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Journalist says a 'land grab' in Tanzania is forcing the Maasai off their land


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. In a world of global warming and habitat destruction, programs to protect wilderness and travel to visit remaining natural lands and species are appealing. But our guest, journalist Stephanie McCrummen, writes that in many parts of the world, Indigenous people are being evicted from their lands to make way for ecotourism, carbon offset schemes and other activities that fall under the banner of conservation. In a new article in The Atlantic, she focuses on the Maasai, pastoral tribespeople who for centuries have herded cattle and goats in northern Tanzania. She writes that the Maasai are increasingly being forced off traditional grazing lands to make way for foreign investors, including the royal family of Dubai, who wanted an exclusive game reserve for hunting expeditions. The Maasai's displacement, she writes, has been accomplished in part through harsh government measures, including arrests, confiscation of livestock and lethal violence.

Stephanie McCrummen is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She previously worked at The Washington Post, where she covered national politics and served as the paper's East Africa bureau chief. Among her journalistic honors are the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, for coverage of Roy Moore's 2017 Alabama Senate campaign, and two George Polk Awards. Her new article in The Atlantic is "'This Will Finish Us': How Gulf Princes, The Safari Industry And Conservation Groups Are Displacing The Maasai From The Last Of Their Serengeti Homeland." Well, Stephanie McCrummen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

STEPHANIE MCCRUMMEN: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Let's begin with the Maasai - tell us about them, their way of life, you know, traditionally.

MCCRUMMEN: Well, the Maasai are pastoralists. They are essentially cattle people. Their culture, their livelihood, their way of life really revolves around keeping cattle and by extension, tending to the landscape that supports cattle raising. They migrated from the lower Nile Valley through Kenya into northern Tanzania approximately 400 years ago, settling in this, you know, lush grasslands that they called Serenget. That's - in the Maa language, it means the place where the land runs on forever. Some of your listeners, if they've been lucky enough to go on a safari in Kenya or Tanzania, they would might recognize the Maasai as people who wear bright red, often plaid shawls, beautiful beads. They often serve as guides in safaris and, you know, have been very photographed and really romanticized in many ways over the years.

DAVIES: You describe them as among the lightest living people on the planet. Meaning what?

MCCRUMMEN: Yes. Well, like many Indigenous groups around the world, these are people who live in - you know, their traditional homes are mud and dung. They're called boma. These are circular enclosures that might have any number of houses inside, depending on the number of wives or extended family that live there. You know, they famously wear recycled tire sandals. And they live really very much in harmony with the ecosystem. They don't cut down trees. They don't hunt. You see the occasional satellite dish on top of a house. But basically these are people that live in a very traditional way with the ecosystem because they have to, for their livelihood.

DAVIES: You know, essentially, I mean, I think I first read about the Maasai either when I was in school or when I taught school, which was decades ago, and I remember them sort of being described almost as if people living prehistoric lives among us. I assume that's not true. I mean, they have cell phones. I don't know. Do their kids want to go off to the cities and live urban lives?

MCCRUMMEN: Sure. And that's a very important point to make. Yes. You know, the Maasai are, at this point, living this way by choice. It's not like they're out of touch with the modern world. They have - of course, they have cell phones. Plenty of Maasai, you know, many girls - this used to not be the case, but girls and children, of course, go to school. There are Maasai, in the context of the situation that's happening - there are very, you know, prominent Maasai activists who are lawyers who are getting their PhD at Oxford. Plenty of Maasai do leave the traditional life behind for lives in cities. So, yeah. So the Maasai have adapted in many ways as time has gone on.

DAVIES: All right. You write about a lot of violent actions that have occurred to displace the Maasai in recent years, but this is an issue that goes back decades. I mean, in the early '90s, a company called the Otterlo Business Corporation was granted a hunting license for an area near the park in lands that the Maasai used for grazing. Who was behind this corporation?

