Maasai History and Ngorongoro

The Maasai people are a remarkable pastoral people who have, for hundreds of years, lived with their cattle on the rangeland, co-existing and interacting with wildlife.

Because of their expertise in management and conservation of resources for wildlife and livestock, the Maasai ecosystem is home to spectacular assemblages of African wildlife populations.

This is in contrast to most of the rest of the world where the average size of wildlife populations has plummeted more than two-thirds in less than 50 years, according to the WWF (World Wildlife Fund).

"Traditional indigenous territories encompass around 22 per cent of the world's land surface and they coincide with areas that hold 80 per cent of the planet's biodiversity. There is increasing recognition that the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples contain the most intact ecosystems and provide the most effective and sustainable form of conservation." From Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in her Statement to the UN General Assembly.

In the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which Maasai call their ancestral home, Maasai ecological strategies and practices are being dismantled by external pressures, such as neo-colonial racist policies restricting the use of their land, loss of land through encroachment by farmers surrounding the area, and land grabs by foreigners.

As years passed,

a) They have lost crucial dry season pastures in the Oldupai Gorge, Laetoli, Ngorongoro Crater and the Northern Highlands Forest Reserve;

b) There are severe restrictions on grass burning to control ticks and unwanted grass species;

c) Cultivation has been banned, in spite of the demands and wishes of NCA pastoralists that cultivation be legally permitted in order to ensure food security for them, with studies showing that limited cultivation in the NCA has not had adverse impacts on the natural environment nor on wildlife.

The NCA residents saw these restrictions as attempts to force them out of their home, i.e. to make their life so difficult that they would have no other choice but to leave the area.

The area was designated as a wildlife reserve by the British colonial administrators when it became a national park. However it is part of Tanzania’s MaasaiLand and the Maasai have lived in this area for centuries. The area became a multiple land use area in which Maasai had rights to the land and it’s resources in exchange for surrendering the Serengeti. However, the administrative powers that were vested in the Board of Trustees of the national parks were exercised in such a manner which encroached on the land and resource rights of the pastoral communities. The alienation of pastoral lands has generally been a result of the misconceptions about the Maasai modes of pastoral land and resource use.

Even so, the Maasai community has continued to maintain significant practices for the conservation of Tanzania's wildlife ecosystems and livestock. A paper by Kokel Melubo -- (2020) Why are wildlife on the Maasai Doorsteps? Insights from the Maasai of Tanzania -- goes into detail explaining how close the Maasai are to the environment, much closer than any western expert conservationist would be.

The parts of Maasailand (in Tanzania and Kenya) -- which are still left with wildlife -- have been populated by Maasai for centuries. Traditionally, Maasai children started learning about the ecosystem when they were old enough to herd livestock, starting with small sheep or goats, and working up to calves, then cows as they got older. The Maasai knew all the plants and types of soil and all of the aspects of the environment needed to maintain a healthy environment for livestock and wild animals.

Modern education is starting to change this, but as long as Maasai have cattle (Maasai describe themselves as 'people of cattle' -- Iltungana loo ngishu), the old knowledge of raising cattle and maintaining the environment sustainably -- without disturbing the wildlife -- will stay in place.

Before they were pressured to move from the Serengeti to settle in the more confining Ngorongoro highlands, they moved during the change in seasons, seeking better resources when water and pasture dried up. In the rainy season they lived in the lowland plains between Ngorongoro crater and the Serengeti plateau, and in the dry season they sought grazing land in the highlands or near the sources of streams. The vegetation is complex consisting of montane forest and grasslands in the highlands to semi-arid woodlands and grasslands in the escarpment and in the plains. It is this physico-ecological diversity which produces both spatial and temporal grazing, water and mineral resources that result in the extensive migration of both wild and domestic animals that underpins pastoral production (Lane, 1994).

Other essential Maasai practices include:

1. controlled grass burning to kill ticks and tsetse fly, and to control bush encroachment from non-native plant species such as Daturu stramonium, Bidens schimperi and Gutenbergia cordifolia.

2. having protocols that set aside drought reserves and

3. avoiding the wildebeest calving season to avoid disease.

The pastoralists also move constantly to avoid large herds of wildebeest which carry a viral disease, Malignant Catarrh Fever (MCF), which is fatal to cattle. The Maasai have done this without substantial change for over two centuries, while pastoralism has been practised in the area for at least seven millenia. Ngorongoro has, therefore, been an area where people coexisted with wildlife for thousands of years, accommodating both long before it was classified as a multiple land use area.

