Maasai: Lost in the Stampede, National Geographic Magazine

The Serengeti may be one of the healthiest ecosystems on the planet. But while many work tirelessly to save the land and its wildlife, almost none are looking out for the rights of the local indigenous people, the Maasai in particular.

Conservation is a primary focus and a huge influx of tourism is turning Maasai warriors into Maasai beggars. The government is living in a fantasy world as if it is still 1959 and the Maasai are still nomadic. The government doesn’t want to provide any infrastructure for the historic inhabitants for fear it will create sedentary communities that will stop the annual animal migration.

The wildebeest migration is of supreme importance, much like in the Wild West when buffalo dominated the …

Maasai: Lost in the Stampede, National Geographic Magazine

The Serengeti may be one of the healthiest ecosystems on the planet. But while many work tirelessly to save the land and its wildlife, almost none are looking out for the rights of the local indigenous people, the Maasai in particular.

Conservation is a primary focus and a huge influx of tourism is turning Maasai warriors into Maasai beggars. The government is living in a fantasy world as if it is still 1959 and the Maasai are still nomadic. The government doesn’t want to provide any infrastructure for the historic inhabitants for fear it will create sedentary communities that will stop the annual animal migration.

The wildebeest migration is of supreme importance, much like in the Wild West when buffalo dominated the landscape. One and a half million wildebeest are like a train with 200 cars and each car dumps 20 tons of dung a day, fertilizing the entire ecosystem. Just the saliva from that many mouths is enough to keep the grass hydrated.

Tourism in Serengeti is a serious business. Tour operators await visitors who arrive in Lear jets, can pay $2,000 a night, and want to observe an infinite sea of wildlife. A private army owned by one of the tourist camps does routine and illegal house-to-house searches for poached meat, squeezing the local and hungry population to insure the wildlife levels remain high. But there is too much unnecessary human suffering and anger is rising in neighboring communities.

The Maasai were kicked out of the National Park in 1951 and the Ngorongoro crater in 1959. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (3,200 square miles on the Kenya-Tanzania border) was carved out of the park at this time to allow them a place to live. The rules are harsh—Maasai are not allowed to fence, to hire anyone to help them farm, use tractors, or do anything except minor hand cultivation. Animals eat most crops. In addition, the Maasai now only own two or three cattle each, as opposed to the ten to twelve typically owned in the 1950s.

About 40,000 wildebeest are poached annually, and this is sustainable, but the human population is expanding around park borders. Because poaching and poverty go hand in hand, Serengeti District officials have initiated community service instead of jail time whenever possible.

Tourism employed only three Maasai in 1995 with only a slight improvement since. The crater is Tanzania’s foremost tourist attraction. Lions crawl under your car. You have to slap zebras on the butt to get them to move out of the way. And there are serious traffic jams. There is a place where you are only allowed out of the vehicle to open the hatches on the top of the land cruiser. Maasai, who are supposedly in the crater on a “day pass” to get salt for their cows, hit up the tourists there. With spears in one hand and cell phones in the other, they stand and watch the solid line of traffic, and all the comparatively large, white people jammed into, or hanging out the tops or sides of land cruisers.

It is as if the zoo is traveling through the landscape. The cars are the cages and the Maasai gawk as the human animals go by.

My filming permit provided $100 a day to the Tanzanian government. Thirty days, $3,000. There are six communities of Maasai and only two have wells. It costs about $5,000 to dig a well, so my presence alone on this one trip was enough for one of these communities to have their own water pump. Instead they share a dirty water source with their animals.

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