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Reporter’s Notebook: The Crisis Nobody Knows About on the Kenya-Tanzania Border

February 13, 2023
The Border Chronicle

Todd Miller

When I first saw the giraffe, it was on the Tanzanian side. We were rumbling down a dirt road that ran right by the border. Before us appeared a large white beacon that marked the division between Kenya and Tanzania. At that moment, a giraffe was sauntering across the border. I asked Peter Ole Narok, the driver, to stop the car. I wanted that photo. But a series of clumsy events got the best of me. First, I couldn’t get out the door. Then I couldn’t get my phone unlocked. By the time I was ready to take the shot, the giraffe had disappeared behind some bushes.

But I soon learned that the place where we had stopped was far more significant than a giraffe crossing. The Maasai elders I was traveling with, Meitamei Olol Dapash and Donkol Ole Keiwa, jumped out of the green Land Rover and pointed to the recently created dirt road behind the marker. That’s the “Otterlo border,” they said.

The wide dirt road, pockmarked with patches of grass, seemed innocuous. But it was a big deal. Keiwa pointed to the tire tread on the ground amid other prints, such as those from the giraffe.

“They were here yesterday,” Keiwa said, referring to the police.

“Patrolling this border?” I asked.

“Yes.” Mentioning the police brought a hint of trepidation. Keiwa, Meitamei, and Peter—in the many humanitarian aid trips they had made to the area in 2022—had seen firsthand what the police are capable of.

The Otterlo border is a kind of subborder that runs north–south along the international boundary but doesn’t cross it, remaining on the Tanzanian side. It has caused one of the world’s least covered border and refugee crises.

But before I talk about that, let me back up for a second. We were driving along a remote part of the Kenya-Tanzania border near where the Serengeti meets the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Meitamei and Keiwa work for the Kenyan-based Dopoi Center, as does historian Mary Poole from Prescott College. Peter—our driver—is a part of the Mara Guide Association, the first labor association organized by the Maasai people in Kenya. We were there so they could show me the border, how remote it is, and how you can’t legally cross it into Tanzania—there are no ports of entry. This, an area known as Loliondo located before the Serengeti, was where a refugee crisis unfolded last June, and they were some of the first on the scene providing humanitarian aid.

They called it the Otterlo border after the Otterlo Business Corporation, a private company based in the United Arab Emirates that was trying to create a “wildlife corridor” for its trophy hunting and elite tourism enterprise.

In January 2022, the Tanzanian government announced it would lease 580 square miles to the Otterlo company. But this was Maasai community land where about 70,000 people lived in about 15 different towns. According to reporting on Mongabay, Maasai leaders were told by the regional commissioner that the land was of “national interest” to Tanzania because of its potential tourism revenue. The independent policy think tank the Oakland Institute called this “fortress conservation,” given that conservation was also used to justify the project. In February 2022 the Tanzania Wildlife Authority set up border beacons demarcating the wildlife corridor, but it was forced to leave after community members confronted its enforcers, perhaps setting the stage for what was to come.