“We conserve nature because we live in it, because it is our life, it is the life of our cattle. The conservation people [referring to NCAA] do it because it gives them employment, because they get money from the white men [tourists]. For them, if the white man does not bring money, it is the end of the story. For us, even if the white man does not bring money we will still preserve the environment. We did it before the white men came. We do because it is our lives, it is the life of our ancestors and our unborn children.” …. (elder man - Case Study 4 Tanzania).

The Maasai also practiced subsistence cultivation for nutrition when times were difficult.

Decades before Homewood and Rogers wrote Maasai Ecology in 1991, which showed no wildlife-pastoralist conflict, the management of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area believed there was a conflict between wildlife values and pastoralist activities.

In 1980 the NCA authorities sought to expel the pastoralists, but objective documentation of environmental degradation wasn’t available to prove that an eviction was necessary.

It is ironic that, at the same time as the proposed eviction, UNESCO acknowledged the importance of both wildlife and Maasai, and their interaction, and declared Ngorongoro Conservation Area a World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve.

In 1990, the issue of Maasai occupance was still undecided. The studies of Homewood and Rogers (2004) showed that the Maasai added to the values of Ngorongoro, rather than detracting from them.

Ngorongoro symbolises a growing pattern of land use conflict between indigenous and capitalists all over the world. Questions about the nature of development, the tradeoff between productivity (maximum resource extraction) and sustainability (subsistence), and the future of traditional ways of life, all occur in other places.

Because of the nature and character of the NCAA and the manner in which it has exercised its powers, conflicts have intensified with the resident pastoralists. The neglect by the NCAA of its responsibilities to the Maasai pastoral economy; its increasingly restrictive measures against grazing and cultivation; its repressive and punitive measures against the local population; and its increasingly evident failure to stem the tide of poaching from within its ranks; and environmental degradation caused by land and resource uses which affect both wildlife and pastoralist interests -- such as the effect of big hotels and rampant tourism on the NCA ecosystem -- all show that the NCAA has failed to fulfill its dual mandate of conservation and pastoral development.

Since the 1900’s the sustainability of the Maasai in the savanna has been questioned. Although non-pastoral people thought that keeping cattle was a ‘crazy’ livelihood, the possible availability of the monumental numbers of wildlife and open land in Maasailand may have been the real motivation for opportunists to falsely question their sustainability.

The NCA authorities often failed in good conservation practices. Rhinoceros, which were found in the hundreds in the 1950s, numbered only fifteen in 2010, mostly due to poaching. Today there are only 26 black rhinos. There is evidence that the poaching was an inside job, covered up by the NCA authorities.

This is not the first time the NCAA wanted to evict the Maasai from the NCA. In 2006, the Tanzanian government gave an ultimatum to Maasai communities living inside Ngorongoro, around 60,000 people at that time, to vacate the area by end of the year.79

Conservationists and NCA authorities claim that wildlife habitat and Maasai and pastoralist development in Ngorongoro Conservation Area are changing, threatening the "Outstanding Universal Value" promoted by UNESCO. However, there has been more continuity than change. NCA continues as a relatively successful multiple land use area. Habitat changes are minimal; wildlife numbers fluctuate with no overall decline, in sharp contrast to the Maasai Mara in Kenya, where most medium and large mammal species populations have declined by over 50%.

Today, the Maasai and fellow pastoralists occupy less than two thirds of their former territory and there are indications that this will go on dwindling. Wildlife conservation policies, characterised by the creation of exclusive wildlife protected areas, and state-sponsored agriculture - both large and small scale - and commercial ranching have been responsible for this plight of the pastoral peoples in dryland ecosystems of East Africa.

The multiple land use concept -- as understood and practised by the NCAA -- is founded upon the denial of native rights to the resources therein, the denial of the time-tested rationality of their land and resource use patterns and the denial of their ‘organic’ knowledge of the NCA environment and its resources.

The environment of the Serengeti + Ngorongoro area is largely man-made: over thousands of years it has been moulded by the interaction between pastoralists, domestic stock and the wildlife. Extensive herding of domestic stock, grass fires and the grazing of wild ungulates have together created the vast grassland regimes which today hold some of the world’s greatest concentrations of wildlife. There is little in national parks and nature reserves which is ‘intact’ and ‘natural’, in the sense of absence of human influences in these areas. There are national parks and nature reserves precisely because a very important component of those ecosystems - the pastoral communities - were forcibly expelled from those areas.

