that they do not own, living on their land has made the Maasai grow over time less tolerant of wildlife, while they feel that the issues of land and wildlife related to them raises questions such as:

• Why would the Maasai forego their own development and needs for a wildlife resource that they do not own or use?

• Why should Maasai not share the money accrued from the wildlife that feeds on their cows and children?

• Why should communities bear the costs of conservation but not the benefits?

• If local communities own the land on which the wildlife exists, are they not the best people to implement and monitor measures to relieve pressures on biodiversity?

• Is not their full involvement in the decision-making and management process imperative for the success of conservation and development on their land?

A very dramatic question that arises from all the above is why should the conservation of wildlife have precedence over local people’s needs?

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), a state corporation responsible for conserving and managing all of Kenya’s wildlife, has done little in educating the communities around the MMNR on how to benefit from the resource on which Kenyan tourism thrives. KWS has also neglected the community; out of a population of 46,331 people, 36,138 lived below the poverty line in the Mara planning unit in 2001.

Furthermore, the theme of the 1997-2001 District Development Plan for Narok District was “rapid industrialisation for sustainable development”. This included improving the infrastructure, developing local raw materials, marketing and access to credit. In the Mara division this has hardly been realised.

The Maasai’s changing view of wildlife is driven by the fact that they do not have the marketing and financial skills to utilize the natural resource commercially, leaving them feeling that someone else is reaping what they have sown.

The government has encouraged the Maasai pastoralists to practice agriculture, but with the high numbers of wildlife found in their areas, it is impossible. The animals eat the crops and wildlife is seen as a curse and an obstacle to development.

The Maasai are becoming frustrated by the wildlife that lives on their land but over which they have no control. They are moving from seeing wildlife as something with which they must live alongside in mutual respect, to a commercial commodity to be used. In agricultural areas wildlife is even seen as a pest to be eliminated.

Their monopoly of power by KWS, a central power outside the community, prevents the chances of sustainable coexistence outside protected areas.

There has been some progress in that the community and the Maasai Conservation and Development Organization are designing a program to create self-reliance through conservation and tourism and to demarcate a core conservation area. The project aims to educate the community on how to utilize the wildlife by building tourism facilities and encouraging visitors to the area. The hope is that the benefits they see will balance their increasingly negative views of the wildlife.

The Maasai people have gradually become poorer over the years. The combinations of frequent droughts and poor markets have adversely affected their livestock-based economy. Supplementary incomes through employment are limited due to lack of education and training. The only other resource they have is the wildlife-rich land and their cultural heritage, both of which are coming under great pressure due to poverty.

The increase in human-wildlife conflicts and the gradual loss of wildlife habitat in tourism destinations have reinforced the view that local people’s involvement in the tourism industry is an essential adjunct to the concept of a nature-based tourism industry. The relationship between local communities and the tourism industry is that of purposeful interdependence.

Maasai’s themselves are one of the greatest tourist attractions in Kenya. The myth is sold as warrior and warlike tribe somewhere in Africa. The tribe's male live on the hearts of the lions they kill in the sprawling savannah.

The Maasai on their part have learned that there is a dollar in being merchandise of the curio type. So they turn out in front of their manyattas (kraal) as if in Hollywood. For a dollar, the tourist can both see this ‘creature’ of the wild and photograph it. For a job well done and the delivery of the ‘merchandise’ to the tourists, the tour guide gets his tip. The curio dealer in town is thus matched by the human curio dealer in the Maasai plains.

Too often, the temptation to become a caricature of themselves and a cliché for few dollars is too strong, and after which the tourist goes back home and says that he has seen Africa. He claims that he has seen man almost at his primeval stage. Something close to a lie, a fix image of a reality that is dynamic and in constant change. Culture as a fusion of a people's way of life is not a commodity. It is an expression of their totality and when taken otherwise, it is hard to tell between them and wildlife. In this case, the Maasai has the same camera value with a buffalo since their lives begin when the camera begins to whine and ends when it is shut down.

Culture is much more dynamic than a moment of a camera flash which is what the exotic image made of the Maasai turns it into. Culture holds the past and present, a blending that the post cards of the Maasai kills.

Culture is dynamic and the Maasai are not exceptional to that rule. The shuka-clad (a red cloth that the Maasai wrap around themselves) Maasai man is as at home with a Coke as the urbanized man from Central Province.

It is all a matter of understanding that culture is not a plastic thing. It is about real life. That is why constant long term effort from the government and the communities needs to be developed, so as Maasais benefit naturally of the revenue generated by tourism, where they play an important role, being able to choose how to play and how to live with respect for their history, culture and present situation. It is crucial for the tourism industry to understand and be able to deal with social and historical sensibilities since sustainable tourism means benefits for the tourists as well as for the local community and conservation of the natural resources that make the destination attractive to international visitors.

Written by LLA


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