MCCRUMMEN: That's right. The company is often referred to as OBC, and it's a company that has a lease for this land on behalf of the Dubai royal family. So the Dubai royal family has been hunting in this 600-square mile area adjacent to Serengeti National Park since the early '90s. This 600 square miles is also an incredibly important grazing area to the Maasai. They refer to this area as osero. This is a word that means lush grazing land. And so the Dubai royal family has been there since the early '90s, and there has been conflict off and on over the years, often violent conflict, in which security forces, working at the behest of OBC have shot at the Maasai, beaten Maasai and burned bomas, which are the traditional Maasai homes. So this conflict has been going on for years. And I should also say that it's not just OBC. I mean, that's a very, very bitter conflict that has been going on. But there are also, you know, there are other safari companies that have also become notorious to the Maasai for how they treat herders. There have been conflicts with safari companies, with conservation authorities and Tanzanian authorities for decades.

DAVIES: When the royal Dubai family came to do their hunting, what kind of footprint did they leave? Did they actually leave structures or roads or runways?

MCCRUMMEN: Well, it's quite a production when they come to town. They have their own airstrip. They come with cargo planes, hauling Land Cruisers and, you know, trucks - dozens of them - tents, food, structures where they and their guests stay. Although the emir himself has his own particular compound.

DAVIES: He has a compound there, in these grasslands?

MCCRUMMEN: Yes. He has a permanent structure up on a little hill sort of overlooking this area, which is, again, breathtakingly beautiful. It's a spectacular - it's essentially Serengeti National Park, although it's not in the park, but it's beautiful land. So it's quite a production when they come. So the Maasai sort of see the planes coming down, you know, landing. For a while, before cell phone networks improved, the Dubai royal family - they had their own cell phone tower in this area. And so when the Maasai would get close enough, a message would pop up on their cell phones and it would say, welcome to the UAE, which, you know, stung, obviously, in the context of the conflict going on.

DAVIES: You know, it's kind of hard to picture. I mean, I picture a fairly wide area of grasslands and, you know, someone hunting - I mean, is it - I guess what I'm wondering is how grazing cattle could be such a problem for these folks hunting wildlife.

MCCRUMMEN: Well, you know, this is precisely the question that the Maasai are asking. And in fact, for decades, you know, there was sort of an understanding that when the royal family was in town, the Maasai would sort of try to keep away, keep their cattle away and so forth. So on the other hand, the Dubai royal family - when they hunt, you know, they're in trucks. They're using semi-automatic rifles. The animals - you know, it's all the big game animals that you imagine are there - zebras, giraffe, elephants, antelope, everything. And, you know, they sort of - according to Maasai, seen them, you know, they speed around in these trucks. And some people would say it's not terribly sporting the way that they hunt.

DAVIES: Firing the automatic weapons from the trucks at these animals.


DAVIES: And you do write that there were times when, you know, they would actually pay Maasai well to act as guides or drivers or, you know, other helpers. But there were some severe government suppression. You talked to a guy who had been shot in the face in one of these conflicts, right?

MCCRUMMEN: Yes. I spoke to a Maasai man who was shot in the face by security forces working for OBC. He was accused of trespassing, if you will, in one of the areas that was supposed to be a hunting preserve. And so in many cases, safari companies, hunting companies have arrangements - security arrangements with park rangers and Tanzanian security forces to sort of patrol there. And, you know, he described his colleagues taking him to the hospital. He's bleeding. He described being handcuffed to the hospital bed and the security forces in the room screaming at the doctor just to let him die. And he's bleeding from his eyes, from his ears. And he ended up surviving and losing an eye. So in any number of Maasai villages that we visited, you will find people who have been in some way injured by park rangers, either beaten or shot at. So his story isn't terribly unusual.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you.

We're speaking with Stephanie McCrummen. She is a staff writer at The Atlantic. Her new article is "This Will Finish Us: How Gulf Princes, The Safari Industry And Conservation Groups Are Displacing The Maasai From The Last Of Their Serengeti Homeland." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with The Atlantic staff writer Stephanie McCrummen, who's written recently about the Maasai, a pastoral tribe of cattle herders in Northern Tanzania, and how they're being driven away from traditional grazing lands by foreign investors, often in the name of conservation.

