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Humans Lose Ground as Africa Focuses on Animals : Masai: Western conservationists evicted them from their land to create the Serengeti National Park. Now, while animals flourish, the people are suffering.

April 18, 1993|Raymond Bonner | Raymond Bonner, a journalist who lived in Africa from 1988 to 1992, is the author of "At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa'a Wildlife," published this month by Knopf

WARSAW — "This is what we gave up!" Kasiaro ole Parmitoro said as we drove through Serengeti National Park, in northern Tanzania and one of the most spectacular wildlife ar eas in the world. He exclaimed with wonderment as the Jeep passed herds of topi and hartebeest; gazelle leaped across the road in front of us, and we saw a klipspringer perched like a ballet dancer atop a rock. "My father used to tell me the beauty of Serengeti, but I didn't know it myself," said Kasiaro, a Masai elder.

Kasiaro's father and grandfather had lived in the Serengeti--the word comes from the Masai siringet, meaning "extended place"--and he had grown up on its periphery, watching minivans loaded with foreigners stir up dust as they sped past his village and into the park. But until I asked him to accompany me, he had never entered the sweeping plains that had once belonged to his ancestors. It is thought that the Masai began grazing their cattle in the Serengeti about the middle of the last century; they were evicted in the 1950s.

After several hours driving, as we crossed the Seronera River where hippos were submerged, Kasiaro, a quiet man with sparkling eyes, had an idea: "Why didn't they give us part of this?" He laughed lightly, "Why couldn't they divide it--give us the right side of the road, and they take the left?"

Getting the Masai out of the Serengeti was one of the first major battles Western conservationists fought in Africa. There were fewer that 50,000 Masai in an area larger than Connecticut, but the conservationists--from the United States, Britain and Germany--were convinced that the pastoralist Masai and their cattle would destroy the environment.

It escaped the Westerners that, if the Masai were such bad environmentalists, why was this land so pristine, so worthy of making into a park. Instead, the conservationists operated on the theory that parks and people should be separated--a line should be drawn, with the animals on one side and the people on the other. This is the principle that conservationists are now beginning to doubt, believing the best chance for preserving wildlife comes when the wildlife and people are integrated.

The Western conservationists put intense pressure on the British colonial government that controlled Tanganyika, and the government eventually "persuaded" the Masai elders to sign a document giving up their rights to 4,800 square miles, which became the Serengeti National Park.

"We were told to sign. It was not explained to us," Tendemo ole Kisaka, who is thought to be one of the only surviving signers, told me. Well into his 70s now, he walks with the aid of two long poles. None of the elders knew how to read or write, he said. He grinned and added, "You white people are tough."

In exchange for giving up the Serengeti, the Masai were allowed to remain in Ngorongoro, an eastern portion of the Serengeti ecosystem. The heart of Ngorongoro is a volcanic crater that arose out of eruptions 5 million to 10 million years ago. Its 35-mile rim is almost perfectly symmetrical, and the walls, forested with dark green lichen-draped acacia trees and tangled shrubs, slope 2,000 feet down to the crater floor, a 100-square-mile bowl. It is a natural zoo, alive with flamingos balancing in the shallow water of Lake Magadi, lions sunning, giant rhinos and elephants and tiny bat-eared foxes.

The Masai were assured their interests would be protected as much as the wildlife would be. But while the wildlife flourishes, the Masai have suffered.

First, in 1974, the government evicted the Masai living on the crater floor.

"Very early in the morning, about 5 o'clock, three trucks full of field force soldiers stopped close to the boma and told the people, 'Bring everything out. We are going to burn the houses,' " recalled Tate ole Rokonga, as he stood where his village, which included 12 elders and 40 warriors, had once been. All the Masai cattle were driven out of the crater. The Masai were dumped on the crater rim.

These days, it is easier for a foreigner to enter the crater than it is for a Masai. A Masai must have a special permit, while, each year, 150,000 tourists are ferried in and out of the crater in more than 20,000 vehicles. It is hard to imagine they are not causing greater environmental damage and disturbing the wildlife far more than the fewer than 2,000 Masai ever did.

Even outside the crater, the Masai's activities are severely restricted--in the interest of preservation and tourism. They are not allowed to build permanent structures, which means they must forever live in their dung huts. And they are forbidden to grow any crops. Special police operations enforce this prohibition, and villagers have been arrested, fined, even jailed, for planting a few vegetables.

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