Pastoralism and pastoral land and resource use is completely compatible with wildlife conservation both in principle and in practice. It is this compatibility which explains the presence of wildlife in pastoral lands of East Africa. There is no scientific basis for continuing to keep pastoral land and resource use out of wildlife protected areas such as national parks and, in particular, in some parts of the NCA which are crucial to livestock. The argument that Maasai cattle might destroy some of the most important natural resources and historical sites in the NCA is baseless as it is refuted by history itself: They have not destroyed these natural resources and historical sites in the hundreds of years before the first conservationist saw the area and they cannot do so now.


The Ngorongoro District is situated in northwest Tanzania, framed by Serengeti National to the west, the Kenyan border to the north and the Rift Valley to the east and south – including Lakes Natron and Eyasi. With a size of 14,036 km, it is situated in the Arusha region, one of the most important areas for wildlife tourism and foreign revenue source of the country.

Maasai culture and social and economic structures are robust, adaptable and resilient. The Maasai maximized the use of potentially abundant but unpredictable rangelands, while often facing the risks of disease and drought. They have seen periods of famine, drastic alienation of territory, catastrophic human and cattle epidemics and stock losses.

Maasai today still practice living in harmony with wildlife, as they did more than a century ago. It is still their taboo to consume wildlife meat, kill animals that are not harmful, kill anything without a good reason, and to cut down live trees. They only killed lions as a rite of passage to warrior status, or if the lions were a threat to their cattle. But they don’t do this now because their partnership with the NCAA depends on it. They lived side-by-side with other herbivores, and other wildlife. Their cows and wild zebras often graze side by side, and giraffe are often seen wandering by the Maasai bomas.

The Maasai started coming into Ngorongoro Crater in the early 1800s. The Crater is an extinct volcanic crater measuring between 10 and 12 miles (16 and 19 km), Its floor is mostly grassland, extremely rich in wildlife. Elephants, black rhinoceroses, leopards, buffalo, zebras, warthogs, gnu (wildebeests), hyenas, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles, and lions can be seen there. This includes the popular “Big 5” animals: lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo. The Maasai cattle grazed alongside the other herbivores, without impact to any wildlife.

Their nomadic lifestyle and stewardship of their land began to change, however, when the Europeans came to Ngorongoro and, indeed, to Africa.

Sometime in the 1880s, Italians had brought their cattle to Ethiopia, during their attempt to conquer it; and these cattle brought the disease Rinderpest, which spread over the Sub-Saharan region and decimated 90% of the vast Maasai cattle herds. Starvation ensued; making the Maasai more susceptible to smallpox and, consequently, two-thirds of the Maasai died.

Smallpox was carried by caravan traffic, which had grown up with the establishment of colonialism. Another factor of these smallpox epidemics was the increased mobility of people who were searching for food and security.

The Rinderpest had removed the Masai and their cattle from the Ngorongoro crater in the 1890s. About the same time, two German brothers set up a farm in the crater where they held shooting parties to entertain their German friends. They also tried to drive out the wildebeest.

In 1910, retired President Theodore Roosevelt spent a year in Africa hunting and he sent home more than 10,000 wildlife carcasses, calling Africa “the greatest of the world’s great hunting grounds.” This set the world’s perception of Africa as a primeval landscape teeming with wildebeest and elephants, lions, and zebras. Later, the hunters became the founders of the great national parks that still cover much of the continent.

In the wake of Rinderpest, and with almost no pastoralists left to fight, the Germans and British secured control of Tanzania and Kenya.

In 1904 and 1911, The British Colonial Government evicted the local people to make room for British settlers to the region, reducing Maasai lands by 60%

Mortality from Rinderpest among buffalo, hartebeest, and antelope populations was also high.11 This allowed the low brush to thrive, creating an ideal habitat for the tsetse fly. The tsetse fly carries sleeping sickness, a disease that is often endemic among wild ruminants, which are somewhat immune, but can cause widespread epidemics of sleeping sickness among cattle and humans.

Before rinderpest arrived, the cattle herds kept by pastoralists had always stopped the spread of tsetse by grazing the bush. But when the rinderpest decimated the cattle, the woody vegetation grew fast. So after the rinderpest, when wild animal populations revived much faster than the cattle, the tsetse flies quickly spread, keeping humans and their cattle, which had previously roamed free, from returning to graze down the bush.

