Ma Lives Matter

Ma Lives Matter

The “unlawful and forced eviction” of up to 70,000 Maasai in northeast Tanzania has turned bloody violent. According to Canada’s Globe & Mail an initial tear-gas episode in early June has escalated into outright warfare resulting in deaths and injuries.

“Shocking in its scale and brutality” this tragic situation is hardly new: Maasai have been driven from their pastures almost continually since their ancestors fled the Nubians in the 4th century BC. This complex story is one of the lectures I give on safari atop the Serengeti ‘Singing Rock’ that overlooks what was once the paradise of the Maasai before they ceded it to the government a half century ago.

The current conflict has its contemporary roots in a relocation of about 4,000 Maasai from northeast Tanzania in the 1960s right before Independence. A generation later in 1992 Maasai leaders formally accepted the government annexation of about 1600 sq. miles of their prime pastures which until then had remained an unresolved ownership issue with the British colonial government.

It remains uncertain whether the Maasai elders who ceded this huge area (the entire “Loliondo” district) understood exactly what they were doing or whether there was a lot of sugar spilled into the chai.

The area borders Kenya’s famous’ Maasai Mara to the north and Tanzania’s famous Serengeti to the west. These truly spectacular quintessential rolling grassland savannahs are perfect for cattle grazing, the traditional lifeway of Maasai.

Following the 1992 “treaty” the Tanzanian government quickly formalized smaller portions of that 1600 sq. miles as hunting reserves for Arab royalty. They had regularly hunted the area during their own insufferable summers ever since first being invited down by the British long, long ago for who knows what nefarious reasons.

After sectioning out hunting reserves for the Arabs who to this day claim they were given the whole of Loliondo by the British, the government declared the remainder “Wildlife Management Areas” (WMAs).

WMAs were and remain (intentionally?) so confusing that everybody and their brother ran up to this beautiful, game rich area to plant their own kind of stake. Including a group I was involved with for seven years.

In the early 2000s I had an interest in a company that had a remote wilderness camp close to where the Arabs were hunting. The mostly Jordanian militias that constantly harassed us claimed we were infringing on their area, but our WMA certificate had clearly delineated boundaries professionally surveyed for our 50,000 acres. Nevertheless, anyone coming into our “private reserve” would get a little beep on their cell phone, “Welcome to the Emirates!”

Ours was not the only non-hunting camp in the Loliondo area. By my last count in 2008 there were six. No one was ever able, however, to get a written document from either the Arabs or the Tanzanian government that would substantiate their claims to the entire Loliondo area.

I never got inside the Arab’s perimeter despite several attempts. Those who did reported “a little city” with an airport that routinely accepted the most modern private jet aircraft as well as C47’s that would disgorge limos and Range Rovers.

Maasai development was soaring by the end of the last century. Casual stock herding became true cattle ranching. In 1992 the price of a Maasai cow was around $70. Today it approaches $2000, a testament to Maasai’s rapid development and professional use of modern animal husbandry.

So more and more Maasai are choosing to “stay on the farm,” turning the tide that began in the 1980s when every promising young Maasai fled to the city. There are more and more cattle, more and more homesteads and guess what, no more land.

Disputes grew more violent after we left the area in 2008. Serious “wars” with Tanzania security forces occurred in 2009, 2013 and 2019.

I began blogging about this controversy in 2009. I ended that first blog by saying, “My take is that this is not going to get better, soon.”

The largest number of physical fights — not as deadly perhaps but much more acrimonious and self-destructive — have actually been between Kenyan and Tanzanian Maasai ranchers.

Originally, of course, there was no border splitting the Maasai into three countries (Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania). When the rain in the south was better, the Kenyan Maasai moved their cattle into Tanzania. And vice versa. So many more ranchers much better educated and lawyered up with many, many better cows are all fighting for the same number of blades of grass that grew here when the Maasai first arrived nearly 300 years ago.

In 2018 Tanzanian Maasai prevailed in the totally powerless East African Court of Justice which affirmed their historic rights to grazing throughout the area. This has sustained an increasingly articulate and powerful movement led by several courageous, young and very professional Maasai lawyers.

