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Tanzania Forces the Maasai From Their Land To Make Way for Trophy Hunters and Tourists

April 1, 2023
Le Monde diplomatique

by Cédric Gouverneur

Abel, a Maasai herder, and his extended family welcomed us to their boma – a compound with round huts and a corral with an acacia thorn and nettle fence – in the Loliondo area of Tanzania’s northern Arusha region. The fence protects their livestock from predators, though nowadays they are less worried about lions (which find easier prey on the savannah) than about the authorities: ‘Please don’t photograph our faces, or anything that could identify this place,’ Abel said.

He had reason to be wary: he and 20 other Maasai had just spent five months in Arusha prison. ‘There were 70 people in a cell meant for 25,’ he said. ‘They’re going after influential people and traditional leaders, anyone who’s educated or in touch with Western organisations [that defend indigenous rights],’ such as Survival International (based in the UK) or the Oakland Institute (US). ‘They’re trying to stop us organising against OBC.’

OBC (Otterlo Business Corporation) is a safari company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that has run trophy hunting tours to Tanzania since 1992. On 6 June last year the Arusha regional administration announced that a 1,500-sq km area within the Loliondo Game Controlled Area (LGCA, north of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and east of Serengeti National Park) would be cleared of its human population and turned over to OBC for its exclusive use. During the next few days, police marked out the area with white posts.

Abel said, ‘The Loliondo district commissioner told us “It’s a presidential order. You must comply, and we’ll discuss the details later.” Of course, we protested. We wanted to hear about these “details” and our future status in this country – whether we’d still be treated as full citizens. Things got heated and we ended up spending the night in police cells.’ Meanwhile, Maasai in boma right across the area that was being marked out were tipping each other off by mobile phone and confronting the police.

In the night of 9-10 June, some of the marker posts were uprooted and next morning the police tried to disperse protesters using tear gas and live ammunition. Images of the clashes, in which dozens of people were wounded, went viral worldwide. Some of the Maasai were armed with assegai (spears) and bows, and a police officer was killed by an arrow.

Seeking safety in Kenya

Hundreds of Maasai fled to neighbouring Kenya, where they stayed with relatives (semi-nomadic, many have family on both sides of the border). Meanwhile, Tanzania’s home affairs minister Hamad Masauni tightened border security and ordered an investigation of NGOs operating in Loliondo. In late November, after those leaders arrested during the protests were released without charge, many of the Maasai who had crossed over to Kenya returned.

The evictions are thought to have affected some 70,000 Maasai. Abel said, ‘They started by fining anyone who crossed the boundary line 100,000 shillings [around $40].’ Because the Maasai rarely have cash and usually barter for goods and services, many had to sell their cattle ‘at low prices, because it was the dry season and they were thin’, one of those present said. ‘If people couldn’t pay, the authorities seized their livestock.’ An investigation by the Oakland Institute found that 5,880 cattle and 767 sheep and goats were seized in November and December; and the confiscations continued in January.

I used to live here. These are the graves of my ancestors. They’ve given my land to people who’ve been relocated. I can’t come here any moreLukas Simeon

‘It’s all in the name of conservation,’ said Abel. ‘But the government can’t teach us anything about conservation. Unlike these rich foreigners, we don’t kill wild animals – we’ve always lived alongside them. We’re not the ones endangering them. You find more wildlife in areas where Maasai live, whether it’s in Tanzania or Kenya.’

For many years the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF, formerly World Wildlife Fund) took the view that nature reserves should have no human inhabitants. Both now recognise the part that agro-pastoralists and hunter-gatherers play in conservation: ‘Global biodiversity goals … will be unattainable without full inclusion of indigenous [peoples] and local communities [IPLC]’. The figures speak for themselves: ‘91% of IPLC lands are considered to be in good or fair ecological condition and at least 36% of … currently identified Key Biodiversity Areas lie within IPLC lands.’

Maasai evictions in Kenya

In 1904 and 1911 the colonial authorities in Kenya – then part of British East Africa, while Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania without Zanzibar) was part of German East Africa – evicted the Maasai from 50-70% of their ancestral lands to make way for game and British hunters (who had all but exterminated the Indian subcontinent’s tigers in 50 years). In the 1950s West German animal conservationist Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael promoted the idea that Africa’s unspoilt natural environment was under threat from Africans themselves. Their film Serengeti Shall Not Die (1959), shot in Tanzania (then Tanganyika), won the 1960 Oscar for best documentary feature. This success helped Grzimek to persuade the British, and later Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere, to clear the Serengeti and Ngorongoro of their human population.

Grzimek, a veterinary surgeon in the Wehrmacht before the second world war and later director of the Frankfurt am Main zoo, was also a member of the Nazi party, so his plan could be seen as racist. Historian Guillaume Blanc points out that while agro-pastoralism is recognised as contributing to biodiversity conservation in France’s Cévennes National Park, the prevalent view is still that ‘in Africa, a nature reserve should be empty’. Blanc calls this ideal of nature without human inhabitants ‘green colonialism’: ‘The white man’s burden of civilisation in the colonial era was replaced by the Western expert’s burden of ecology.’ To this way of thinking, ‘the modern, civilised world must continue to save Africa from Africans.’

As African countries gained independence in the 1950s and 60s, many former colonial administrators found a second career in park management. The new states turned game reserves into wildlife sanctuaries to promote tourism (which generated 10% of Tanzania’s GDP before the pandemic and began imposing rules on ethnic minorities whose way of life (nomadism, hunting and gathering, nakedness) they considered incompatible with centralised government and modernity.

But although the Maasai have a strong warrior tradition and many are still semi-nomadic, they are no longer hunters: the days when a young man had to kill a lion to prove his strength are gone. Maasai herders also try to prevent any contact between their cattle and wild gnu, which carry diseases such as malignant catarrhal fever. The livestock maintain the savannah by grazing and fertilising it with their dung: in the Serengeti, whose Maasai population was evicted in 1959, rangers have to cut back the vegetation regularly to keep down the invasive plant species Bidens pilosa.

After more evictions in 1974, herbivore diversity decreased. Abel said, ‘We’re already seeing the impact of global warming: this is January, which is normally the middle of the rainy season, but it’s hardly raining at all. On top of that, we’ve got OBC. I don’t know what’s going to become of us – it’s completely changing our way of life.’

OBC belongs to Al Ali Holdings, owned by the UAE’s deputy defence minister General Mohammed Abdulrahim Al-Ali, who was named in the 2016 Panama Papers. Dubai’s emir Muhammad Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, and his son Hamdan are among its clients. On social media, OBC is silent on the recent violence in Loliondo, but has posted photos of Maasai women at a well dug by the UAE Water Aid Foundation, established by the Al-Maktoum Foundation. On 13 December 2017 it tweeted, ‘The local communities surrounding every hunting concession should benefit through the community development programmes.’