John Reader, author of Africa: A biography of the Continent claimed European colonists “just assumed that the country they found packed with animals and empty of people was the way that Africa had always been.”

Julian Huxley, head of UNESCO and a founder of the World Wildlife Fund, described the East African plains as “a surviving sector of the rich natural world as it was before the rise of modern man.” But this is a myth.

When Conservationists created Africa’s great national parks they didn’t realize these regions were where the rinderpest had recently destroyed human society. Subsequently they decreed that humans and their cattle had to be excluded at all costs.

In 1928, the British Administration designated Ngorongoro Crater as a closed game reserve. Although hunting and cultivation was prohibited; local people were allowed to live and conduct other customary land use practices.

Further land grabs took the most fertile lands from the Maasai in the 1940s. Because of their nomadic life, their climate-driven mode of land and resource use, Maasailand was thought by settlers to be uninhabited, barren or under-utilised.

The National Park Ordinance of 1948 (implemented in 1951) created the Serengeti National Park. While this Ordinance maintained the principle that local communities could continue to use and occupy their customary lands within national parks, it also had teeth. Over a decade, conservation measures became increasingly strict: subsistence hunting was forbidden, human settlement and movement of domestic stock subjected to multiple restrictions, the use of fire was strictly regulated and - in 1954 - all cultivation in the Park was prohibited, even though only a small area of the Park was then under cultivation. After all these restrictions, the local pastoralists and cultivators reacted strongly and mobilised the support of the provincial and district administration for their stand against the park authority.

The cultivators gained solidarity with the pastoralists, arguing that a restriction on cultivation was only the beginning, and they were concerned that the next step would be restrictions on grazing, watering and salt licks for cattle. They resisted against expulsion following the attempts by the Park Trustees to implement their policy. The ‘unexpected’ resistance alarmed the Park Trustees and caused them to take a much harder conservationist line seeing that ‘the continued presence of the Maasai and their stock within a national Park was irreconcilable with the purpose of a Park’.

Several Maasai elders were interviewed, and they talked of violence orchestrated by police and park wardens against the Serengeti Maasai before their eviction. They were literally faced with a fait accompli: to either sign on the dotted line or be forcibly evicted; and, in fact, the evictions had started even before the Agreement was signed.

Because of the powerful interests involved, debate was initiated in government circles which led to the publication in 1956 of a Government White Paper recommending the breaking up of the Park into three smaller parks: 1. the Western Serengeti, consisting of the bush country west of the Serengeti plains; 2. the Ngorongoro Crater and the Northern Highlands Forest Reserve; 3. and the Empakaai Crater. These would be set aside exclusively for wildlife protection while the rest of the original Park which became the NCA - a multiple land use category of protected area which allowed wildlife conservation to be pursued along with pastoralism, cultivation and tourism.

However, the government rejected the recommendation of the Nihill Committee that the Ngorongoro and Empakaai craters be set aside as nature reserves within the NCA. The language of the Government Sessional Paper No. 5 of 1956 was unambiguous on this subject: “…The proposals for nature reserves in the two crater floors were not acceptable. They envisage the eventual exclusion of the Maasai from these two areas. It was not thought proper to seek Maasai consent to a relinquishment of their rights in the two craters at the same time as they were giving up established rights within the Park itself; whilst to seek their removal gradually, as the Report recommended, was contrary to the need to find a clear-cut and final solution now.“

The Maasai leaders signed a statement agreeing to “move ourselves , our possessions, our cattle and all our other animals out of this land by the advent of the next short rains.” In turn, the colonial government solemnly pledged that the Maasai would be: “permitted to continue to follow or modify their traditional way of life subject only to close control of hunting” in the NCA. The Maasai community would also be compensated in the form of provision of water supplies in their new home.

The governor of Tangayika under the departing British administration declared:

I should like to make it clear to you all that it is the intention of the Government to develop the [Ngorongoro] Crater in the interest of the people who use it. At the same time the Government intends to protect the game animals in the area, but should there be any conflict between the interest of the game and the human inhabitants, those of the latter must take precedence.

The first management plan described the objectives of conservation:

As the Ngorongoro conservation area is not only the home of the Masai resident therein but is also a source of water for neighbouring areas, an asset of national value and an area of international interest, the natural resources (including water, soil, flora, fauna, and domestic animals) must be conserved and developed in such a way that they may provide a maximum sustained yield of products for the benefit of the humans dependent thereon without causing deterioration in the habitat and so maintaining the area's unique tourist attraction, aesthetic value and scientific interest.