And now things would change when the Tanzanian president, John Magufuli, died in office and the newly elected president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, was elected. And unlike the previous president, who didn't find favor with the West because of - he, you know, suppressed media and opposition parties and alienated investors, she took a different approach that Western governments found more appealing. What was she up to?

MCCRUMMEN: So Samia Suluhu Hassan takes office in 2021, and she immediately begins looking for an investment. And as part of this, she wants to develop tourism in a very aggressive way. So she strikes a deal. It was a $7.5 billion deal with United Arab Emirates. It included a deal for Dubai Ports World to manage two-thirds of Tanzania's ports. It included a deal with a company called Blue Carbon to manage some 20 million acres of forests. This is roughly 8% of the entire landmass of Tanzania, and this would be to generate carbon credits.

And it also included money for tourism and conservation. And this part of the deal was a little bit less specific. But Samia Suluhu Hassan begins talking about, you know, the need to conserve the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. And later, you know, also this area adjacent to Serengeti National Park. And the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park are World Heritage Sites that are governed in many ways by UNESCO rules. So she starts talking about the need to preserve these World Heritage Sites and conservation, and she starts talking about the ecosystem being destroyed. And the people that she really blames for this are the Maasai.

DAVIES: So the country's new president, President Hassan, really embraced foreign investment in tourism and conservation, part of a plan backed by the World Bank and UNESCO, the United Nations agency, to bring more tourists to Tanzania and presumably, in an ecologically sensitive way, to conserve natural resources but also build economic growth in the country. And the president found that in some way, the Maasai were seen as in the way or in some way inhibiting conservation. Was that the case they were making?

MCCRUMMEN: Yes. So the Tanzanian government and specifically, you know, their own conservation authorities had been under some pressure for years from UNESCO. And another big conservation partner there is the Frankfurt Zoological Society. And I don't want to minimize the point that, you know, there has been some ecological, you know, damage that has occurred. I mean, there are invasive species, there are water issues and so forth. But these groups really express great concern about what they would say high Maasai populations. So the Maasai population around the Ngorongoro Crater has grown to approximately 200,000 people in total around the northern tourist circuit, more broadly.

So these groups have been sort of pressuring the government to do something about the population. They accuse the Maasai of sort of overgrazing, blame them for, you know, introducing these invasive species and so forth. The Maasai, of course, would say that, you know, and they have countered with their own studies and reports and, you know, saying that tourism has an impact on the environment. And, you know, thousands of land cruisers have an impact on the environment. And, you know, there are other things.

And so President Hassan, she spoke about conservation. And what that turned out to mean was that she wanted to resettle roughly the 100,000 Maasai people, the entire population of Maasai, from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to other parts of the country. And it also meant - I should say conservation also turned out to mean that she wanted to create an exclusive game reserve out of that 600-square-mile piece of land adjacent to Serengeti National Park. This would create an exclusive hunting playground for the Dubai royal family. So where the Maasai had previously been sort of allowed to be there, she proposed making that an exclusive hunting reserve in the name of conservation, which turned out to mean that the Dubai royal family could still hunt there, and roughly 70,000 Maasai, who depended upon that land, could no longer be there.

DAVIES: Wow. Now, one of the things that you mention is that when the new government of Tanzania made these arrangements with these entities associated from - with the United Arab Emirates, one of them was a company called Blue Carbon, which had a huge, you said, 20 million acres under their management, which they would then use to assign carbon credits. Explain how this works. These are companies who are emitting carbon. And in order to offset the damage they're doing, they can buy carbon. Just explain how this works, carbon credits.