I think that Covid explains much of the current battle. No one came to Tanzania for nearly two years. Maasai in this area just naturally started grazing all over the place, including into the Serengeti National Park and the Arab hunting areas.

Covid’s over, the sheiks complained. Sheiks are rich and powerful. Maasai ranchers are not.

The piles of faulty treaties, questionable agreements and coerced submissions to informal modern use of deeply historical use, all compounded by an inept government that mistakenly tried to manage the area with incomprehensible regulations has just piled mess upon mess.

Untangling it is impossible. It’s time that the Tanzanian government emulate Canada with its First Nation policy or America with its modern Athabascan Alaskan policy and recognize the historical first principle of Maasai ownership of the lands and send the Arabs back in a heat wave.

Is that likely?

Haiwezakani sana…

OnSafari: Last Drive

OnSafari: Last Drive

Many still considered him a youngster. Only 6-7 feet long he was little compared to the monsters of Lake Turkana, many photographed at over 25 feet. But he didn’t feel young, anymore.

Born on a buried sand nest on the edge of the great Mara River, he ate voraciously his first several years, swimming madly away from the large bull frogs the size of soccer balls that gobbled up little crocs by the dozens.

A few years later when he reached a couple feet long he had to eat only a few days each week. He lie motionless just under the water at the shoreline, jumping up twice his length to snatch a bird trying to flee. Soon, irony of ironies, he was hunting the frogs.

When he reached his early teens he was too big to hide any longer among the water lilies in the crags of the great Mara. He began to crawl out onto the rocks to get warmed by the sun like the big guys.

It wasn’t long ago that he started to sleep more and more. When he woke hungry he waited for a small impala coming to drink and that was only a few times every couple months. But back then he ate his hunger rather than the impala if there were any big guys around. He’d seen some buddies persist only to lose the prey to one of the Mara monsters, and sometimes even parts of their snout.

Now at a robust 7-8 feet he found himself with no appetite except twice a year. He slept the rest of the time behind a secluded and log hidden under a big leafed tamarila bush that hung over the river.

His hunger woke him the day we saw him. Perhaps, too, he felt the ripples of the big guys slipping into the river. Whatever it was he was famished.

So no longer junior he couldn’t hang back an instant longer, because the moment he started to swim again after his several month sleep his appetite grew extreme. He hurried out no longer deterred by the current, his sleek powerful body cutting through the turbulent Mara waters as if it were a still lake in the mountains.

Suddenly he was with others his size swimming but without any real direction, nothing to hunt in the deep middle of the river. Then all of a sudden he saw one of his buddies snapping at a head with horns that bobbed among three or four of his peers. The horns weren’t sharp at the end or shiny in the sun. They looked puffy and grey.

The four 7-foot crocs gnawed and slapped their jaws all over the thing but it didn’t soothe their appetites. Soon they backed off and encircled it like the spokes in a wheel.

Finally the 6-month old skeleton sunk back into the water. His appetite soared. He wriggled, challenging his peers, but they quickly swam away. He stayed right there in the middle of the river. He knew something was on the way.

By the end of our 8th day in the Serengeti, our 18th on the overall safari including Kenya we’d seen virtually everything but a rhino. Most travelers lack the inclination for spending so much time and money on an East African Safari today but it reminded me that in the old days I rarely guided a trip that was less than 23-25 days. Marlin Perkins’ first safari with supporters of the Lincoln Park Zoo in 1957 lasted two months and six days!

We intersected the migration big time two days ago in the western corridor. We spent a night at a beautiful camp on a hillside overlooking Seronera and the next morning watched a 5-mile long file of wildebeest race across the valley below. The migration has yet to reach further north, but our schedule had us the last two days in Tanzania’s far north just in case the migration had been early.

On our way up we saw our last group of lions, bringing our total to 46. The family of 13 was draped onto a very small kopjes in the middle of a vast flat prairie like bits of discarded bread dough thrown over a broken spatula. We left the rock of lions just a tad bit south of Lobo and continued moving north. Game became very scarce. The grass grew five feet high.

