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International Law News

International Law News, Fall 2022

Sudden Leap Into Darkness: The Case of Maasai Exclusion and Marginalization in Ngorongoro, Northern Tanzania

Joseph Oleshangay


  • Ngorongoro, a World Heritage Site, Man and Biosphere Reserve, Global Geopark by UNESCO, and home for over 80,000 Maasai is under siege. The pressure against the Maasai is largely influenced by the potential financial gain resting with the land.
  • The Maasai are being accused by the government, international conservation lobbyists, and wildlife hunting firms, of threatening what they have kept safely over centuries.
  • The ongoing pressure against the Maasai is largely influenced by the potential financial gain resting with the land, wildlife, and ecological biodiversity.
Sudden Leap Into Darkness: The Case of Maasai Exclusion and Marginalization in Ngorongoro, Northern Tanzania
Ozbalci via Getty Images

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Ngorongoro, a World Heritage Site, Man and Biosphere Reserve, Global Geopark by UNESCO, and home for over 80,000 Maasai is under siege. The Maasai, a Nilotic ethnic group, have moved around the Ngorongoro and Serengeti areas while conserving the land and wildlife for approximately 500 years. Over the centuries the Maasai have developed a finely honed symbiotic relationship with the local environment, which has allowed the domestication of livestock and people to coexist in a dryland, and therefore a resource-scarce environment. In addition, their local knowledge has allowed the large mammal population as well as ecological diversity to grow under their stewardship. However currently they are being accused by the government, international conservation lobbyists, and wildlife hunting firms, of threatening what they have kept safely over centuries. As history demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth.

As this article will demonstrate, the ongoing pressure against the Maasai is largely influenced by the potential financial gain resting with the land, wildlife, and ecological biodiversity, rather than the Maasai purported role in threatening nature and wildlife.

Dating back from the establishment of Tanzania’s protected areas, there is proof of acts rooted in racism and colonial superiority. The key architect of African wild sanctuaries such as in the Serengeti focused solely on the protection of large parcels of land without regard for the grievous cost to the communities who preserved them for the centuries prior. The chief relevant conservation lobbyists include the Fauna Conservation Society and Kenya Wildlife Society led by Simon and Dr. Leakey; the Frankfurt Zoological society led by Bernhard Grzimek, its founder and the longest president; Professor Pearsall and Dr. Worthington of the Conservancy; and Lee Talbot of International Union Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Ngorongoro Multiple Land Use Model is therefore a compromise between the Maasai resistance against Serengeti eviction and conservationist lobbyists poised to dispossess them of both Serengeti and Ngorongoro. It was the fear of colonial governments that attempts to dispossess the Maasai in both areas will be a point for retaliation by future African post-independence governments. There were also sentiments that the colonial government should keep its pledge to the Maasai that they will not be disturbed again following the Serengeti eviction. On the peak of Serengeti eviction, the Maasai population was around ten thousand in the whole of Serengeti and Ngorongoro.

In many of his speeches, Mr. Grzimek was quoted as saying he can find many ways and reasons to work with Joseph Stalin of the former Soviet Union and Idi Amin of Uganda as it is easier to work with dictators on matters of conservation than within standard democratic parameters. His logic was that it is easier to work without the constraints of parliament. He preferred ending his letters related to African conservation with the Latin phrase ceterum censeo progeniem hominum esse diminuendam. This may fairly translate to as ‘Incidentally; I am of the opinion that the offspring of people must be reduced.’

In 1959 the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) was established. But unlike in the Serengeti, Maasai rights were part of its founding objectives in multiple land use models founded on three key purposes (i) to recognize and promote the interest of the Maasai pastoralist, (ii) to promote ecological and wildlife conservation, and (iii) tourism. As part of the resettlement “agreement” imposed by the British colonial state, the Maasai were promised not only the right to continue to use and occupy the NCA, but to also play a key role in the management and governance of the area as well as to partake in tourism and hotel investment proceeds via the establishment of a Maasai treasury. The first Management of the NCA was composed of five Maasai and five department officials.

Now, the NCA is also home for Datooga and numerous Hadzabe families who live on the edge of Lake Eyasi. The life, livelihoods, and culture of the three indigenous groups are dependent on this land as a foundation of culture and spirituality.

World Heritage status excepting the Maasai

In 1979 Ngorongoro was accorded the status of a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO World Heritage Conventions (WHC) natural criteria. Ngorongoro was further declared a Man and Biosphere Reserve, Cultural site, and Global Geo-Park in 1981, 2010, and 2018 respectively. All this was done without prior consultation and approval of the Maasai, its primary right holders. Such categorizations have led to strict conservation policies that undermine right to livelihood for the community. Despite being the only UN agency with the mandate for all aspects of education, UNESCO policies have forced the Maasai of Ngorongoro to unprecedented illiteracy that stands at a staggering 64 percent of Maasai in the NCA. These policies mirror those of other neo-colonial powers and have led to persistent hunger and starvation along with the erosion of traditional livelihoods, and spiritual and cultural practices.

Weaponizing poverty and social services

Sixty years after independence, nothing has changed in Tanzanian conservation policy. In fact, colonial government fears over African self-rule undoing colonial legacy is not the case in Ngorongoro. Continuing the colonial regime’s pursuit to evict Maasai from the Ngorongoro crater and the marsh areas depended upon for water, the post-independence government has disposed of them without consultation.

In April of this year, Tanzanian President Suluhu ran a systematic media campaign that echoed the former statements made by Mr. Grzimek. For fear of public criticism, the President publicly warned against allowing the NCA Maasai access to media. It is therefore fair to argue, the old colonial prejudices still exist in the form of black elites, a continuation of the former white colonialists’ attitudes. In February some members of parliament urged the government not to engage the Maasai, but rather to deploy tanks to force them out. Three months later, the military was deployed to dispossess the Maasai of 1500 square kilometers of land in Loliondo from behind the barrel of guns.

