Manyara Ranch – Tanzania (African Wildlife Foundation), Part I: Kids, cows and cultural exchange give wildlife a hall pass

May 4, 2008

cow_crpd2.jpgThe story of our visit to Tanzania with African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) cannot begin to be told without an unjustly short overview of the Maasai in this region.

Among the most readily-recognized ethnic groups in Africa due to their distinct dress, fierce adherence to their traditional ways and residence adjacent to national parks, the Maasai are a pastoralist society with an aversion to hunting birds and game animals. In a historic context (some might say to their demise), the Maasai were de facto conservationists and their lands have held the richest wildlife populations. Maasai land was appropriated wholesale and turned the region’s most significant wildlife preserves and national parks: Amboseli, Nairobi National Park, Maasai Mara, Samburu, Lake Nakuru, and Tsavo in Kenya; Manyara, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Serengeti in Tanzania.

Conservative by tradition and skeptical from having their remarkably well-preserved land appropriated by the government, the Maasai remain significant stakeholders in land dealings near the national parks, the wellness of their communities mirror Tanzania’s challenge to balance conservation and needs of local residents.

One of the most significant projects on the Maasai Steppe in Northern Tanzania is the Manyara Ranch and the establishment of the Tanzanian Land Conservation Trust (TCLT).

Think of a figure 8. Put a square in the center and shade it in grey. The upper section of the 8 is Lake Manyara National Park. The lower section is Tarangire National Park. The grey square is Manyara Ranch, which until recently, was privately held land.

As one might suspect, wildlife in Africa is no more gifted than wildlife elsewhere… they don’t understand property lines and Manyara Ranch’s location is an obvious corridor for animal migration between the two parks. Established in the 40s as a cattle ranch, the owner willed the property to the government when he passed in the 60′s. Ensuing private lessees ran sub par businesses (and were not exactly stellar land stewards). The Tanzanian government reclaimed the area, at a crossroads as to what to do with the property.

Recognizing it as a critical wildlife corridor directly affecting wildlife in two significant national parks, the AWF spearheaded the formation of Tanzania Land Conservation Trust (the first trust of its kind in eastern Africa) and the acquisition of Manyara Ranch.

Their accomplishments since the establishment of the TLCT:

  • Manyara Ranch had long operated a primary school to educate ranch employee children (the majority of whom were Maasai). TLCT recognized several issues with the school including the inevitable human/wildlife conflict in having a school in a key wildlife corridor, not to mention the Ranch school’s profoundly dilapidated and overcrowded conditions in both classrooms and dormitories. The TLCT has built a new facility outside the wildlife corridor. To give an example of the enhancements – each child now has their own bunk, formerly packed together with 4 children to a single bunk. Overcrowding is an understatement of former conditions and the improvement is marked.

The Maasai deal in cows. They are cash, status and subject of constant conversation, but traditional pastoralist society hasn’t been completely in step with leveraging their assets for the modern day market. Ironically, in this cattle filled land, much of the beef provided in high-end restaurants is imported from Kenya and South Africa due to a dearth of high quality, reliable local beef processors and distributors. The AWF aims to change that and has established a series of projects to improve the financial rewards to the Maasai for raising livestock:

  • Creation of a livestock feedlot at Manyara Ranch to improve cattle health and yield, providing education in key sale ages of livestock.
  • Acreage set aside on the ranch for local Maasai to use for grazing during drought.
  • Construction of a local abattoir (sexy French name for the unsexy English word “slaughterhouse”) and teaching Maasai about the increased profitability of processing younger, healthier cows inside Tanzania instead of shipping their herds to neighboring countries with a fraction of the financial reward.

wmn_crpd1.jpgIn addition, AWF worked with local Maasai women to create of the Isilalei Cultural Boma, a women-run cultural tourism destination that is an income generating pursuit that educates visitors to Maasai lifestyles and traditions.

And while the aforementioned is very factual, it’s a rather boring description. We visited Isilalei. Our introduction to the women of the boma (village) was striking… greeted by a large group of tall, deeply black, beautiful women of varied ages, heads shaved, children wrapped ‘round their backs, ears and necks heavy with jewelry, bodies swathed in rich reds and radiant indigo. Standing 3 feet away with no shared language between us, I am certain that they stared at me with my pink skin, tee shirt and floppy hat in similar wonder, my visage as strange to them as theirs to me.

They welcomed us with dance, song, tours of their homes and herds, cups of tea. As the boys shot footage, I approached a group of women and children. A woman with a child on her back put a traditional thick Maasai necklace around my neck. I did an attempted rendition of their jumping dance that evoked laughter… one woman stood at my shoulder and sang the tune as I bounced and shrugged my shoulders… the children reeled. Formality falling away, the women came closer and we admired each other’s accoutrements, inspecting ear piercings, footwear and jewelry… something I suppose we women instinctually do wherever we land.

Support, education, exposure and elevation for the Maasai – just a small portion of the great things that AWF is doing in Africa… next stop, Wildlife Management Areas.

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