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Colonial Conservation: How Forced Evictions of the Maasai Reveal Neocolonial Practices in Wildlife Preservation

“We saw a bleak future threatened by land selling, land grabs for commodification, by the collapse of our rivers and grasslands, and by unsustainable fragmentation as electric fences carved up and closed off wildlife migratory corridors.”

This was what Nelson Ole Reiyia said to the United Nations Development Programme Team when asked about the forced evictions of the Maasai people from the Maasai Mara area and the future of the area without the Maasai. 

The Maasai people are a Nilo-Saharan nation of semi-nomadic pastoralists located in the south of Kenya and the north of Tanzania, the nation that Reiyia comes from. They find themselves increasingly displaced by the Tanzanian government through forced evictions to create space for game reserves (swathes of land where wild animals are hunted for recreational purposes in a controlled manner) and nature reserves for conservation, and Nelson Ole Reiyia is campaigning for the preservation of the Maasai people and culture in and around the Maasai Mara area. This article explores the ironic, colonial, and problematic nature of the type of conservation in Tanzania. This will be done by establishing demarcation as a colonial practice adopted by international conservation organisations, highlighting the heralding of Western expertise over indigenous knowledge systems in conservation, and studying the relationship that colonial powers in the West have historically had with African land. This will serve as a basis for understanding why Western conservation frameworks fundamentally don’t find human habitation to be compatible with conservation.

Women from the Masai community take part in a strike organised on March 25, 2022
(Image: Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images)

To establish demarcation in the context of conservation as a colonial practice, it is necessary to understand its history in Kenya-Tanzania and the Serengeti area. The demarcation of the land which is now known as Kenya and Tanzania by Western colonial powers began in 1886 when upon an agreement between the German and British colonial governments, the border between Tanzania and Kenya was drawn for the first time. A later agreement between the United Kingdom and Germany led to a reiteration of almost the same boundary. The Maasai people, however, were dwelling in this area well before the border was discussed. 

Maasai homelands were further demarcated when, according to the World Rainforest Movement, the Serengeti Park was created in 1940 as a result of a Game Ordinance passed by the British government, in an effort to “support the protection of wildlife in the area.” Here, a Western colonial power is still responsible for the demarcation, but the purpose has shifted from resource extraction to conservation. As reported by the World Rainforest Movement, this Ordinance was in existence until the complete legislated restriction of human habitation in part of the area by 1959 in an attempt to “conserve natural resources, protect the interest of indigenous people, and promote tourism.” This trend continued until in 1961 conservation entities such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and UNESCO sponsored the Arusha Wildlife Conference in Arusha, Tanzania.

The conference resulted in the Arusha Manifesto, which granted international conservation organisations control of conservation across areas of Africa. They would be involved in the planning and management of the sites due to their “technical expertise” as reported by Fraser. Brockington and Igoe paint a picture of how this is done when they report that states are responsible for the protected areas in their territories but may ”delegate the powers“ of managing the protected areas to NGOs and private entities including international conservation organisations. This was important because it meant that international organisations could decide in which areas human habitation would still be allowed because of their “technical expertise.” At this point, the method of demarcation had shifted from being used by colonial powers for colonial reasons, to being used by colonial powers for conservation, to being adopted by international conservation organisations. 

Slowly, international organisations and the Tanzanian government began to lobby for legislation banning the grazing of sheep or cattle, then banning cultivation and access to water sources crucial for livestock— gradually taking away the livelihood of the Maasai. This trend has continued to date, with evictions becoming forceful and violent, even including arbitrary arrest, such as a 2017 eviction that left 6,800 Maasai homeless when 185 homesteads were burnt by Serengeti National Park rangers and police.

The established pattern of repeated cordoning off of the area in and around the Great Rift Valley is important to note because that area was first demarcated based on an agreement between two colonial powers for their possession. This means that there was no consultation with the Maasai or any other people indigenous to the area. International environmental and conservation organisations such as the IUCN employing the same methods to block access to indigenous people positions them as neo-colonial powers as well.

It is important to remember that as Brockington and Igoe state: conservation displacement does not only entail physical forced evictions, but also “economic displacement [and] the exclusion of people from particular areas in their pursuit of a livelihood.” Goldman echoes this sentiment when she posits that “active participation in the process of knowledge construction, decision making, and management planning should be a basic human right“. This is in the specific context of indigenous people —in this case, the Maasai —whose lives and livelihoods are affected by the decisions made by international conservation organisations regarding protected areas. Even when the Maasai are not forcefully and violently evicted, they have no sovereignty over the space and no participation in the decisions regarding their home‘s future. This is still a form of conservation displacement.