MCCRUMMEN: Basically, the idea of carbon credits is that if you're an oil company, instead of sort of dramatically curbing your own pollution, you will save a forest is sort of the idea. You will secure a forest somewhere to absorb your pollution. And the mechanism for this is carbon credits. So a company like Blue Carbon, they're sort of a middleman, in a way. So they go out and they find the land. So in this case, it's the 20 million acres in Tanzania. And then a certain number of carbon credits will be generated, if you will, from that land and then be put into a market where a company, you know, and this is, you know, an oil company, it might be I think Gucci, for a while, would promise consumers that, you know, their clothing would be carbon neutral. So these companies can purchase these carbon credits and then, you know, sort of say that, you know, they're clean, if you will. And so Blue Carbon is in this business, which is expected to become $1 trillion market in coming years. I mean, it's a huge business.

DAVIES: But the Maasai were essentially targeted, if you will, because they were in the way of this expanded tourism and safari and hunting industry.

MCCRUMMEN: Absolutely.


MCCRUMMEN: Yes. Yes. And I should say here that one of the more interesting and important things that I learned in reporting this story is about the image that is sold to tourists who - tourists just want to see, you know, animals and the spectacular landscape. So I don't want to vilify tourists or anything like that, but the safari companies, and for that matter, you know, a thousand movies and documentaries have painted this image of the Serengeti as being this sort of primordial landscape, this sort of pre-human place.

And the reality is that the Maasai, you know, having lived in this ecosystem for hundreds of years, really, in many ways, created this landscape. Why? Because they need grasses for their cattle, and they need nature to live. And so they have traditional practices, you know, controlled burns, they rotate grasses, they have very intricate land management systems, if you will. And so the real story of the Serengeti and the real image of the Serengeti would be of seeing Maasai with their cattle - grazing their cattle, I should say, with animals, with zebra, with giraffe. That's the true image of the Serengeti, not this land without people, if you will. So many ways, when, you know, the government wants to get the Maasai out of the way, they're trying to give these tourist companies - create this image - recreate this image, or match this image that safari companies are selling.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you.

We are speaking with Stephanie McCrummen, she's a staff writer at The Atlantic. Her new article is "This Will Finish Us: How Gulf Princes, The Safari Industry And Conservation Groups Are Displacing The Maasai From The Last Of Their Serengeti Homeland." She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with Atlantic staff writer Stephanie McCrummen. She's written recently about how foreign buyers have been acquiring land in northern Tanzania, driving the pastoral Maasai tribespeople off traditional grazing lands with the support of harsh government oppression. The foreign actors include billionaires from the United Arab Emirates, who pursue big game hunting, as well as wealthy tourists and conservation groups. Her new article in The Atlantic is "This Will Finish Us: How Gulf Princes, The Safari Industry And Conservation Groups Are Displacing The Maasai From The Last Of Their Serengeti Homeland."

So the government of Tanzania, after a new president was elected, decides that we're going to really invest in tourism and conservation. And we've concluded that the Maasai, they are grazing too many cattle, they're a problem and they are going to have to move, you know, tens of thousands of them. What was their offer to the Maasai people?

MCCRUMMEN: So the Tanzanian government, they have said that they want to resettle the entire Maasai population of roughly 100,000 people in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, so this is next to the famous Ngorongoro Crater. And they are offering to settle them in this development far to the south in a sort of hotter, flatter part of the country, an area called Msomera. And they're building this massive development of cinder block houses, thousands of them in this area. They're offering them some few thousand dollars as compensation to move. The cinder block houses have, you know, running water, electricity. They're building schools and, you know, with computer labs and so forth as a way to, you know, entice the Maasai to go there.

So it's roughly 5,000 of these houses sort of laid out on a grid in this sort of other part of Tanzania. Five thousand houses is not nearly enough to resettle 100,000 people, obviously. So it's unclear where they expect other people to go. The Tanzanian government says that this is a voluntary resettlement. The Maasai say that it's not voluntary, that they're coercing them, that they've cut services in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and that they're harassing them in many ways to get them to move. The government also - government official told me that they reserve the right to use force if the Maasai ultimately disagree.

