While Brian Miller and Tim Baird were making sandwiches on the hood of their Land Cruiser, they joked about Tanzania’s lack of snakes. For years they had been visiting villages to understand how the people living near conservation parks were affected by those parks. Miller and Baird’s local research assistants, Gabriel Ole Saitoti and Isaya Rumas, were well aware of the area’s deadly snakes. But Miller and Baird had yet to see one and they were becoming skeptical.

They joked too soon. Mid-sandwich, the group heard villagers in a nearby field yelling, “Nyoka!” Saitoti translated: “Snake!”

By the time they got to the field, a spitting cobra—which can shoot venom up to six feet to blind any animal that threatens it—had unfurled its hood and reared up to its full height. A handful of Maasai villagers had encircled it, throwing rocks and clamoring for its death.

Without hesitation, Rumas jumped in to help kill the snake. After all, the village was not far off, and there were children and livestock around. Saitoti, on the other hand, stood back. He felt that if you left a snake alone, then the next time one crossed your path it would leave you alone. “Almost like snake karma,” Miller says.

Miller and Baird knew about the two different snake philosophies, so Rumas’s and Saitoti’s responses came as no surprise. But these were just the types of decisions Baird, Miller, and anthropologist Paul Leslie had come to Tanzania to understand. Their goal: to find a win-win situation for the wildlife and the people who call the Serengeti home.

Spanning northern Tanzania and southern Kenya—and part of a cluster of parks, reserves, World Heritage sites, and some of the earliest records of the human genus—are the wild, unforgiving Serengeti and Tarangire-Manyara ecosystems. They’re home to the world’s largest migrations of hungry vegetarians: elephants, zebras, wildebeest, gazelles, and buffalo continually chase the rains and sprouting savannah grass in and out of the parks.

Click to read photo caption. Brian Miller

The region is also part of Maasailand. In past centuries, the Maasai lived as seminomadic herders, fearlessly intermingling with the predators of the plains and earning a reputation as fierce warriors. “They moved from one place to another because they needed to bring their cattle to where rain had fallen and grass had grown,” Baird explains.

They set up temporary homes and considered the plains communal land. “Their pastures had no boundaries, no titles or deeds,” Leslie says. A boy became a man when he killed a lion. Their diet consisted mostly of milk, meat, and occasionally blood. That is, until the Maasai started farming.

Click to read photo caption. Brian Miller

For the past two decades or so, local governments, international conservation groups, and researchers have been following the transition of the Maasai from herders to crop growers. Some Maasai have taken up home gardens, while others have gotten involved in commercial farming. Now maize meal is a staple in the Maasai diet. Men have left their herds, migrating to cities to earn money for their farms.

“If you’re putting a maize field in the middle of grasslands, you’re obviously changing the environment,” Leslie says. Widespread farming alters resource use and availability; it creates topsoil erosion, reduces pasture land, requires precious water, and could block the paths of migratory wildlife. “It could really disrupt the ecosystem,” Leslie says. So, the big questions are: Why are the Maasai changing their livelihood? What are the consequences for their health? For their culture and social organization? For the environment?

Click to read photo caption. Brian Miller

In the 1950s the Tanzanian government created the Serengeti National Park and the indigenous Maasai were moved to the highlands. They were no longer allowed to bring their livestock to the park, even during the wet season when the area was lush for grazing. The idea was to preserve the wildlife and regulate hunting, particularly of lions. Herds of tourists followed. In the following decades, more parks and conservation areas were established, including the Tarangire—which had been a drought refuge for the Maasai—in 1970. “This whole area of Tanzania is called the ‘northern circuit,’” Leslie says. “It’s the prime tourist destination.”

“Anybody who studies the social dynamics of conservation has, at one point, said that parks can be terrible for poor people,” Baird says. “Parks kick them off the land, take away their resources, don’t share profits.” In some places, park boundaries are obscure or contested, and people have built farms right up to the edges. Park rangers are often heavy-handed in enforcing park rules and have cut down whole crop fields that seemed to them a little too close. The past decade also brought a string of droughts that have devastated wildlife, crops, and people.

You could guess a lot of reasons the Maasai might pick up farming in the midst of conservation efforts: an additional food source, better nutrition, a way to make a little money. But as Leslie, Miller, and Baird are finding, the Maasai’s responses and decisions aren’t that simple. “At first we thought it was because of poverty and population growth,” Leslie says. “To some extent that’s true, but if that were the case you would have agriculture only being taken up by the poorest people.” That’s not what’s happening.