The formalisation of nature and wildlife conservation in Africa by Western institutions and the vilification of the Maasai people around the Serengeti National Park area suggest that Western expertise is a more valid tool in wildlife protection than indigenous knowledge systems. It further places emphasis on the notion that indigenous people inhabiting protected areas are more of a threat than an asset.

While the initial demarcation of the Serengeti Park was triggered by concerns that the government and international conservation organisations had around wildlife poaching and loss of biodiversity, it is important to note that the Maasai are not responsible for the poaching or the loss of floral biodiversity in the area. The opposite can be argued because in general, 80% of biodiversity and wildlife is protected by indigenous people such as the Maasai globally as stated by the World Wildlife Foundation. It is, therefore, also important to assess some of the ways in which the Maasai have existed harmoniously with their ecosystem and simultaneously what lessons the Western world and conservationists can learn from them.

One of these ways is the ability of the Maasai people to regulate according to their ecosystem which is evident in their lion-hunting practices. As a rite of passage, in order to become a warrior, it was customary for a boy to hunt a lion as a sign of bravery and strength. However, when the Maasai noticed a decline in the lion population, they started hunting in groups instead of solo, allowing the lion population the chance to recover. Claims that this cultural rite of passage which used to be practised by the Maasai is what has brought the lion population in the area to the brink of extinction do not paint a complete picture. The Maasai have consistently adapted their hunting practices to the number of lions— switching from solo hunting to group hunting, and then not hunting at all. According to the Maasai Association, the Maasai no longer practise lion hunting except when their cattle are in immediate danger. WildAid cites “habitat loss, bushmeat poaching, and human-predator conflict” as the main reasons for the decline of the lion population in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). This conflict between herdsmen protecting their cattle and lions facing prey depletion due to habitat loss is what is defined as ‘human-predator conflict’. 

Trophy hunting has also played a significant role in the decline of the lion population in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Packer et al. state that Tanzania exported 243 lion trophies per year between 1996 and 2006. While not all of these trophies came specifically from the NCA, some did. Packer et al. also report that in 1962, lions in the NCA suffered a plague of Stomoxys calcitrans biting flies which left them “emaciated, with skin infections, and unable to hunt for their prey”. This dropped the population to 10-15 animals and resulted in higher levels of inbreeding to recover the population, which in turn may have resulted in “lower reproductive capability” among NCA lions. A combination of all these factors is what has caused the drastic decline in the NCA lion population, not just Maasai lion hunting. 

Having explored the multiple causes behind the rapid decline of lions in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, it can be argued that the vilification of the Maasai people for lion hunting is being used as a way to forcefully remove them from lands they have inhabited for centuries without backlash. The willingness the Maasai display to be able to adapt according to their ecosystem as opposed to expecting the ecosystem to provide limitlessly is something the Western world could stand to learn from especially in order to curb overproduction and overconsumption.

In addition to this, the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Maasai means that they are always moving, meaning that parts of the land are left fallow for long periods of time. This is beneficial for the preservation of things such as soil quality and biodiversity, and the maintenance of soil nitrogen content because soil and ground flora are given the opportunity to recuperate after being used for farming or grazing. Traditionally, the Maasai base their migration patterns on whether it is dry or rainy season. Advocacy for the seasonal consumption of fruits and vegetables can be found in many sustainability campaigns in the West. The Maasai, however, managed to implement it. 

The Maasai consistently exist within the bounds of what nature provides so as not to find themselves over-exploiting their ecosystem, as stated by Leon and Thiam. This is a practice large corporations and individuals who are over-consumers can learn from. It proves that the West, while having the language to express conservationist ideas such as seasonal consumption, is not necessarily better or more effective at conservation than the Maasai and other indigenous groups, who put these conservationist concepts into practice as a way of life.

The reason international conservation organisations insist on restricting human habitation in protected areas is because of the historical relationship the West has had with the land. The West’s relationship with African land has mostly been for the purpose of profit, placing an emphasis on individual private ownership. This is evident in the way that African countries were divided during the Berlin Conference in 1884, according to the resources and commodities they could offer Western European colonial powers. Congo for rubber and coffee, South Africa for gold and diamonds, and Kenya for oil, gas, and water. In contrast to this, Nelson Ole Reiyia said “[Maasai] people have always lived in harmony [with nature]. We have an attachment to the land”, in defence of the Maasai’s relationship with their homelands and their right to stay there.  