Our last game drive scoured the veld up to the Mara River and the Kenyan border. This is Tanzania’s Mara District, and the terrain looks almost exactly like Kenya’s Mara: gently rolling hills, verdant and bushy.

But here in Tanzania south of the great Mara it’s higher and drier than just north over the great Mara River in Kenya. There in Kenya the valley is much better watered, less rocky and has better grass.

So our last game drive was pretty scant. The drive was interrupted with a bit of excitement as we tried and failed to pull another tourist rover out of the black cotton soil in which it was stuck. (Not really a good idea to travel in these parts during the rainy season with only one vehicle. Moreover this one had a broken 4×4 system, so it was doubly doomed and got what it deserved.)

We offered the lovely couple from Barcelona a lift back to their camp but they opted to remain with their driver until another vehicle was sent from their camp. We confirmed this happened by radio before we returned to our camp later that day.

The other notable event was sighting about a dozen giant crocs in the Mara River. Generally these 12-18 foot beasts hide themselves for most of the year in a dormant state. But they know the wilde are coming. This is one of the two times in the year they eat: when the wilde come, and when the wilde go back.

So they were out on the sand banks waiting in the sun or slithering anxiously through the river, positioning themselves for the hundreds of thousands of beefsteaks that will arrive probably in the next 2-3 weeks.

We even saw four trying to devour the head of a wildebeest. We didn’t see the kill and it was possibly the skeleton of last year’s migration, pulled from its crag under water.

So it was a very soft ending to a great safari.

As Steve said to me at our last dinner in camp, it’s a bittersweet time. Everyone looks forward to going home, but no one wants to leave.

Whistling Winds

Whistling Winds

We left Ndutu after seeing another cheetah with three cubs, not sure exactly how we would go. Our destination was a lovely camp on the north end of the crater but the way you would go depends upon the dust.

The ride didn’t start out very propitiously. Although some rain had fallen the length of the dry season and its tons of dust were going to take a lot more than a few sprinkles to settle things down. Although the game viewing had been good around the lakes, as we left the area eastbound it looked like a desert trip, again.
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OnSafari: Big Mane

OnSafari: Big Mane

It was sad, but inevitable. Big Mane’s body was already headed away from the tree that cloaked his sleeping brother with shade when he stopped unexpectedly, twisted his huge head and mane and looked back at his brother. He stared for what seemed like a very long time before finally turning his head into the fierce Serengeti winds and walked away.

The two brothers had lived together ever since their mother kicked them out in a horrible battle down by the Wandu Swamp where they were born. Big Mane had tried to join a hunt that Mom and sissy were just beginning. The big female lioness attacked her son, stripping her claw across his chest. Big Mane jumped back so confused he felt nothing. But then when Mom hissed at him we snarled back and began to attack her. But he just wasn’t big enough yet. She would have killed them.

Bro had sat the fight out, but when Big Mane went running his Mom began to chase him, too.

The two boys were essentially twins, but one was robust and strong and the other much less so. Big Mane had streaks of black in his enormous puffed hairdo when he was hardly two years old. At four his mane was almost complete. In the strong eastern winds of the Serengeti at the end of the dry season he looked like a Greek God ready to strike.

Bro’s black streaks took a year longer to appear, and while also a full mane now it was often twisted up by the flies that he couldn’t be bothered to paw away and gnarled up by the prickly seeds of the hibiscus that he often walked through incautiously.

Big Mane did the killing. Bro tried to help and sometimes really did, like the time he clamped straight into the aorta of the sick buffalo while Big Mane was still clamped onto the hinds. But that was the exception. Almost always Big Mane was the striker and the closer, and with a much greater success ratio than the 1:5 suffered by most healthy lions.

Even so Bro suffered a lot more than Big Mane. When called into action however rarely, he usually was too hesitant. The wilde’s horn cut a huge slash under his right eye, so deep that when it healed the scar tissue cluttered the vision of that eye. That was about a year ago, just before the last rains began when he was so worried that as the veld greened up and the animals grew strong and less easy for Big Mane to get, that his brother might leave him altogether.

