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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 07:57 GMT
Maasai strike animal balance
By Christian Fraser
BBC, Nairobi

Kenya's Maasai people, who depend on tourists visiting the Maasai Mara game park, are facing big challenges after a dramatic fall in wildlife numbers.

Animal numbers are down 43%
Visitors were already staying away due to fears of terror attacks, poor infrastructure and bad land management.

Nowhere on Earth is there such an abundance and variety of wildlife as there is in the Maasai Mara.

For years the animals and the Maasai have lived in harmony with their surroundings, but in the dispersal areas on the outskirts of the reserve, competition for land is increasing.

In the last 10 years, poaching, population growth and overgrazing have led to a 43% fall in the amount of wildlife found in the buffer zones.

Conservationists say changes are needed, but it is going to take a fundamental shift in the thinking of the local people.

Land revolution

Cows are the most important animal in the Maasai culture - they depend on them for everything.

Their milk and blood are used for food, their hide is used for mattresses and their dung is used to plaster the walls of their huts.

Maasai herder with cows
The Maasai will have different areas for cattle and wildlife
But there are too many cows in too many areas of the Maasai Mara and they are tipping the balance of a very delicate ecosystem.

Conscious of the impact this is having on tourist figures in their area, the Maasai people of Lemek-Koyiaki are planning a new way forward.

Their land, which spans 149,000 hectares, is owned and managed by over 500 Maasai families.

In recent months, they have all signed up to new land management scheme which will revolutionise the way the area is run.

Park fees

Daniel Muli, a junior elder who collected the signatures, says it is the start of a more professional management scheme they hope will make the difference.

"It won't be easy to give up our livestock," he said.

We cannot stay behind as the rest of Kenya is moving forward
Jackson Ole Looseyia
Maasai leader
"Cows are our tradition and we won't give them up. But we have decided we need to make changes. We have agreed to divide the land for the future benefit of the area.

"We will have a livestock zone and a wildlife and tourism zone and the two will be run separately... Tourism is our future. It is a vital source of income."

Every three months, each Maasai family in Mr Muli's province gets an equal share of the park fees collected.

They know that without the changes they have signed up to their money will slowly dwindle.

Cultural power

Ron Beaton, who has managed a lodge on the outskirts of the reserve since 1986, says tourism figures are a third of what they were eight years ago.

Mr Beaton believes that eventually the Maasai will go one step further than the land management scheme they have agreed and privatise the management of their land entirely.

Wild animals can be a danger to cattle
"I think privatisation will come to the group ranches in the dispersal areas," he said.

"We have seen it work in the reserve in the last two years. But it is not something that can be done overnight. You are dealing with an old generation that basically don't understand tourism and they still wield a lot of power under the cultural system .

"But the younger generation understand that good management and good economics is going to benefit them."


The Maasai look enviously towards the Mara conservancy - an area of the reserve privatised two years ago.

Here park fees, that were previously siphoned into the wrong hands, are being re-invested in the infrastructure of the park.

Wildlife are one of Kenya's main tourist attractions
The head of the non profit consortium that runs the conservancy, Brian Heath, has a great deal to be proud of.

"The fundamental changes since we took over have been the improvements to the infrastructure. The roads and the security and the rangers are now paid and better organised.

"We have seen a dramatic reduction in poaching. We have caught over 250 poachers over the last year and that has made a difference to animal numbers," he said.

According to Mr Heath, "the reason this works is that the council are prepared to reinvest in their resources. They put back 36% of the gate revenue that is collected into managing the park which doesn't happen anywhere else in the Mara."

But if privatisation is to work here, it has to have the support of the Maasai leaders and it must be run by Maasai people.

Too often they have been exploited and forgotten - to the detriment of both the land and the wildlife.

Young leaders like Jackson Ole Looseyia say it will only happen if future generations are given the opportunity to go to school - instead of being sent to look after the cattle - and are allowed to take control.

"We cannot stay behind as the rest of Kenya is moving forward. We need our young men to be running our districts. We need children to be better educated, we need politicians, we need forward thinking chiefs who can make changes.

"And most importantly we need parents to understand the benefits of education and what it can mean to our future here. There is a move in that direction - but a lot of people here still depend on their cows and their sons to guard them."

Around the campfires in the Maasai villages one senses a renaissance is indeed under way.

It needs to happen quickly though - not only for the future survival of the wildlife but also the tourism industry on which the Maasai depend.

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