I’ve been visiting national parks like Crater Lake and Yellowstone since I was a toddler. Something about setting aside a specific area of land for the pure purpose of preserving its wildlife, ecology, landscapes, and beauty for future generations seemed so right to me. Like we had already found the solution to our rampant environmental degradation when Ulysses S. Grant signed Yellowstone National Park into existence in 1872. I understood in my early teens that humans were rapidly changing the Earth’s climate, ocean chemistry, biodiversity, and land distribution, but I thought that maybe if we just set aside enough areas for conservation, along with enacting environmental policies to address the way we manage our energy, food, and material needs, everything would be OK in the end. Since humans were the problem, then the best way to maintain the world’s most important ecosystems would be to take humans out of the equation, right?

Not exactly. This summer, I spent two weeks in Tanzania with 35 Stanford students, professors, and alumni, as part of a course titled “Parks and Peoples: Dilemmas of Protected Area Conservation in East Africa”. In the class, we learned about and visited many of Tanzania’s national parks: Arusha, Manyara, Tarangire, and Serengeti, and one conservation area, Ngorongoro, along with many of the local communities that live near the national parks. In the case of Tanzania, the establishment of national parks has not been a great solution for animals or people. Poaching is rapidly getting worse, despite national park security, and sometimes the national park boundaries aren’t even in the right place, so animals like elephants that need lots of land have to venture outside the park to find enough food, disturbing communities and endangering themselves in the process. The people side is a bit more complicated, and requires a brief lesson on Tanzanian history.

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Two lions soak up the sun in Serengeti National Park.

In the class, we studied and interacted with Maasai people, who are semi-nomadic pastoralists, so they raise and live off livestock. They began to populate East Africa in the 15th century, but before that, hunter-gatherer societies dominated this region. In fact, the first humans to ever walk the Earth are believed to have lived in the plains of East Africa. For centuries, the Maasai simply moved with the seasons, grazing their livestock on wide ranges of savanna. That all changed when European powers started colonizing Africa in the 19th century, bringing with them new diseases, animals, and culture. Many national parks, game reserves, hunting concessions, group ranches, and private farms were established on lands that were traditionally used by the Maasai for grazing and living purposes. In his book Fortress Conservation, Dan Brockington describes how land was set aside in the “Yellowstone model” of conservation, backed by international trusts and fueled by consumption and tourism. This displaced many communities, limited their range, and drastically changed their way of life.

Today, many Maasai communities have to rely on agriculture to survive, as Dan Brockington reports. They continue to face land rights abuses – for instance, in the Loliondo region of Tanzania, the Otterlo Business Corporation, a safari hunting company, has evicted thousands of Maasai people to expand its hunting area. Survival International reports that villages have been burned, and cattle are dying without access to grazing land or water, which has destroyed the livelihoods of these communities. The Maasai also face poverty, HIV/AIDS, social discrimination, and climate change impacts.

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A baby baboon is cradled by its father in Tarangire National Park.

National parks worldwide have often been created with the vision of an “untamed wilderness” devoid of people, and for a long time I believed that the best way to conserve nature was to take people out of it. But in this case, the establishment of national parks on traditional lands has really hurt the Maasai. In her book Savannas of Our Birth, Robin Reid describes pastoralists as the world’s “oldest food producers”, and according to a paper by Saverio Krätli, they are absolutely essential for global food security. Their livelihoods depend on wide ranges of land, healthy soils, a stable climate, and a political system that is conducive to the maintenance of their culture and way of life, and right now, none of those things are happening in Tanzania.

In her book, Robin Reid introduces the idea that wildlife can not only coexist, but thrive, in the company of human civilization. In East Africa, the Maasai have been living and grazing their livestock alongside the Big Five (and many other animals) for centuries. In a way, the Maasai have been in this area for long enough to become part of the ecosystem. Reid describes the way Maasai bomas, or villages, concentrate nutrients in the soil, which can make it easier for wildlife, especially grazers, to get enough of these nutrients in their diet. Roderick Neumann, in his book Imposing Wilderness, brings up the point that Maasai have been burning areas of grassland for centuries, which helps reduce the presence of tse-tse flies (luckily I didn’t get bitten by one of these when I was there, but I’ve heard that they hurt!). Brockington points out that even when the savanna faces pressure from grazing, natural rainfall patterns are usually enough to help the ecosystem regenerate quickly. In addition, Reid talks about “soft boundaries”, which allow people and animals to coexist near national parks and can further lessen the effects of grazing on natural habitat. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a unique experiment in Tanzania in which wildlife is protected and, with some restrictions, Maasai communities are also allowed to live there. It was a pleasure to visit Ngorongoro, and I hope that this type of model dominates future conservation efforts in Tanzania.

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Two Maasai boys watch our safari jeeps pass by on the floor of the Ngorongoro Crater.

The Maasai treat the land with respect, because their livelihoods depend on it. The establishment of national parks has removed a group of people from their traditional lands, along with the benefits that they bring to the natural environment. Many communities that were exiled from their lands now live on the edge of national parks, which has heightened tension between the Maasai, national park administration, and wildlife. Brockington argues that in order to be successful, national parks must be supported by local communities. What use is it to set aside an area for preservation when it only intensifies conflict between animals and people, and doesn’t work for either? Isn’t the culture of the Maasai people worth conserving along with the species that attract millions of tourists to Tanzania every year? Why was I, as a foreigner, allowed to visit and stay on these lands, while the native inhabitants, who had been living off the land and cooperating peacefully with the wildlife for hundreds of years, were forcibly exiled from them? Why has this been the case for almost a century, in many areas since sport hunting was allowed in the parks in the early 1900s, without much change? I’m not sure how to best serve the Maasai community while simultaneously conserving wildlife and the natural environment for future generations, but if something isn’t done to change the system of conservation in Tanzania soon, I’m afraid that we will lose the Big Five and the Maasai culture, both of which are precious to our planet.

It is clear to me now that people have to be a part of the equation, and the only sustainable way to approach these kinds of problems is to find the solution that works best for people and the environment. The story of the Maasai is only one of thousands of cases in which humans and nature were pitted against each other, although the better solution may have been to allow both to grow and thrive at once. In the era of Yellowstone, people were believed to be a harmful force that should always be separate from nature, and it is true that people have done a lot of damage to the planet. But while we are a big part of the problem, we can also be the solution. Humans are not separate from nature, but are integrated with their environment. We fully rely on natural processes and ecosystems, and in turn, everything that we do impacts the natural world. Whether that impact is positive or negative is up to us to decide.

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Wildebeest and hyena gather at a watering hole in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.