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Heartbreak on the Serengeti
FEBRUARY 2006
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Heartbreak on the Serengeti (continued)
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.

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"Man," cried a distinctly American voice behind one of the cameras, "this looks just like a National Geographic picture!" Moma stepped over to view his own image on the camera screen and to relieve his portraitist of a thousand Tanzanian shillings (about a dollar). He collected similar sums from two other tourists.
 
"What would you do if a lion attacked your cows?" someone asked.
 
"I would put this spear right in him!" Moma declared, banging his weapon on the ground to emphasize the heartfelt sentiment. Maasai have never been hunters, but they are fierce in their defense of the herd, and they kill a lion or two when circumstances require it.
 
Moma stuffed the shilling notes deep inside his robe and, morning rounds accomplished, reentered the world of his ancestors: a gaunt figure guiding his herd through another dry winter in a land haunted by lions and hunger. The khaki-clad tourists, meanwhile, popped open the top hatches of their Land Rovers, emerged from the roofs like tank commanders, and rumbled off in a haze of diesel fumes to hunt for other exotic sights.
 
They would find the wildlife thriving on their safari, much as it does elsewhere in the heart of Serengeti National Park and its companion Ngorongoro Conservation Area, contiguous protected regions comprising more than 8,000 square miles (21,000 square kilometers) of rolling grassland, acacia woodlands, and mist-draped volcanic highlands in northern Tanzania. This area sustains the largest community of migrating ungulates in the world, as well as its greatest concentrations of large predators.
 
Surveys show the wildebeest population at about 1.2 million, a recent high number for this keystone antelope species, which annually renews the Serengeti's pastures with its massive grazing, trampling, and droppings; the shaggy wildebeest also provides ready prey for lions, hyenas, and other predators. Healthy populations of zebras, numbering more than 200,000, hold steady throughout the region; elephants, which virtually vanished during the ivory-poaching days of the late 1980s, have bounced back, now totaling more than 2,000; black rhinos are stable; lions are on the upswing, numbering 3,500, despite earlier setbacks from disease; populations of impalas, topi, eland, gazelles, giraffes, and Cape buffalo are at healthy levels and rising. The only animals in decline seem to be the wild dog and the warthog. On a continent where much of the wildlife has been wiped out, the picture remains generally favorable in the protected areas.
 
"The Serengeti itself is in good health," said Christiane Schelten, a program officer with the Frankfurt Zoological Society, which advises the Tanzanian government on conservation. "It's intact, and it seems to be working."
 
It would be nice to end the story on that note, but the narrative becomes less hopeful when one exits the parks to explore the larger Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, where the future of the region's wildlife and people is being written. This larger area, defined by the annual wanderings of the wildebeest herd, wraps around the Serengeti, sprawling over some 10,400 square miles (26,900 square kilometers)of Tanzania and southwestern Kenya, from the Crater Highlands and Great Rift Valley in the east, across the grassy plains and woodlands of the Serengeti interior, westward down a narrow corridor of hills and scattered woodlands leading to Lake Victoria, and finally northward across the Kenya border to the Masai Mara National Reserve, a small but critical haven where migrating animals find plentiful forage and water in the dry season.
 
Once sparsely settled and hospitable to the Serengeti's wildlife, the ecosystem has shrunk to half its former size, eroded in the 20th century by booming human populations in Tanzania and Kenya. In Tanzania, where the numbers have tripled to more than 36 million since the country won its independence in the early 1960s, Serengeti and Ngorongoro have become islands of wilderness washed by a rising sea of humanity, with people pressing right up against the patchwork of game reserves and conserva-
tion areas that buffer the protected core. Land is at a premium in this poor country of farmers, where less than 5 percent of the earth is cultivated and a quarter of the land is reserved for parks. Almost 40 percent of the populace lives below the poverty line.
 
Day and night, people steal into Serengeti to poach wood for building and cooking and to hunt resident and migratory wildlife in increasing numbers. Their proximity to the park brings native Tanzanians into constant conflict with wildlife.
 
"You see more farms, more livestock, more cotton and rice cultivation moving toward the park each year," said Justin Hando, chief warden for Serengeti National Park. "People who used to live 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the park now live five or six kilometers (three or four miles) away—so it's much easier for them to engage in illegal activity. The animals from the park try to do what they have always done—they cross back and forth over the boundaries. The difference now is that the free movement of animals is no longer possible," said Hando. "They have more interaction with people."
 
That interaction is not always heartening. During several weeks of exploring the Serengeti and Ngorongoro region, I confirmed many reports of human-wildlife conflict—an elephant stomping and killing a villager armed with a bow and arrow in Robanda; black rhinos bolting in Ngorongoro Crater, where tourists in cars had approached too fast and too close, sending the animals fleeing; poachers setting out hundreds of wire snares on the park's western borders in hope of snagging a wildebeest, a zebra, or some other protein-rich ungulate for the table or for the lucrative traffic in wild meat. The illegal bush-meat trade, a rising threat in almost all of Africa's protected areas, annually feeds an estimated one million people in northern Tanzania alone.
 
The wire snare—preferred by poachers because it is a cheap and silent method of taking game—is also indiscriminate, grabbing any passing animal unlucky enough to step into a noose secured to a tree. This method recently hooked a Serengeti giraffe around the leg, a lioness around the neck, and a wildebeest by the horns. Another lion, snared in the western corridor outside the park, wrestled himself free of his wire noose, cutting off his hind leg in the process; he has been seen galumphing through the bush on three legs, a sturdy survivor who dominates his territory. 
 he said, "but I can tell you we don't see very much of that money here." 
 
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