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A place where wild animals fear people

By | September 1st 2011

By Luke Anami

Three men confidently walk towards 15 hungry lions with a kill. The lions, fresh from killing a wildebeest, take time to relish their kill. They are unaware that the Maasai morans are also targetting the prey with a simple plan: Let the lions kill the wildebeest and then steal the meat from under their feet.

The men accomplish their mission without any incident, save for the bewildered lions. This BBC video clip demonstrates the relationship between the Maasai who occupy the northern part of Tanzania and wild animals.

Wildebeests at Ngorongoro, which is the animals’ annual migratory route that has become a world wonder. Photo: Luke Anami/Standard

A visit to Ngorongoro — which means ‘the place where it sank’ and is the world’s largest caldera (crater) not filled with water — in the Serengeti plains reveals this special relationship between wild animals and the Maasai.

Ngorongoro lies between Arusha and Moshi towns and Mt Kilimanjaro. A drive from Arusha takes more than two hours on the major highway to Dodoma, Tanzania’s capital. Winding its way past Lake Manyara, the drive takes you through the plains and spectacular sceneries of hills surrounding the lake.

Accompanying a group of 25 journalists drawn from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, we had the privilege of visiting the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), a place where man lives in harmony with wild animals, after a weeklong training on East African Community regional reporting by the GIZ of Germany.

"The Maasai and their cattle live side by side with lions, buffalos, leopards and other wild animals that occupy this area — some 8,292 square km," explained Asantael Melita, the principal tourism officer, NCA.

In harmony

The conservancy was established in 1959 as a pioneering experiment in multiple land use where pastoralism, conservation and tourism could exist. The area with a unique combination of four ethnic communities living with animals in harmony has 70,000 people and about 2.5 million animals.

The annual average population growth is three per cent and a population density of 48 people per square kilometre. This means there is need to balance between the human beings and wild animal population growth within the craters.

But what is amazing in the conservancy is how man goes about his business as if there is no danger in the vicinity. Although the NCA inhabitants include the Maasai, Hadzabe, Ndorobo and Sonjo, the Maasai are the most daring.

Small boys and girls graze their goats a few metres from buffalos, hyenas and lions with no sign of fear.

"The two, man and animal, respect each other as they have lived side by side for many years. The lions hardly attack the cattle. For if they did, the consequences are dire," Melita explains, adding, "the lions ‘know’ the consequence of attacking Maasai cattle and so run away when they see Maasai in a red shuka."

But this is not to say that any man can walk across the plains and not be attacked by a lion. "Don’t make the mistake of trying what the Maasai do here. For if you walked in a suit, the lions will definitely attack you!" he says.

The lions and Maasai seem to have a secret code and understand each other so well that there is hardly any incidents of human-animal conflict here.

Geographically, there are three craters in the Ngorongoro — the Ngorongoro crater, which covers 304 square kilometre with 19.2km in diameter and 610m depth; the Embakaai crater, which is filled with deep salt water and the Olmoti crater whose rim is at 3,700m.

Dry season

In the dry season, there are few animals

"There are only elephant bulls on the floor of the crater as the rest, especially the mothers, are busy feeding in the forest up the crater," explained our tour guide Tiothem, adding: "But the permanent stream on the crater floor attracts all the big five as the rest of the animals prefer to graze along the permanent water stream."

Along the plains, a pride of well-fed lionesses slept in various states of beautiful abandon while the wildebeest and zebras grazed together, as usual.

Tourism is the core activity of Ngorongoro. About 490,000 tourists visit annually generating some Tsh38 billion (about Sh2 million) in revenue. Melita says the government sets aside a percentage that is shared within the conservancy.

‘"We give the government two per cent of our revenue and 20 per cent goes back to local communities living in the area through designed projects such as provision of water, education and health,’’ he added.

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