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The future of Ngorongoro has been the subject of hot debate among various stakeholders following a proposal by the government of Tanzania to relocate pastoralists from the district in order to conserve this important World Heritage site.

The proposal is based on claims that wildlife in the reserve faces extinction due to a sharp increase in human and livestock populations. Discussions about the proposal have caused concern among the residents of Ngorongoro who fear that they face eviction.

There is evidence that the populations of some wildlife species in the Ngorongoro Crater and its surroundings are either in decline or are not increasing. This can be attributed to habitat dynamics that are influenced by both biophysical and anthropogenic stressors. While the populations of the African buffalo, Thomson’s gazelle and the giraffe, in particular, have been in decline over the past several decades, the human population and livestock numbers have been on the increase for the past 60 years and are said to be a threat to wildlife conservation in the region. According to official data published on the district’s website, Ngorongoro District currently has a population of 174,278 and counts 483,387 head of livestock. In that part of the district that is within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), between 1959 and 2017, the population went up from 8,000 to 98,183. Claims of livestock numbers going up from 161,000 to 805,556 in that period contrast to observed data that fluctuate around 250,000 heads per year.

Livestock-wildlife competition?

As in the Ngorongoro, extreme wildlife decline has been documented in large parts of Africa in recent years, a trend that is of major concern to conservationists. The decline in animal populations has been attributed to competition for resources between wildlife and livestock. Yet, the evidence is that livestock and wildlife can coexist and fulfil their biodiversity functions. The decline in wildlife populations is, in fact, related to poverty and not to competition with livestock. It has been demonstrated that while livestock has a limited detrimental impact on wildlife populations, the human population has a greater impact on the integrity of an ecosystem. However, there are strong indications that the Maasai are natural conservationists whose way of life is compatible with wildlife conservation.

Displacement of populations – a human rights perspective

In many parts of the world national governments, private corporations, and large conservation groups have colluded in not just forcing indigenous groups off their land but pushing them out of existence altogether in the name of conservation. Evictions of pastoralists in other regions of the world are known to have led to the further impoverishment of the pastoral communities concerned while the favoured groups benefit from such conservation policies. The government of Tanzania should not attempt to forcefully evict the Maasai in favour of tourism and conservation as this will be a violation of their human rights. Furthermore, grabbing Maasai land will lead to loss of livelihoods and the eventual extinction of the Maasai way of life.

Searching for a win-win solution

Believing that the eviction of the Maasai will erode the conservation status of Ngorongoro—an important World Heritage site with a diverse ecosystem in which people, wildlife and livestock form a community—stakeholders are calling for inclusive dialogue in order to reach a consensus. National human rights organizations recently called on the government to hold inclusive talks on the ongoing crisis in Ngorongoro. This will help counter the propaganda that has been spread by some media, individuals and other institutions with a vested interest. In order to ensure the sustainability of nature and the protection of human rights, there must be consensus between all the interested parties. The eviction of Maasai pastoralists from their lands will not necessarily ensure the conservation of biodiversity but will instead engender social conflict within the local community and lead to the emergence of new conservation challenges. Long-lasting solutions are necessary for people and nature to thrive together.

Education as a tool to solve the current crisis

To address the Ngorongoro crisis, it is vital to reduce the existing pressure on the social system by tackling poverty and unemployment. In this regard, education is a crucial tool in integrating the local population into, for example, the tourism sector, or the transformation and value addition of livestock products, which will in turn provide economic benefits to the community. Education can also encourage the transfer of much of the growing pastoralist population into the manufacturing, processing and service sectors, thus helping to achieve sustainability both now and in the long term. In order to develop sound and sustainable conservation models globally, there is a need for interdisciplinary studies that include data from various pastoralist systems. Income diversification and investment in complementary strategies on the ground will ease poverty and reduce pressure on land by reducing the number of people that directly make a living out of it. It should be noted that widespread poverty is known to drive conflict and instability. Conflicts produce new forms of vulnerability and inequality, which need a policy response geared towards addressing poverty and fostering dispute prevention.

That the Maasai are natural conservationists whose way of life is compatible with wildlife conservation.

While Ngorongoro District is known to be one of the Maasai districts with the most educated professionals, there is a severe gap in education delivery within the region, particularly at primary and secondary levels. For instance, in 2014 only 40,372 children of primary school age were enrolled in the southern part of the NCA, whereas approximately 70,000 should be enrolled if school attendance is to keep pace with the rest of the district. However, education has been neglected in the region where educational facilities that could enable professional diversification are few. Formal education is an empowerment tool that contributes to increased well-being across the community. Firstly, education enables economic diversification and the establishment of independent income sources, and secondly, it provides women with the tools to make decisions about their reproductive health. This in turn has an impact on poverty levels through effective fertility control and greater investment in children’s education. Technologies bring here a further possibility to access information. Information and communication technologies provide another possibility to access information that is not in the control of male family members; they are potentially an important empowerment tool for women and thus a tool for conflict resolution.

Way forward

Diversifying the economy by establishing industries that add value to livestock products—including leather, dairy products and meat products—reduces the focus on the primary sector. It is therefore necessary to establish skills development institutions in the district under the management of the private sector or in the form of Public-Private-Partnerships in order to reduce ineffectiveness and enhance sustainability. Improving the knowledge about pastoral livelihoods among the district’s stakeholders is key to defeating attempts to modify rangeland management strategies—which have already been optimized by pastoralists historically through their deep indigenous knowledge—as they disrupt usage rules. A better primary and secondary education must be provided as soon as possible in order to diversify livelihoods, raise incomes, stimulate voluntary migration and curb population growth. This will protect human rights and promote sustainable nature conservation, empower communities, and reduce land pressure in the NCA without creating further social conflict.