Changes in ecosystem of humans and land in Eastern and Southern Africa are focus of CPC study

Originally posted December 2009


In the iconic landscape of East Africa where lions roam across a vast green plain, the native people have named it Siringet, meaning “endless plains where the land meets the sky.”

But for Tanzania's Maasai tribe, the Siringet, much of what is now known as the Serengeti National Park, no longer stretches towards the horizon. Gone are the days they wandered across infinite grasslands as pastoralists and nomads for centuries.

These days, the Maasai are constrained to a limited space outside the Serengeti due to conservation concerns, which in turn has ties to the tourist industry and the larger national economy.

“The presence of a park attracts all sorts of things such as tourists and tour companies… also infrastructure, roads, and jobs,” said Paul Leslie, a Carolina Population Center Fellow and UNC anthropology professor who has done extensive research in Africa. “It gives the government a vested interest in preserving the wildlife and the habitat beyond just the abstract notion of biodiversity.”

Tourists come to the Serengeti in flocks, staying at luxury lodges where a night’s stay can cost up to several hundred dollars. And though it is a land that the Maasai once called home, for Tanzania it is big bucks for the economy.

But in the Serengeti, the Maasai can no longer live solely off their traditional lifestyle of herding their livestock as their population continues to grow. Livelihood changes such as farming and labor migration have become a means of survival for the majority of the population. They benefit little from a tourism industry that grossed over $1.3 billion in 2008.

“They are sold as part of the experience,” said Leslie, who has worked with the Maasai for almost a decade as part of his ongoing research in East Africa. “They’re not benefiting from tourism very much. Their image, their rusticness has been taken over and exploited. They’re getting the raw end of the stick.”

 Leslie and his current project, Dynamics of Parks as Agents of Change in Eastern and Southern Africa, is an extrapolation from his previous research with African tribes’ livelihood changes.  The study is more expansive with collaborative comparative research conducted among different sites in Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, comparing and contrasting how parks and protected areas are agents of change among the ecosystem, including the local people, and the consequences that come with it. The study is funded by the National Science Foundation.

masaai woman.jpg“These changes need to be explained and understood because they have consequences for all sorts of things; the people, the social organization, demography and health and also implications for the landscape, the land cover and the biodiversity,” Leslie said.

Yet for a long time humans were rarely considered a part of the nature’s ecosystem by scientists, who opt instead to view the grasslands as something pristine and timeless rather than lived in by humans for thousands of years.

“People are an integral part of the ecosystem,” Leslie said. “It wouldn’t be like it currently is if there weren’t humans. There would be different proportions of grasslands among other things. If you throw humans out of the picture, you’re going to change the ecosystem.”

“What is outside the parks is just as crucial as what is inside the park for the animals,” Leslie said. “Both are crucial for the whole ecosystem.”

Yet conservation policy is deeply entrenched in the notion that natural environments must be undisturbed by civilization. Such policy is at the heart of Leslie’s research as conservation policies vary in different areas, ultimately affecting the local community and its people. In Botswana and Namibia, the conservation efforts strive to benefit local communities more so than in Tanzania or other areas. 

“There are all sorts of different possibilities,” Leslie said. “In some places there are more beneficial policies in sharing the revenues. The native people… really become an active part of the tourist and conservation industry.”

Variability among the different sites is a vital component to the study as sites vary from grasslands to forests. But for Leslie, who is also chair of UNC’s anthropology department, it is a study of how the old fuses with the new, and the changes and consequences that come with it.

“What we’re interested in is how parks interact with people in this process and how it compares and contrasts in different areas,” Leslie said. “In some places, it may be accelerating the integration to the outside world and in some cases, it’s slowing it down.”

Though Leslie and his colleagues are still collecting and analyzing data, they hope their research will put local people, such as the Maasai, in better positions to shape policy as well as accomplish the ends of conservation and biodiversity.


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