The qualifying clause of not causing habitat deterioration set the limits on development practices.

But it didn’t take long for the Government to withdraw this pledge.

In 1969 the Ngorongoro Conservation Area became the responsibility of the new Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism (established in 1970) who emphasised conservation at the expense of human interests.

In 1975, the Maasai were forbidden to settle inside the Ngorongoro crater.

In 1979 the NCA became a UNESCO World Heritage Site … An overwhelming majority of residents mentioned the loss of access to prime grazing areas as being important to them following the designation of the NCA to the WHS (World Heritage Site) list. To make way for protection of wildlife and tourism, the community has lost more access to substantial areas of high quality grazing areas in the NCA, such as the Ngorongoro, Empakai and Olmoti craters, the Entim Olturoto forests well as the Oldupai and Alaitole archaeological sites.

In 2006, the government told the Maasai communities living inside Ngorongoro - about 60.000 people, to leave by the end of the year. But they didn’t leave.

During 2007-2008 - A volcanic eruption of 0l Doinyo Lengai - Mountain of God - occured on 4 September 2007, emanating an ashen steamy plume almost 20km high. Livestock fell sick and died when they tried to eat vegetation covered in ash. Or they starved to death. Some families of nomadic pastoralists relocated to other villages. Up to 5,000 people moved out of the area. Other people suffered a food crisis.

In 2008, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN received reports and complaints that, in response to the Decisions of the World Heritage Committee, that the State Party would plan to forcefully evict resident populations from the property. The State Party denied this. It was noted that while the growing impacts of the resident populations on the values and integrity of the property are of concern, the General Management Plan has the dual objectives of maintaining a balance between nature conservation and peoples’ needs. Any relocation needs to consider prior, free and informed consent, the exact interaction between human use and natural values in a dynamic ecosystem, the appropriateness of alternative land and facilities offered, land tenure security, as well as possible competition and conflict with other resource users in the new areas.

The 2009 Ngorongoro Wildlife Conservation Act had the effect of placing new restrictions on human settlement and subsistence farming in the NCA. These reforms are being implemented through coercion, with local resistance to the process being met with a heavy hand by the central state

In the same year, 2009, there was another drought, and the cattle losses in Nainokanoka, Sinon and Sendui villages ranged from 71% to 83% and 86%. The restrictions placed as a result of the new Wildlife Conservation Act had magnified the impact of the drought.

In 2010, the NCA purchased land in Jema in Oldoinyo Sambu where 119 Maasai residents willingly relocated for cultivation. Most residents interviewed noted that the area was too small, too remote, too erratic in terms of climate and rainfall and unproductive, and lacked infrastructure such as schools and healthcare centres. Only 77 of the 223 of relocated people were still at the site in 2016 and the rest returned to NCA. Later, when disputes with neighbors who claimed Jema was theirs, more residents considered moving back to the NCA. This shows the strong determination of the NCA Maasai to remain in the area.

In December 2016, the NCA headquarters ordered the pastoral residents to restrain from grazing and watering of livestock in the Ngorongoro crater. A few days later, the Deputy Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism suggested for a complete prohibition on grazing in the Ngorongoro, Empakaai and Olmoti craters.

In 2017 the December restriction was enforced, the three craters were closed to grazing. In addition, 2017 was also a drought year. As a result, a loss of 70% of livestock was reported in the NCA zone. This loss of livestock has significantly weakened their pastoralist economy and aggravated poverty levels.

The Maasai were denied access to many of their richest pastures without commensurate compensation. Unable to utilize essential grazing and salt licking areas increasingly confined cattle to unproductive areas and forced people to abandon traditional movement patterns.

With the growing wildebeest population and the increasing territory they cover, more and more of NCA Maasai have to keep their herds from the short grass plains during the wet season for longer periods of time. This has implications for Maasai welfare (2015).

The resident pastorist perception is that problems of human subsistence arise largely as a result of administrative restrictions on their ability to make full use of the NCA. The ban on even small-scale cultivation, exclusion from critical grazing and watering areas, and the ban on burning. the NCAA perception is that Maasai subsistence problems arise as a direct result of an outmoded and inefficient way of life and of resource use, coupled with an inexorably increasing population. The general feeling is that if the Maasai cannot make a satisfactory living under current circumstances in NCA they should move elsewhere.