Power to the People

By Megan Sheehan

Within 24 hours of my arrival to Tanzania, I watched the future of its wildlife cross a road.

The hot, African sun shone down as we watched a herd of about 20 elephants amble across a dirt road in Tarangire National Park.  (I was with a small group of Conservancy staff invested in telling the story of our work in Africa.) We marveled at the number of babies within the herd. It was hard not to feel that this moment symbolized a hopeful future for this species, because I know that African elephants are in peril. Save the Elephants estimates that 30,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory. I can’t even really comprehend that number. Even as I write it, I wonder if it’s too big for any animal to outlast.

And yet, here in front of our truck, was a large and healthy multi-generational herd of elephants, defying that gloomy statistic.

Those elephants gave me hope that something is changing for wildlife and nature. Tarangire is the only place in Tanzania where elephant populations are growing. If a relatively small national park is seeing growth, it’s obvious that its protected borders help. But that’s only part of the answer. Elephants need a lot of land to survive, and they don’t discern borders of a protected area. Their need for 200 pounds of salad and a lot of water — every single day — keeps them moving. The generational herd of elephants crossed that road to get to the other side. And who will protect them on the other side? The reason for Tarangire’s success isn’t just that it’s a national park. The reason for its success lies outside of Tarangire’s borders.

The future of Tanzania’s wildlife is people.   

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Zebra graze in Terrat, a village that placed an easement on their land and now manages it for livestock and wildlife.

Tanzania is a lovely country, and a relaxed vibe seems to permeate every exchange. “Pole pole” means “slowly” in Swahili, but it was also used when we Americans were moving at our typical frenetic pace. Hey, guys—chill out.

Tanzania is also at a tipping point for conserving its natural resources, as is all of Africa. To say Africa is naturally beautiful is a laughable understatement. And even more impressive is the connection that native Africans have to their land — knowledge of what species are where, and when. Knowing that one road would be impassable due to recent rains, our guide in Tarangire took a right turn at a very specific Baobab tree for a better, albeit jarring, alternate route. Get ready to enjoy your African massage!

But the world is changing, and it’s changing fast enough that conservation organizations barely have time to blink before profitable interests make lasting decisions in Africa — often disregarding the voices of local communities whose livelihoods depend on those lands.

While in Tanzania, my colleague told me that in 2010, the Tanzanian government had planned a paved road that would bisect the Serengeti National Park, severing a wildlife corridor used by millions of wildebeests and other grazing animals. (I thought, then, of the scene from Tangled, when Rapunzel chops off her powerful golden hair and the magic literally drains from it.)

A ruling in 2014 deemed the road unlawful, and for now, the Serengeti stands whole.

But Africa is at the center of a question that affects the entire world: How do we balance inevitable, even needed, development with the world’s irreplaceable species? Tanzania’s population growth rate is one of the highest in the world, and with that growth comes the demand for land, energy, water, and food. As suitable cropland grows scarcer, agrarian tribes are moving farther into traditionally pastoral areas. These changes create conflict between tribes and with wildlife that trample and eat crops as they move through long-established migration corridors.   

That precisely is why people are the future of wildlife — of nature — in Tanzania. Conservation in Tanzania is an understanding of the complexity of relationships between villages, people, families, wildlife, and governments. This is where The Nature Conservancy’s strengths come in.

When the director of our Africa program, David Banks, first moved our work into Tanzania, he noticed that the country already had a number of dependable organizations doing good work for people and nature. The problem was that none of these very small organizations were talking to each other.

The Northern Tanzania Rangelands Initiative (NTRI) was born from this realization. By convening nine diverse organizations together to accomplish the same goal — to ensure the landscapes benefit people and wildlife — we bring together puzzle pieces that form a larger picture of how to save nature. The Nature Conservancy connects and accelerates conservation work in Tanzania by making the conservation work more efficient, and filling in gaps in expertise.

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The Nature Conservancy's office in Tanzania.

Northern Tanzania’s rangelands are made up of nearly 7 million acres of savanna and scrubland, where wildlife roam and indigenous tribes reside. These rangelands also span the Great Rift Valley, where our ancestors are believed to have originated.  As I stared at cliffs that still hold fossilized footprints from the first human steps, I felt incredibly grateful that I was able to see this landscape for myself. Its beauty and history are so uncompromised and incomparable to anything I’ve ever seen that it’s hard for me to imagine what development could bring to this view.

Not surprisingly, the top threat to Tanzania’s people and wildlife is unchecked development. In many areas, agricultural investors – and even pastoralist tribes themselves, who want to lay claim to the land – convert traditional pastoral lands into cropland, which disrupts and dissects wildlife movement corridors. In other areas, it involves new settlements that threaten to cut off the routes wildlife and livestock traverse between wet and dry season grazing grounds.