And the government has been dispatching these people to sort of go to markets in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and sort of make this pitch. And at one point when we were there, one of these two officials, it was, actually, were making a pitch and they got pelted with stones. I mean, they were just sort of run out of town. The Maasai say they do not want to move. And in fact, they were promised this area in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area back when they were evicted from Serengeti National Park. The deal was that they were supposed to be able to live in this area in an arrangement where, you know, they were supposed to be able to graze their cattle. It was this new, pioneering - at the time - conservation arrangement there. And so they really feel that this is another huge betrayal.

DAVIES: So in June 2022, there's a major operation involving security personnel, soldiers, police, park rangers to go ahead and enforce what the Maasai don't want to embrace voluntarily. Tell us what happened.

MCCRUMMEN: In June of 2022, hundreds of security forces and trucks start rolling into Maasai villages around this area, the roughly 600-square-mile area, to demarcate the 600-square-mile area as a restricted game reserve. So they come in, and this is sort of a show of force that the Maasai had really never seen before. The security forces set up camps on the edges of 14 villages that border this 600-square-mile zone. And then what happened next was fairly systematic. They called village leaders to a meeting and then told them what was about to happen, that this demarcation exercise was about to happen.

And when leaders refused to agree with this, to go along, they were arrested. So 27 leaders were arrested and eventually held for many months. And then security forces proceeded to begin planting these beacons - these are, like, 4-foot-high cement markers - to mark off this area. And what happened was the Maasai would sort of come behind them and just smash them down. Women and men, you know, take machetes and kick them. And, you know, there was a real sort of protest going on against, you know, what was happening.

And these young Maasai warriors took up positions, thousands of them, in these areas along the road and were sort of ready to fight. And at one point, one of them shot an arrow and killed a police officer. And after that, all bets were off and security forces opened fire at Maasai. They started ransacking bomas. They started beating people. And it was a really terrible scene. Thousands of Maasai ended up fleeing into Kenya at that point.

DAVIES: Now, what about the homes, the bomas, these compounds that included homes and corrals where they would keep their animals. What happened to them, what happened to the livestock?

MCCRUMMEN: Right. After they sort of opened fire and the Maasai fled, the security forces went into this newly demarcated area and began burning bomas. So they torched hundreds of bomas, they had bulldozers, they bulldozed them to the ground. And these were homes of roughly 70,000 people.

And after that, you know, it was just - this whole area basically became, for a time, a kind of militarized zone. So people sort of slowly came back to their villages. Security forces were patrolling the roads. Hundreds of people were sort of taken in for questioning about their citizenship. They were accused of being Kenyan Maasai, not Tanzanian Maasai. And then what began happening is security forces and park rangers began seizing cattle by the hundreds and by the thousands, and eventually by the - the number has reached into the tens of thousands at this point. So they seized the cattle. And they would sort of hold them in a pen and force the Maasai to go to court or otherwise prove that these cattle were theirs in order to get them back, levying exorbitant fines. And so many people couldn't pay.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. We are speaking with Stephanie McCrummen. Her new article in The Atlantic is "This Will Finish Us: How Gulf Princes, The Safari Industry And Conservation Groups Are Displacing The Maasai From The Last Of Their Serengeti Homeland." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with The Atlantic staff writer Stephanie McCrummen. She's written recently about the Maasai, a pastoral tribe of cattle herders in Northern Tanzania, and how they're being driven away from traditional grazing lands by foreign investors, often in the name of conservation.

You write about one man named Songoyo who was a Maasai cattle herder who was deeply affected by this displacement of his people. Tell us a bit about him and his position before this movement began.

MCCRUMMEN: Sure. So before all of this began, Songoyo was a very traditional Maasai man. He would probably, you know, in art terms, be sort of a middle-class man. He had 75 cattle, which is a good number of cattle. He had three wives and 14 children. He had two homes, traditional Maasai homes. One was in the area that would soon become this exclusive game reserve for the Dubai royal family, and another closer to the village where his children went to school. This is how many Maasai families arranged themselves. And he had grown up in a very traditional way. He learned everything that a, you know, Maasai learns, including cosmology, if you will, that, you know, the story goes that when God left the Earth, God left the Maasai to care for all the cattle in the world and then by extension, the land, too. So he was a, you know, by his own estimation, a proud, respected, basically middle-class Maasai man before all of this began.