Leslie went to Tanzania in 1998 to figure out exactly what was going on. Knowing that parks spur broad change, he started by looking at demography, land use, and economic activity in the villages. One of the first things he and his team found was that each village was worried about the same things—access to resources, being cut off from land and water—but all had slightly different strategies. Cultivation was the single common trend.

Click to read photo caption. Brian Miller

Some villages made up land titles for farming to try to block the government from expanding neighboring parks. “They feel threatened by the park, and when they cultivate the land it’s like branding, like they would brand their animals,” Baird says. Some villages decided where to plant crops and build structures, such as secondary schools, in order to block the migrations. “The villagers think if the migrating wildlife aren’t there, the government is not going to be interested in taking their land,” Leslie says. “It’s basically preemptive cultivation.” Still other villages have started their own conservation efforts; they’ve given up areas otherwise used for farming and herding so that wildebeest can come to calf.

The trouble is that these strategies may not work. For instance, branding land with cultivation could trigger stronger conservation efforts. And putting fields in the middle of migratory paths may just lead wildlife to tromp through and destroy crops. Giving up the most nutritious grasses to wildebeest and other wildlife means the Maasai’s herds won’t have enough food, so neither will the Maasai. “These are political strategies and economic ones,” Leslie says. “They’re all experimenting, really. It’s all in flux.”

“For every type of natural resource management, any type of intervention, there will be a response,” Baird says. “If we can understand it, if we can predict what that response is going to be, then we can design the management strategy more effectively.”

Click to read photo caption. Tim Baird


Since severe droughts in 2000 and 2009 devastated the Maasai’s crops and herds, Brian Miller has been researching how fluxes in land use and social dynamics have affected water. “When you talk to the Maasai about their main concerns, they say that water availability and access is huge,” Miller says. In the past, they would get their water from the park area, which is now off-limits. “In dry seasons and droughts, that’s where the wildlife and tourists are,” he says. “So the Maasai can’t just sneak in and go to the river.” When rain does fall, it’s in unpredictable spurts; one patch can be well watered, while a patch two hundred yards away can get no water at all.

Miller will be in Tanzania for eight months this year to find out how the Maasai have adapted. He’ll interview villagers, water management councils, village officials, and clan elders to figure out where and how people are getting water and what effect that has on the environment. He’s focusing on four rivers outside of Tarangire that have different management strategies and levels of development. Villagers told him that the most remote river is pristine, while another, downstream of a recent deforestation site, is a useless trickle. Miller will record the shape of the river channel and evaluate sediment-supply changes and water discharge levels to verify the villagers’ reports.

Water access depends on socioeconomics. Water managers and NGOs have drilled boreholes to pump water up from aquifers, for which they often charge fees. Villagers have dug wells by hand in the riverbed—possibly disrupting water and sediment flow—which they regulate using traditional rules that favor clan members. Miller wants to know what’s driving their choices.

I’ll take some satellite imagery that’ll tell me about where the vegetation is most productive, and then on top of that I can stack the conservation data, and then I can also stack a layer for agriculture development,” he says. He’ll use those data to build a model of the consequences of changes in resource access.

He’ll walk a fine line between drawing suspicion from the Maasai or from the park officials. “The park authority is leery of social scientists in general, since they tend to write about the raw deal that people are getting,” Paul Leslie says. If they think Miller’s causing trouble, they could revoke his research clearance. But if the Maasai think that he’s working with a conservation group, they might not tell him what’s going on. So his team goes by the name “Savanna Land Use Project.”

It’s not conservation. It’s not human development. It’s generic,” Leslie says. If only there were an “R” in it, he jokes, they could call it SLURP.

—Beth Mole

While the Maasai test new methods, Leslie and his team are following their decisions, their logic, and what those mean for the ecosystems and Maasailand. “Ultimately,” Miller says, “our goal is to find some balance there. A good starting point is understanding how people are generating their income and what effects they may be having on the local ecosystem” (see “SLURP?” sidebar).

In the past thirteen years, Leslie’s team has been in the Serengeti/Tarangire region almost constantly, surveying the villages and lands in flux. “You can’t just go there for a year and say, ‘Well, this is what it’s usually like,’ because things fluctuate so much,” Leslie says. They set up a permanent, thornbush-enclosed camp outside of Tarangire. Luckily, lions and hyenas treat tents like rocks. “They don’t know that they have a soft chewy center,” Leslie says. But the team takes precautions just in case. They hire villagers to help them out—a guard at the campsite, for example. It’s like a small business, Miller says: “We call it the Company.”