The wet season is hard for lion. Their heyday is now, when the earth looks miserable, the dust grows into monstrous whirling dervishes and dances like a laughing devil over the plains. That’s when the animals are easy for Big Mane to get.

The two brothers were resting in the shade behind a big rock beside an ephemeral pool of water when we first came upon them. The pool was drying up so quickly its edges were white with salt. Big Mane rested calmly, his head up and giant mane blowing in the wind but his eyes closed as he slept off the last of his huge belly, his last kill.

He hadn’t been proud of it. My clients couldn’t understand why the line of 40 or so zebra were hardly 50 meters away from them, stomping their feet and snorting, taunting the beasts. But they knew the brothers’ bellies were full. They needed to drink. Big Mane knew they needed to drink. It was a simple waiting game until his belly was small, again.

For the last few weeks Bro was getting anxious, again. He couldn’t control his hunger like Big Mane could. So Bro started to mess up Big Mane’s kill attempts. He raised his body before Big Mane made the jump. He sneezed when the dust blew into his bad eye. And his left hind leg was getting so weak, now, that the few times he tried to join the chase he tripped, and Big Mane instinctively aborted the hunt with an increasingly annoying worry he couldn’t quite understand.

Big Mane’s belly was big, Bro’s less so, but neither as big as it would have been with zebra. We drove over to where the vultures and jackals were cleaning up their last feast, only it wasn’t really theirs. It was a Grant’s gazelle, usually too little, too swift and to dangerous with its pointy horns for lion. Obviously a cheetah had taken it down, and obviously Big Mane had just walked over and politely given the cheetah a few seconds to get away before it became the second course.

So Bro got his meal, too. But of late Big Mane wasn’t sharing like he used to. The rains were coming. There had been a sprinkle the night before. A faint patina of green covered the desiccated veld. Things wouldn’t be as easy, anymore. Big Mane had to beef up. It could be a week between successful take-downs once the pools filled and the grasslands turned a beautiful green. He’d have to get zebra, now, not just the spoils of a little cheetah.

A massive gust of wind turned the whole plains into a dust storm, and the sound was furious. We quickly rolled up the windows of the car, which shook and rattled until it subsided. The veld slowly cleared. The cackling of the Egyptian geese and squealing of the superb starling penetrated the diminishing wind.

Big Mane was up. He walked ten feet to the edge of the pool and sipped some water then lowered on his haunches.

Bro was reluctant. Why leave the shade of the rock? The edge of the lake was probably a 100F. But he followed his brother. He didn’t sip any water. His stomach didn’t feel good.

Bro noticed a lone acacia tree off about a 100 meters. He began lumbering to it, slowly, harshly, puffs of dust brushing his sides with every footstep. Big Mane opened his eyes and turned his head to watch his brother lumber to the tree.

It took Bro forever to get to the tree, his left back foot leaving drag marks on the desiccated earth like a snake’s trail. He got there and flopped over on his side.

Big Mane stared at him for a long while remembering the great battle and Wandu Swamp, the buf takedown but then the more recent memories of failed hunts replaced older memories with anger.

He licked his chops. Gazelle was pitifully untasteful. He got up, waited a moment but Bro didn’t stir in the distance, so he turned in the other direction and walked away into the open veld scattering zebra and gazelle all over the place.

Nanyukie, Eastern Serengeti

Single Signal

Single Signal

I’m often asked but I have no favorite animal. The Serengeti doesn’t attract me because of magnificent lions or angry elephant or dainty dik-dik. No single tree or bug or animal has any attraction at all except when you think of them all together. So all together is the most wondrous, my favorite, place in the world, the Serengeti.