DAVIES: Right. And he was - his life was, gosh, not too much to say, ruined by this displacement. Where did you meet him, and how did you get all this detail about his life?

MCCRUMMEN: Well, by the time that we met Songoyo, his home had been burned due to this campaign that had unfolded to create this exclusive game reserve for the Dubai royal family. So his home had been among the hundreds that had been burned. All 75 cattle had been seized by park rangers. So by the point that we met, he was without any cattle and was trying to start his life again as basically a herder for hire. He was in Kenya at that point. He'd been hired to sort of herd businessman's livestock from market to market to sell them. And, you know, very, very, you know, laborious, very difficult way of life. And the point was, he wanted to earn enough money to buy one cow to start over again.

DAVIES: Without a cow, he's not a man.

MCCRUMMEN: Without a cow, as he said, you know, no cattle, no land, no life.

DAVIES: When you say herded, I mean, just what did that look like? I mean, him taking these goats or cattle on this effort - taking them to market?

MCCRUMMEN: Sure. You know, so he would start at one market, and if he didn't sell the sheep - it was often sheep - he would have to proceed some 60, 75 miles to the, you know, to the next market.

DAVIES: You're talking about him walking - what? - with a stick and walking...

MCCRUMMEN: It was walking - yes. So he's walking with a stick with this group of livestock, and - you know, and he has to make it to the market on time. So he's walking, you know, for hours and hours and overnight, and oftentimes, he's crossing the Maasai Mara. This is in the Kenyan side. It's sort of the Kenyan equivalent of Serengeti National Park. So he'll cross, you know, at night. And this very dangerous. He'll cross at night because really, the Maasai aren't supposed to be in this park. The Kenyans sort of look the other way a little bit. But - so he's facing wild animals. He's almost, you know, trampled by elephants at one point. He has lions, you know, he's dealing with at one point.

DAVIES: At one point he's asleep and some hyenas come kill some of the - where they goats or cattle? I'm trying to...

MCCRUMMEN: They - so at some point, yes, he's so exhausted and he finally decides to sleep one night, and hyenas come and they kill a couple of his sheep, you know, that belonged to another businessman. So now he has to, of course, sort of compensate the businessman for the lost animals. So, you know, his situation is just spiraling downward.

DAVIES: Right. So he goes just great distances. When he finally gets back to his village, what does he have for his efforts?

MCCRUMMEN: I mean, he's compensated something like, you know, the equivalent of $10, $20, $25, depending on how it goes each circuit, if you will. So this is what he does every week. And he's trying to raise enough money to buy one cow, which is anywhere - $200 to $300.

DAVIES: It's just heartbreaking to read this story. I mean, 'cause he goes through all of this risk and exertion without food and water and ends up with $20. And he needs - what? - a couple of hundred to buy a cow someday.


DAVIES: And in the end, he didn't get his cattle back. He could have borrowed money from loan sharks to try, but that wasn't a good course.

MCCRUMMEN: Right. He and his - he - the court ended up deciding that they could pay a fine to get their cattle back. Well, his portion of the fine was something like $5,000. And so he decided not to do that and not to borrow the money. Many Maasai, what they do is they borrow the money, they get the cattle back, and then they sell half or two-thirds of the cattle to pay back the money. And so, as I say in the story, you know, the government is making money off of this campaign to sort of dispossess the Maasai. But Songoyo decided not to do that. And after the court case, he goes home. He's just sitting there thinking, my life is over. I have to - I have nothing. And, you know, he talked about considering suicide, which is very unusual in Maasai culture. But instead, decided no, that he would try again and try to raise this money to start over.