When the President publicly addressed the matter last year, the government responded six days later, in the form of public notice. Government primary schools, dispensaries, a police station, churches, and a mosque were labelled as red-listed for demolition; allegedly for being built without a permit. In March 2022, the government issued a letter targeting several key life-saving services as well as withdrawing funds from NCA coffers. It appears that government targeting of NCA services, as well as a transfer from a NCA relief fund secured from the International Monetary Funds to other districts, is the result of stakeholder pressure to make life unbearable for the Maasai in Ngorongoro.

Subsequently, the government suspended the operation of Flying Medical Doctors, a not-for-profit organization that was operating small flights to provide medical emergency services throughout Maasailand since the 1970’s.

False narratives

To justify its eviction plan, the government has indulged in unprecedented conspiracies and propaganda designed around carefully fabricated false narratives. Initially, the government was blaming the Maasai for a rise in the human and livestock populations, and rampant settlement which they argue have surpassed the carrying capacity of the area and therefore threaten biodiversity and tourism. However, it appears that the government exaggerated the data as Ngorongoro remains with a population density of ten persons per square kilometer, far below the national average of 71 persons per square kilometer, spread over sixty million inhabitants. Ngorongoro also attracts 70 percent of all tourists visiting Tanzania. The government further claims that the Maasai have no ancestral land in Tanzania similar to any other Tanzanian tribes. It frames the eviction narrative in humanitarian rhetoric claiming that it will save the Maasai from undignified living conditions, the fact which is entirely manmade and functions with government complicity.


Like Ngorongoro and Serengeti, Loliondo was inhabited from time immemorial by the Maasai community. They have remained through colonial and post-independence Tanzania its sole occupants. When Loliondo was made a Game Controlled Area in the 1950’s thousands of Maasai continued living without restriction throughout 4000 square kilometers. Within the former Game Controlled Area, the government established the headquarter of the Ngorongoro District as there were no legal restrictions on settlement within the former Game Controlled Area. Under law, hunting leases may be entered within Game-Controlled Area without affecting community land holding.

In 1978, following villagization programs, several villages in the area were registered and issued with Village Land Certificates. In 1993, the government entered a hunting concession lease for the land with an Emirate Royal Family. The hunting concession was secured contrary to law to the Otterlo Business Corporation, an entity established to oversee the interests of the Emirate Royal family, which has enjoyed close relationship with powerful figures in successive governments while also being publicly accused of bad dealings.

In 2009, a new law was enacted that formally separated human settlements from the Game Controlled Area. The law forbids the continuation or commencement of game control areas existing on village land. By the spirit of the new law, in case of an intersection between a Game Controlled Area and the village land, then the latter shall prevail. The government sought to qualify Loliondo as a land devoid of people to qualify as a Game Control Area under the new law by evicting Maasai. The law required the minister to review former forty-eight Game Controlled Areas to assess if any qualify under the new law and this should be made within twelve months of the law’s enactment, otherwise, they would hitherto be deemed as repealed. On repeated occasions in 2009, 2014, and 2017 there were attempts for resettlement over a swath of 1500 square kilometers. Not a single Game Controlled Area has been reviewed as required by the law for the last thirteen years making the purported Pololeti Game Controlled Areas that affect 1500 square kilometers in Loliondo accordingly illegal.

In early June 2022, without prior notice to village authorities and their occupants, the government deployed the military to enforce annexation of the village land to forcibly establish a game-controlled area. Before the commencement of the operation, political leaders were allegedly summoned for consultative purposes as a rouse for abduction, detention, and ultimately, the issuance of apparently fabricated charges.

Thereafter, a violent operation led by the Inspector General of Police and immigration department left many people homeless, livestock killed, and hundreds of people arrested for allegedly being Kenyan. Thousands of Maasai, all of whom were Tanzanian citizens were forced to flee the country amid insecurity. Still, thousands of the Maasai who fled the country that day fear returning home amid threats of arrest for crossing the border to Kenya illegally.

Subsequently, the government declared the contested land a Game Controlled Area in violation of the Wildlife Conservation Area Act and in contempt of an East Africa Court of Justice Ruling in 2018. Indeed, the government annexed the land before the final verdict of the Court was issued, initially set for judgment on 22 June before being postponed to September 2022.

Why all the fuss?

The hunting business is very beneficial to the public officers responsible for issuing concession licenses. As there are no rules clearly defining the process for granting licenses, the process is ripe with potential for misuse and outside (frequently nefarious) influence. Therefore, claiming a threat against conservation efforts is often a quick means to securing public support for licensing.

The now protected areas in East Africa, such as Serengeti, Maasai Mara, Mkomazi, Manyara, Tarangire, and many others were historically home to the Maasai. They have great potential for conservation and boast a healthy abundance of wildlife species. This was only possible because the Maasai will not feed on the wild meat, and they have established moral rules against wildlife killings. According to their rules, one may only collect dry tree pieces or cut a few branches for medicine or other usages. This emphasis on maintaining the natural state has assisted in a great deal of ecological preservation and protection of wildlife. The Maasai do not protect nature or wildlife for the sake of financial gain as the government appears to pursue, but they do so as a moral obligation imposed on them by their deity, Enkai (God).

In conclusion, while propaganda is currently directed against the alleged Maasai threat to wildlife, it is important to take a longer view and recognize that perhaps the larger threat is the enormous impact that forced evictions and commercial hunting have on the ecosystem.