Let Maasai Community Manage Amboseli

Published on 2nd November 2005

The step by the Kenya government to allow a local council to run the famous Amboseli, is a step in the right direction in getting poor people participate in wealth creating activities. By downgrading Amboseli National Park to a game reserve, the government has given Maasais a chance to manage wildlife as a resource. This was a move viewed by many to be part of political power games to influence voters on the forthcoming constitutional plebiscite. Whether the Kibaki government made this move for political purposes or not, the Maasai have a right to own, manage and enjoy the fruits of a resource on their land.

Amboseli is internationally renowned as a haven of wildlife, boasting of a scenic view of Mt. Kilimanjaro and huge herds of elephants. It is estimated that Amboseli receives close to $ 3.3 million in tourist related activities. It is also the second leading tourist destination in Kenya after Maasai Mara. Amboseli National Reserve was proclaimed in 1948 by the British Colonial government and made a National park on 12th October 1974. Keen observers must be wondering why suddenly environmentalists have woken up upon hearing about community management.  Nobody ever got to hear them when a rancher in Naivasha, who reportedly had game meat in his backyard, led to the shooting down of one of the Kenya Wildlife Service rangers.

Arguments by international N.G.Os and conservation groups that locals cannot manage wildlife issues in Amboseli are simplistic. If the Maasais through the Olkejuado County Council have no management experience, they have the freedom to hire any organization, or expert to run the park on their behalf. To state that \' Degazetting Amboseli sets a most unwelcome and potentially catastrophic precedent that could lead to disintegration of Kenya\'s most envied National park systems.\' is to perpetuate the notion that Kenyan natives are keen on exterminating wildlife. Yet conservation and consumptive utilization
were part of African culture prior to colonialism. The Maasai have co-existed with wildlife without exterminating them. It is an insult to insinuate that the indigenous Kenyan populations are not capable of managing their own resources.

Maasais in recorded history protested the seizing and subsequent conversion of their land into a park in 1974. At that time, their focus might have been on grazing cattle, but at the moment, the Maasai have many sons and daughters who have gone to school to realize the importance of other sources of prestige and income. Arguments to the effect that community management will lead to increase in bush meat trade, overgrazing, and insecurity imply that the government of Kenya will abdicate its duty to enforce the existing law simply because communities have taken over. Maasai Mara is popular despite the fact that it\'s managed by a council; Kenya has other community run ranches in Samburu such as Lewa, Illengwesi among others which are well managed. Instead of vilifying the council members, Kenyan experts, N.G.O.s ought to have taken the initiative to assist the community to adopt modern and scientifically proven approaches to conservation. The World offers many models that the Maasai community can emulate to ensure success in the running of the park, such as those in Australia (Aborigines Kakadu National Park) and Zimbabwe (campfire programs).

Will the Olkejuado Council listen to voice of reason from businesses, environmentalists, and experts? My bet is yes! They have no choice if they are interested in the millions that the park generates. Will other groups opposed to council and community ownership of the park sabotage the council? Again my bet is yes, unless the council allows the status quo to continue. But what is good for Kenya? Simply preserve nature for tourists? Again, that will perpetuate the present scenario where natives die of starvation and their property gets destroyed by wildlife as the international environmentalists imbibe millions of dollars in the name of conservation. Powerful environmental lobbyists ought to put people first to ensure sustainable conservation efforts that will not alienate locals from their resource management.

Kenyan intellectuals must not betray the Maasai at their greatest hour of realizing the sweetness of property rights. Kenyans must learn to move beyond the level of tour guides, drivers and cooks to management and productivity. The current constitutional debate that might have precipitated the downgrading of the Amboseli ought not to cloud the minds of Kenyans on the long term quest to empower communities as far as resource management and ownership is concerned. Kenyans must continue to fight for better governance and building of strong institutions in order to avoid such embarrassing situations where the World doubts their ability to manage their own affairs. The Maasai
Council elders on their part must be open minded and welcome on board concerned groups for discussion on the best way forward for the reserve.

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