DAVIES: I want to talk a bit about tourism and how that fits into this. Some areas have been granted to wealthy people for exclusive hunting rights. There are also just lots of companies that offer safaris and bring regular tourists. You write in the story that the safari industry is selling an old and destructive myth. What's the myth?

MCCRUMMEN: The myth is, you know, that the Serengeti - the park, the ecosystem - is somehow this primordial landscape, this sort of pre-human Eden and that what people are seeing is, you know, this pristine nature. And it is pristine, and it is nature, obviously. It's a spectacular landscape. But the reality is, and this was so fascinating to me - I didn't quite understand this when I first embarked on this story. But the Serengeti is - in many ways, the Maasai created the Serengeti ecosystem, what people think of as the Serengeti ecosystem.

The Maasai had been, you know, grazing cattle and really managing this landscape for 400 years, you know, before the British came and decided to, you know, save it, as it were. And so they have traditional practices, they rotate grasses, they would do controlled burns. They had certain rules about keeping their cattle away from wildebeest during calving season, for example, when wildebeest have - carry a certain disease that can be deadly to cattle. And, you know, they have all these rules around...

DAVIES: Never cut down a tree is one of them, right?

MCCRUMMEN: Never cut down a tree, yes. So they have all kinds of, you know, intricate rules around maintaining this landscape. And so the lush grasses of the Serengeti ecosystem, these great savannas, in many ways were a product of the Maasai managing this land. So in some ways, it was sort of a tended landscape, if you will. And the same is true of many landscapes, many, you know, areas around the world that these traditional people, Indigenous people are often, you know, the original conservators of this landscape. So when they hear someone say, oh, we want to conserve this land, from their point of view they think, well, what does that mean? It's conserved, so from their point of view it often - you know, this term conservation often feels like a looming land grab.

DAVIES: Right. You know, you do include one example of how, you know, the tourism industry, when it gets big enough, when it brings enough people and enough vehicles, can really interfere with things. And this was a moment where there's a herd of wildebeests - you know, these animals that are in the antelope family, have these big, muscular bodies - are trying to cross a river. And on the other side of the river, there are a bunch of vehicles lined up with tourists and their cameras. Tell us this story.

MCCRUMMEN: Yeah, so this is one of the big events that tourists come to see, the great migration. And it is a spectacular sight of just millions of wildebeests crossing from Tanzania into Kenya. They're following the grasses. And at some point, you know, they cross this river, the Mara River. And this is just an incredible sight. But what is happening is there are so many tourists now. So when we were there, we arrive at the Mara River, and there are just hundreds of Land Cruisers lined up on one side of the river. And on the other side are these wildebeests, and they're sort of massing and waiting for the moment - usually, you know, one will sort of plunge into the river and then the rest follow. But it was hours. And they - you know, if you're a wildebeest, you're looking across the river and you see this metal fortification, basically.

And so we sat there for several hours. The wildebeest weren't crossing. And finally they sort of moved upriver where there were fewer cars, where there's some gaps where they could get through, you know, when they reach the other side. And then finally they began crossing, at which point the Land Cruisers, you know, all of a sudden - you know, there's radio chatter and word gets out that they're crossing. And now all these Land Cruisers sort of move in mass down the river. And so it's just this sort of - this absurd scene. And again, I don't mean to vilify tourists at all. I mean, this is an incredible sight to see, and everyone should be so lucky to get to see it. But there is a sense that things have gotten out of balance.

DAVIES: Well, Stephanie McCrummen, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MCCRUMMEN: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Stephanie McCrummen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a staff writer at The Atlantic. Her new article is "This Will Finish Us: How Gulf Princes, The Safari Industry And Conservation Groups Are Displacing The Maasai From The Last Of Their Serengeti Homeland." Coming up, John Powers reviews the new TV series "The Sympathizer," about a Vietnamese double agent during and after the Vietnam War. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS LORTIE'S "JEUX D'EAU, M. 30") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dave Davies
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.