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Heartbreak on the Serengeti
FEBRUARY 2006
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Serengeti @ National Geographic Magazine
By Robert M. Poole
Photographs by Randy Olson
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.

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.
 
There in the yellow light a pride of lions padded up out of a streambed, intent on a herd of grazing zebras; a lone hyena, big shouldered and narrow hipped, maneuvered among skittish warthogs; and a pair of cheetahs sat alert in tall grass, almost invisible as they scrutinized a hundred Thomson's gazelles with professional interest. Sharp-eyed vultures surveyed the morning from above, wheeling through white salt clouds whipped up from Lake Magadi.
 
The night belonged to the animals, but morning brought people down into the crater—Maasai to water and browse their hundreds of cattle, biologists to study the rhythms of life among elephants and lions, tourists to ogle the Maasai herders and the varied wildlife for which this part of East Africa is justifiably famous. People, wildlife, and livestock all converged here on a typical day, living in a workable—but inevitably wary—coexistence.
 
The first cattle appeared about eight o'clock, inching in single file down the steep, narrow track to the crater floor, urged along by a Maasai warrior named Moma, who would walk for 12 hours with his herd on this long day. A red cumulus of dust marked Moma's progress down the escarpment trail; he made a melody of clanging cowbells, singing, and urgent whistling, which grew louder as he trudged into view, first to arrive on the crater floor. Like most Maasai, he was lean from a meager diet and much walking, and he looked like a biblical prophet in his dusty sandals and red toga, which billowed and flapped in the cold wind. He carried a long spear in one hand as he whistled his herd of 80 down to the spring, left them guzzling there, and strode over to take his measure of the pasty looking tourists who had just arrived in the crater, the first of hundreds who would spend the day there.

They brandished cameras when they saw Moma, who struck a proud pose with his spear, his plaited hair bright with beads and bars of aluminum that caught the sun, his earrings dangling from pendulous lobes, his skin smeared bright with animal fat. 
  
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