After looking at big-picture demographic and land-use changes, Baird came back from an eleven-month trip with a big finding. “In Western-speak, I investigate the banking and insurance sectors of Maasai culture,” he says. While the Maasai don’t usually open checking accounts or buy insurance, they have economic systems in place that provide the same safety nets. Baird found that their economic choices are indicators of how well the village is developing—how much health care, education, and access to water they have. “My hypothesis was that development was going to be lower closer to the park,” Baird says. After all, the park introduces constraints to the Maasai way of life. But he found that the park actually seemed to catalyze the Maasai’s development and prosperity. It changed their investment decisions, too.

“Tarangire National Park is forty years old,” Baird says. “The Maasai don’t just remain victims forever. They adapt. They come up with new strategies.” In the past, the Maasai used cattle restocking and animal loans as insurance, which provided a way to mitigate risk. If a Maasai’s cattle were killed by drought or disease, villagers would each donate an animal or two to help him restock. If a Maasai needed extra money for, say, a hospital visit, he might ask for a loan in the form of an animal to sell. The borrower would eventually have to pay back the animal, usually with a more expensive one to incorporate interest.

“A loan is only extended if you have a problem. The same with restocking,” Baird says. “Gifts are different.” Gifts of animals are used to forge friendships and connections in happier times. These connections are central to the villagers’ culture and way of life.

“I found villages far from the park using lending and restocking all the time,” Baird says, “which means they’re having problems.” The villages closest to the parks aren’t, at least not to the same degree. In fact, the closest villages found ways to build schools, recruit outside help to drill wells, build dams, and get hunting companies to pay for stuff, Baird says. Since the villagers see the park as a risk, they have diversified and embraced modern techniques to mitigate that risk. Instead of relying on old insurances, they developed new ways around problems. Now they use gifting as their primary transaction. When they do use loans, they use them to capture opportunities, such as paying for school. The villages far from the park certainly aren’t doing that.

Click to read photo caption. Tim Baird

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. “The concern is that development outside of the park is harmful to the long-term integrity of the ecosystem,” Baird says. Some conservation groups are actually paying villagers not to develop land or plant crops. “In southern Africa, it’s more often a matter of policy to try to get local communities to benefit from conservation,” Leslie says. That way people living nearby are less threatened by the park and less likely to negate conservation efforts. “We started doing comparative work to see what works,” Leslie says.

Click to read photo caption. Tim Baird

Miller is working on a model to understand the relationship between conservation interventions, social responses, and positive outcomes. He’s starting with the villages outside of Tarangire, where the Tanzanian guide Rumas is from. Once the model is done, he’ll test it out. “Ideally, I would go to different parts of Tanzania or different parts of the world and see if it holds up,” Miller says. That somewhere different might be the northern region where Saitoti is from and where conservation efforts and park rangers have been the most aggressive. “People have been thrown in jail or beaten, or had animals confiscated,” Leslie explains.

“Perceptions of conservation are very different there,” Baird says.

When Rumas jumped in to help kill the spitting cobra, one of the villagers grabbed a shuka—a traditional red dress cloth. “The villager was holding it up almost like a bullfighter to distract the cobra,” Miller says. The cobra shot its venom at the shuka while other villagers killed it with rakes. Because they believed that even the bones could kill, they brought oil and rags to burn the carcass. “They were very serious about disposing of it,” Miller says. “It was kind of sad to watch, actually.”

Click to read photo caption. Brian Miller

“Everybody agrees that conservation is worthwhile,” says Paul Leslie. “But this is a Western value. We like to see these animals. We’re convinced that there’s value in preserving species diversity. We can construct arguments about why this is a good thing, and I agree with almost all of them. The real problem is that conservation is, to a large extent, on the backs of local people who don’t typically benefit from it.”

Beth Mole was formerly a postdoctoral fellow in the medicinal chemistry and natural products division of the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

Paul Leslie is a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences. He received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Brian Miller is a doctoral candidate in the Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology and is funded by the Center for Global Initiatives and NSF. Timothy Baird is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography in the College of Arts and Sciences and is funded by a Fulbright-Hays fellowship and NSF. All three are members of the Carolina Population Center.