But the “whole” is “happiest” when it rains, and it should be raining now. Steve and I encountered good rains up north. They sent the wilde running south anxious to gorge themselves on the lower altitude grasses. But then a few days ago it all seemed to stop and here in the far eastern Serengeti near Loliondo it’s dry as a bone.
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Dawn Drive

Dawn Drive

The temperature in my tent as I woke at 5 a.m. was 62F and it would undoubtedly go down a few more degrees until just after 9 a.m. Dawn over the Serengeti doesn’t bring immediate warmth with its brilliant light. It rained last night and the evaporation into the still dry air actually cools things down a bit more.
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OnSafari: Klein’s Valley

OnSafari: Klein’s Valley

Those damned kids! They ruined dinner once again!

Mama looked at us unabashedly. It was really getting dark, around 7:15 p.m. in the Klein’s Valley that borders Kenya’s Mara to the north and the Serengeti to the west. The sun had blinked out at 6:30p and twilight doesn’t really exist in the equator, but the high stringy cumulus making the moon and Venus blur threw what light the far away sun touched them with back down to the ground. A sort of unexpected twilight.
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Not At Last

Not At Last

How times have changed! I love cliches. And the pandemic has helped refresh traditions and with that, nostalgia, and with, sentimentality and so now I’m terrified. In a few weeks I head back to my most loved Serengeti. What will it be like?

I drove my first safari vehicle into the Serengeti from Kenya’s Mara in February, 1972, and when I’m reminded that’s a half century ago I feel like putting on a toga and sitting on a park bench dribbling bread crumbs to pigeons.
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Really Lost

Really Lost

Yes, I’ve found a connection between the Serengeti and right-wing propaganda. Didn’t expect it would be so easy, but the take-home is that somebody out there – governments or dictators or god incarnate – needs to control social media. The wild west of information dissemination is destroying truth and I worry it may never be restored.
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Calculating Corona – III

Calculating Corona – III

You can’t travel for a year.

Nothing is available to suggest an older person will feel comfortable traveling very far from her home until she’s vaccinated against Covid-19, and Spring 2021 is likely the earliest this will happen. But once that sunrise arrives, you better be well prepared for what the fields will look like.

This is the final in a series of three blogs about managing your travel in the era of Covid-19. To fully understand these recommendations about your future travel, please carefully read first the previous two blogs.

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OnSafari: So Dry

OnSafari: So Dry

I have to constantly remind myself how wonderful – especially for first-timers – the dry season seems. To me it’s worse than the worst ever winter in Chicago; it’s earth challenging its own creation. What I see through the billows of dust are all the battles being lost to survive.

But the battles won are by the cats as they pick off the sick and wounded like turtles. For the cats it’s their heyday. That’s why the visitors love it so.

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OnSafari: Seronera

OnSafari: Seronera

Shelly’s pride is one of the most famously studied groups of lions in the Serengeti, probably the most photographed by professionals and tourists alike, and without doubt the most tame.

There are 19 in the pride and when we saw them a grand male and female were (literally) hanging out on a thick, low horizontal sausage tree branch together, their majesty rather compromised by various appendages and supple parts of their engorged bellies dripping from the branch like pancakes on a grill.

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OnSafari: Serengeti

OnSafari: Serengeti

I was very worried. To begin with I don’t particularly like the dry season. The enormous amounts of dust kicked up by the rovers when traveling is constantly irritating, but more generally I just don’t like seeing the beautiful veld so dry and stressed.

The silver lining is that the cats are in their heyday, picking off weakened animals like flies.

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OnSafari: Ndutu

OnSafari: Ndutu

We were ready to leave the crater at the end of the game drive when Tumaini noticed far away near the down road a huge group of wilde running down the side of the escarpment.

We stopped and turned around and with my binocs I could swear I was in the western corridor watching a couple thousand frantic animals in their endless search for better grass. But we were far, far away from that place.

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OnSafari: Dry but not Drought

OnSafari: Dry but not Drought

We finished four days and hundred of miles through the Serengeti, found the migration in multiple places and ended for our last two nights at Tanzania’s famous Crater Lodge.

It’s unusually dry. Not yet a crisis it will become so if widespread rain doesn’t develop, soon. We arrived the crater in a rainstorm, so that was obviously good news. But the day that preceded our arrival was a dust bowl.

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