A remarkable study released yesterday by wildlife experts in East Africa that details the effects of the 2007-2009 drought unintentionally and benignly predicts the end of Maasai culture.
Reading way between the numbers of surviving zebra and elephant, I see an imminent end to Maasai pastoralism, the foundation of Maasai culture.
But first to the survey itself, remarkable for its professionalism and swiftness. Led by the Kenyan Wildlife Service, assisted by Tanzanian partners and professional wildlife organizations, it represents one of the finest and most complete ad hoc aerial animal counts I’ve ever seen.
The news was not good, but it was not expected to be better.
Nearly 60% of Maasai domestic stock and almost 50% of wild herbivores were lost in the greater Amboseli/Kilimanjaro/Natron wildlife dispersal area. (Elephant were hardly effected.)
The area studied is one of the most important tourist areas in East Africa. Included is Amboseli National Park, Arusha National Park, the eastern part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) and a number of protected private as well as hunting reserves that form a huge rectangle straddling the Kenyan/Tanzanian border just southeast of the Serengeti.
It is the second most highly visited tourist area (after the Maasai Mara, Serengeti and western NCA).
But tourism is becoming less and less important. There is so much human habitation in and nearby this area: The main Arusha/Nairobi road goes right through the middle. The northern reaches of the Moshi and Arusha municipal areas are found here. The heavy agricultural areas of western Kilimanjaro and Manyara border the study area.
So the modern human/animal pressures are great, but even more importantly, within the majority of the area Maasai pastoralists live freely. There is a dynamic argument going on today in East Africa regarding the efficacy of continuing to presume that Maasai culture will remain traditional enough that large numbers of Maasai can continue to coexist with big game.
I think this survey answers that question with a definitive “No.”
Pastoralists suffered on the same scale as all the wild animals tourists come to see. Nearly 60% of the Maasai’s stock of a quarter million cows and goats was lost. Wild herbivores like wildebeest and zebra will repopulate fairly quickly. Cows and goats can’t, not because their reproductive systems are that much slower, but because their reproduction is essentially managed by the Maasai.
Unlike wild animals that die in areas where there is no grass, a large portion of the surviving Maasai stock herds was nurtured through the drought by supplemental food sources, and not sufficiently so. So the stock herd that survives is much weaker and sicker than the remaining wild animal herds.
With an abundance of grass, now, wild animals are like to have several years of massively reduced infant mortality as the populations refill the ecological holes caused by the drought. Not so with Maasai stock. The over grazing that has plagued Africa’s farm stock dispersal areas for years has taken its toll. There has been massive loss of top soil, enormous erosion and farm stock dispersal areas are not growing grass in the same healthy way the protected wild life areas are.
Moreover, the toll on the Maasai families was severe. As precious as the stock is to a Maasai pastoralist, modern necessities are pressing on his day-to-day responsibilities. School fees. Potable water. Malaria control. Tse-tse eradication.
Addressing these human necessities compromises reinvigorating the farm stock.
What I think this survey shows is that the Maasai pastoralism is no longer sustainable in the climate change era we’ve now entered. For this so-called “drought” – definitely so in the area just under study – was not as wide spread as past droughts. It was more severe in many areas, but it wasn’t as universal. That’s what drought is, today, in a climate change environment.
And that in itself provides opportunity for modern man. And while it’s hard in this short space to explain the chain of events that would lead a Maasai pastoralist to abandon his herding for a bank teller job, that’s exactly what it shows.
I really don’t know if this is good news or bad news. But it is certainly news.