Published: February 2006


Herd Birds

Heartbreak on the Serengeti

To the Maasai it's the place where the land runs on forever, but beyond the protected core of this iconic landscape, the land is running out.

By Robert M. Poole
Photograph by Randy Olson

The Maasai people of East Africa, who have always gone their own way, do not count the years as others do. For them each 12-month span contains two years—a year of plenty, olaari, coinciding with the rainy season on the immense Serengeti Plain and Crater Highlands of Tanzania, followed by a year of hunger, olameyu, commencing when the rains cease, the streams run dry, and the great wildebeest migration, more than a million strong, thunders off toward the north in search of food and water. Then the Serengeti grass turns the color of toast and crackles underfoot, and the Maasai herd boys and warriors embark on long, loping marathons to find sustenance for their beloved cattle, which remain the measure of wealth and well-being in this pastoral society.

The year of hunger was several weeks old by mid-July, when the clouds tumbled and split over Ngorongoro Crater, illuminating a drama already in progress on the crater floor.

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