The West’s relationship with land is well represented by capitalism, a western concept spread throughout the world, which drives climate change in various ways because of over-exploitation. An example of this is through farming. Farming under pre-capitalist systems was usually subsistence farming, which is more beneficial to soil quality and the quality of the crops because of the reduced use of pesticides, the diversity in crops planted in the same place, and the reduced risk of a disease wiping out the entire crop population. Under capitalism, mass production aided by machines and pesticides means that all of these benefits no longer exist. 

Monoculture threatens to wipe out previously existing biodiversity, increases the risk of one disease killing the entire crop population, and decreases soil quality because the soil is always being tilled. Additionally, mass production of consumables such as plastic bottles, rubber sandals, and other things causes a rise in greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Mass production fuelled by capitalism is over-exploitative on natural resources, something indigenous cultures such as the Maasai do not believe in doing.

Different societies of indigenous people around the world have developed and used different methods to conserve their environment through the generations. Three such examples as cited by the UNFCCC are native tree plantation in Nepal for the storage of carbon, community-managed natural forests in Bangladesh for the conservation of local biodiversity, and the restoration of Hawaiian fishponds, which if successfully restored, have the “capacity to produce thousands of pounds of sustainable protein annually,” among other things. The latter is particularly helpful in curbing overfishing as the fish naturally wander into the brackish water ponds. 

Methods of conservation such as these have been termed  “primitive, simple and static” in older academic literature as mentioned by Warren. Yet, Maasai knowledge and the knowledge of other indigenous societies is crucial to climate change mitigation and adaptation mainly because it is generations of knowledge based on experiential learning which is contextualised to specific ecosystems. Indigenous knowledge systems are rich in information on agriculture, botany, zoology, forestry, fisheries, ecology, and other scientific fields and are important, necessary, and irreplaceable.

It is noteworthy that the West does not have a framework for a relationship with land outside of what monetary value the land has to offer. Whether it is by building, harvesting, or extracting, the land must generally have a tangible value. This is in opposition with many indigenous cultures around the world including the Maasai, who not only view themselves as part of nature and their ecosystems but also view nature as sacred. The historical relationship that the West has had with land is deeply colonial and is one where humans are dissociated from land, and therefore deeply exploitative. It is for this reason that the IUCN, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and other Western international conservation organisations cannot imagine human habitation in a system also designed to protect plant and animal life. This is the reason that the legislature is constantly banning indigenous people, in this case, the Maasai, from indigenous lands. 

Organisations such as the FAO, UNESCO, and the IUCN are now at the forefront of the mainstream climate justice movement, not only because of their technical expertise but also because of the expansive networks they have built over time and their access to funding. This means that the colonial practices discussed earlier in this article have been propagated over decades. This iteration of the mainstream climate justice movement is therefore one which often happens at the expense of indigenous people. 

The Maasai were first victimised by displacement, vilified for cultural practices, and further marginalised by the delegitimisation of their knowledge systems. It is important to find different ways in which colonialism rears its head in the climate space. The disenfranchisement of the Maasai people under the guise of conservation is only a symptom of the greater problem. In approaching conservation from the lens of local and indigenous communities such as the Maasai, we will be able to map out ways that neocolonialism in climate justice advocacy has held us back from a balanced existence in nature and map a way forward.

Edited by Veda Rodewald

Tatenda Dlali (she/her) is a student of Biology and a writer at Political Pandora. Her research interests include conservation ecology, the intersections between gender, migration, and climate change, and decolonising the climate justice movement.



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  • PACKER, C., et al. “Effects of Trophy Hunting on Lion and Leopard Populations in Tanzania.” Conservation Biology, vol. 25, no. 1, 2011, pp. 142–53. JSTOR, Accessed 14 May 2024.

  • Goldman, Mara J. “Strangers in Their Own Land: Maasai and Wildlife Conservation in Northern Tanzania.” Conservation and Society, vol. 9, no. 1, 2011, pp. 65–79. JSTOR, Accessed 14 May 2024.

  • Brockington, Daniel, and James Igoe. “Eviction for Conservation: A Global Overview.” Conservation and Society, vol. 4, no. 3, 2006, pp. 424–70. JSTOR, Accessed 14 May 2024.


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