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.