The key to saving land and wildlife in Tanzania is ownership of native lands. If communities lack title over their lands, or lack enforceable land use plans that define what activities are permitted in which zones, then those communities are at risk of losing control of the lands and resources they need to survive.

What I think we all found surprising is that the very nature of Tanzania’s rangelands — their expansive beauty combined with traditional, pastoralist living — is in part to blame for the threat of unchecked development. There exists a perception that lots of land is available in Tanzania when, in fact, it’s not.

To make matters worse, because of rampant development and population growth, pastoral tribes will sometimes rush to convert their land to agriculture as a means to claim it — to show that it’s being used and is owned.

We met three of eight NTRI partners while in Tanzania, and the Conservancy’s conservation coordinator, Alphonce Mallya, is at the center of puzzle building between them. Alphonce is a jack-of-all-trades native Tanzanian whose local- and science-based expertise is an invaluable resource to villages, partners, and governments. For example, when the borders of Tarangire were drawn in 1970, wildlife routes were relatively unknown. Now Alphonce can create and share maps with NTRI partners and villagers to show where boundaries of parks lie, where wildlife migrate, and where villages want to graze their cattle. Partners now have a big-picture view of what should be done to save Tanzania’s wild lands. NTRI colleagues work with villages on sustainable land-use plans — such as where and when to graze their livestock — that are part of the process toward gaining official titles to their land. These titles are everything – if they don’t have the ownership, they can’t enforce the plan.

The partners that work together as NTRI, therefore, have the best shot at making a difference for the future of Tanzania. 

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The Nature Conservancy provides funds and resources to villages and NTRI partners in Tanzania. Leboi, a game scout for the village of Terrat, uses the motorcycle to patrol the easement that protects his village's land.

A great example of this kind of work can be found by taking a look at one of the NTRI partners: Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT). Edward Loure led UCRT as it helped local villages secure legal rights to their lands. By empowering communities over individuals, the work of UCRT developed and implemented better local resource management plans based on customary practices, which helped to resolve long-standing local conflicts over land and natural resources.

After being nominated by TNC, Edward Loure won the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize in April 2016 for his role in creating a pioneering form of land ownership called a Certificate of Customary Right of Occupancy (CCRO) that has already protected more than 200,000 acres of rangelands.

On our way back from meeting a village that has protected their land using a CCRO, we sat at a café and ate “ugali,” traditional maize-based porridge. Buses picked up passengers and dropped them off on the corner, and two women stood nearby, holding up necklaces and brightly beaded bracelets for us to see. I marveled at the intersection of old and new. New cars, new roads, and new shops were mixing with customary clothes, practices, and food.  I felt that moment was symbolic for the rest of Africa. How can we make sure the inevitable changes – like increased desires to develop and change the landscapes – complement, and not destroy, what already exists?

After one particularly grueling “African massage,” we pulled off the rutted dirt road to find a group of Maasai leaders waiting for our arrival. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere; no sign announced that we had crossed a village border, and our hosts’ clothes — brightly patterned red and blue plaids — popped against the endlessly green scrublands. We had arrived in Terrat, a village that rests in the Western Simanjiro region and is vital wildlife habitat. Terrat rests close to Tarangire National Park, where the herd of elephants crossed our path. The importance of Terrat was clear before any of us spoke, as we had seen more zebra, wildebeest, and giraffe there than in Tarangire.

Together we looked at a map of the landscape that outlined the village borders and illustrated their proximity to other villages, grazing areas, and the national park. My marketing colleagues and I, our NTRI colleagues, and the Maasai leaders were standing within a great migration corridor, one used by wildebeest and other ungulates. It was a powerful moment. This map was giving us all a view of what land rights, boundaries, villages, governments, and wildlife all had in common: the ground beneath our feet.

These men ensure that grazing occurs where it should so that wildlife is accommodated. They alert officials when they find signs of poaching, and penalize village members for grazing in prohibited locations. They pored over the map, and excitedly talked and pointed. Alphonce later translated their excitement over using an easement to protect their land. “We own it,” they said. “This land is our future.” They had chosen to manage their land to benefit the wildlife and themselves, in essence expanding wildlife grazing lands beyond Tarangire to include their village.

I think meeting these Maasai leaders was one of my favorite moments in Tanzania. The sky was bright and the clouds were puffy and gray. Their white teeth gleamed against their dark skin. I felt as though I was surrounded by color and light.

I thought of the elephants we’d seen in Tarangire – not too far from where we stood. I looked across the landscape and admired the peaceful wildebeest and zebra in the hot sun. Sweat ran down my back as Leboi – one of Terrat’s village game scouts – and I took a picture together. We all smiled at each other in recognition that here, before us, was the future of Tanzania’s wildlife.  

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The author and Leboi, a Terrat village game scout, pose for a selfie.


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