Creating a Win-Win for Wildlife and Communities

August 11, 2023

A first-hand account by Charles Foley, Ph.D., Senior Conservation Scientist for the Tanzania Conservation Research Program at Lincoln Park Zoo.

“There’s another group!” says Lisa Faust, Ph.D. Senior Director of Population Ecology. The “group” to which she is referring is a herd of wildebeest with a few newborn calves. They are watching us as they shelter from the sun under some small Acacia trees.

We had already seen several groups of wildebeest, some zebra, several Grant’s gazelle, a warthog, and some skittish ostrich in the past 20 minutes. This would have been a very normal morning in any national park in northern Tanzania, except we aren’t in a national park at all! We are driving through community land in the Simanjiro plains, an important wildlife area adjacent to Tarangire National Park.

We are in northern Tanzania on a field visit to focus on the zoo’s collaboration with our field partners, including the Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT). Edward Loure, UCRT’s Simanjiro coordinator, is our guide on this day.

In among the herds of wildlife, we can see a young Maasai herder tending to a small group of livestock in the distance. “This,” says Edward, “was the very first area of grazing land that the community protected.”

Traveling in Tarangire

We are interested in these community protected areas because they hold the key to the long-term survival of the Tarangire ecosystem. Although it is sometimes overlooked among the splendors that Tanzania offers, the Tarangire ecosystem is a hugely important wildlife area that supports the fifth-largest migration of terrestrial mammals on the planet. Each year, over 80,000 large mammals migrate out of Tarangire National Park, dispersing northward towards Lake Natron on the border with Kenya and eastward to the Simanjiro plains.

This movement of animals includes a wide array of species such as elephants, zebra, wildebeest, and buffalo, as well as lions and other carnivores. The reason that they move is simple: the soil in the national park (which used to be a lake bed) is deficient in minerals such as phosphorus and calcium, which are required by lactating females.

During the dry season, the Tarangire River that runs through the park provides the only permanent water source in the ecosystem, and thus, the wildlife concentrates close to its banks. When the rains arrive, the animals disperse—first the wildebeest, who leave the moment the first thunder clouds appear on the horizon, then the other species. The animals congregate on the calving grounds of the Simanjiro and the southern plains of Lake Natron, where they give birth and feed on the nutrient-rich grasses until the rains cease and the water pools dry up. Then they return once more to the park and the Tarangire River.

The remarkable feature of the Tarangire ecosystem is that all the dispersal areas and calving grounds are on community-owned land. Imagine if you will, if every year, every large mammal in Yellowstone National Park (all 35,000 of them) moved out of the park onto the surrounding farmland. Fortunately, the communities living around Tarangire National Park are Maasai, who are traditionally livestock herders that have no culture of eating game meat. As a result, they have coexisted relatively well with wild animals, and it is no surprise that the majority of national parks in East Africa are on former Maasailand.

Protecting Places for Wildlife

The Maasai generally move their cattle around the ecosystem in response to the rains and therefore rely on having large, open areas of land to support their livestock. In years past this was not a problem; there was a lot of land and relatively few people.

However, as the Tanzanian population has grown, more and more people have moved into Maasailand, and have started cultivating the areas with better soils. This has had two effects: a) it has cut off some of the main wildlife migration corridors and imperiled others, and b) it has reduced the amount of high-quality land available for livestock grazing.

Fifteen years ago, we teamed up with a then-small Tanzanian nongovernmental organization called the Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT) to work on natural resource protection in the ecosystem. The premise was simple: both the communities and wildlife need lots of open, uncultivated land. Could we work with the communities to help them secure land that would benefit both people and wildlife?

The organization realized a legal option to achieve this goal might exist: Certificates of Customary Right of Occupancy (CCROs), which allow a community to legally allocate their land for grazing and keep out any farms or settlements.

Plugging the Gaps

As usual with new systems, the use of CCROs to retain land started slowly and took a while to get traction. In 2015, less than 100,000 acres of land were protected as CCROs. And then it took off! By 2018 communities had protected one million acres as CCROs, and by 2022 this had doubled to an astonishing 2 million acres.

While 2 million acres represents an enormous area of community land, there are still gaps that we are hoping to close. We are working with communities living both north and east of the park to help them identify and establish new CCROs on their lands, and are gradually filling in the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to plug the gaps between CCROs within the wildlife movement areas.

Our ultimate goal is to have all those lands protected as open pastoral lands, to the benefit of both the local communities and the wildlife. If we can achieve that, we will have gone a long way to protecting one of the most important wildlife migrations on the planet.

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