Saturday 17 September 2022

#075 Chimp trekking in Kyambura

Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
August 2012

UWA Ranger, chimpanzee tracking

Ten years ago, chimpanzee tracking activities for tourists were a relatively niche experience. Thanks to television documentaries and public recognition given to the work of primatologists like Dr. Jane Goodall; locations such as Gombe Stream, in Tanzania and Kibale Forest, in Uganda, have become popular destinations for guided primate experiences.

Jane Goodall - Nat Geo doc trailer

By comparison, commercial gorilla encounters were already well established in the Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda due to the 1988 film Gorillas In The Mist telling the story of Dr. Dian Fossey. 

Gorillas In The Mist Trailer

But, the most iconic moment of all was in episode 12 of the 1979 series, Life On Earth. When David Attenborough gave that famous piece to camera, while sitting among mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Those few minutes of film have perhaps done more for gorilla conservation and garnering goodwill for conservation issues in general, than any other, before or since.

David Attenborough with gorillas in 1979

Kyambura Gorge

While leading an expedition through Rwanda and into Uganda, I became aware of a small community of chimpanzee which, through geography and human encroachment, had become isolated in a riparian gorge.

We'd completed our mountain treks in the Rwenzori and had made camp at Mweya in Queen Elizabeth National Park, for a few days of rest and safari. The adjacent lodge had an elevated view over the Kazinga channel. So, after our game drives, we'd frequented the terrace for coffee and biscuits. We'd seen lion, defassa waterbuck, hippo and the ubiquitous Uganda kob in their natural environment. But not much in the way of behaviour. 

Mweya overlooking the Kasinga Channel

I asked a few more questions about Kyambura and was able to book my group onto an afternoon's chimpanzee tracking for just $25 each. Which was a bargain compared to advertised prices at the more mainstream locations. So, with a promise that guides would be waiting, the following day we boarded our coaster bus for the ride across to the opposite side of the national park.

The meeting point was a thatched shelter next to a platform with an impressive vista over the gorge. Nobody was there. It was so quiet, I thought we might have the wrong location. We were just a little early. I encouraged the group to take a few pictures while we waited. Sure enough, our Ranger guide, wearing the the forest green UWA uniform and carrying an AK-47, arrived on foot with two assistants.

Kyambura Gorge

Introductions made, we descended from the sunbaked grassland plain into the Maramagambo Forest. Our eyes soon adjusted to the diminished light under the canopy. There was a humid stillness to the air. Every snap of twig or crunch of leaves seemed amplified.

On the gorge floor a slim unvegetated earth trail snaked though the trees. Overhead a crash of leaves. Our guide identified a vervet monkey as it put some distance between us. We soon came upon the first of several river crossings. The water not particularly wide, three metres or so. Neither was it fast flowing, it appeared still but not stagnant. A fallen tree was the first bridge. It's girth large and dry enough for a uneventful walk across, although I took care to put my camera away in its waterproof bag.

A little further on we could all hear crashing in the undergrowth some way ahead. The ranger and one of the assistants went on to investigate, while we waited. A loud trumpet broke the tranquility, followed by more breaking of vegetation.

They returned. "Elephant. But they're heading away from where we are going. We'll continue."

Deeper into the gorge, the trail varied between dry and slippery mud depending upon how close we were to the overflow of the river. Then just ahead, a dark form, partly hidden by leaves. The ranger pointed, securing our attention, as whispers and intake of breath flowed through the group. We had found the chimps. Some words of advice were given as to how we should present ourselves and to keep a minimum distance in order to protect the chimps from communicable diseases. We walked forward, slowly, not stalking, deliberately advertising our presence.

The Kyambura chimps are habituated to human visitors, though they are still completely wild animals with defensive behaviour when feeling ambushed or threatened. None of us wanted to cross that line, to do so would have been very wrong and disrespectful. 

I was then aware that there were many chimps lounging in the greenery, on the ground and branches. One sat while being groomed by another. A young sub-adult curled itself into a ball and rolled around. Then they lay on its back, arms and legs akimbo, looking up to the canopy. It was an amazing and joyful sight, we took photos and watched with delight.

Over to the edge of the group, sat an adult male, delicately chewing individual leaves from a stem. I commented on his apparent separation to the ranger, who confirmed that this male had mounted a unsuccessful challenge to the alpha and was now keeping his head down out of trouble. Still on the trail and keeping the proper distance, the guide said we may approach a little further. 

"Since his fight with the alpha, this one has become more timid. But right now he's relaxed."

Without looking directly into his eyes, to avoid being perceived as a challenge, I sat down onto my heels. I looked sideways and the chimp looked back, the dappled light twinkling in his eyes as he continued to chew his leaves. It wasn't quite Attenborough rolling around with the gorillas, but it was a tender moment.

We retraced our steps in the opposite direction, back towards the others in our group. Then, above and behind us a sudden screech. As our heads turned, the atmosphere suddenly changed. The air was filled with loud vocalisations, whoops, scream and cries. Branches whipped and cracked, leaves crashed together and fell to the ground. The chimps leapt and darted from tree to tree, with lightning agility.

"They've seen the red-tailed monkey. Over there!"

The ranger pointed to a flash of red ochre zig zagging away from us. The monkey had come too close to the chimp clan and they were giving chase with intent. Chimps are known to be omnivores and hunt other primates for meat. This really was nature in all its manifestations. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the whooping stopped and the chimps settled in the branches.

"He's got away."
"That's one lucky monkey." I replied. It was such a incredible display of behaviour, yet still, I was just a bit glad that he had escaped, for today. Our group expressed similar sentiments.

Then, from above, something small landed beside us. Then again, this time hitting one of us on the shoulder. 

"What's that?" someone asked. More items seemingly falling from above.
"It's fruit!"

Having failed in their hunt, the chimps were now chewing on tree fruit and spitting the piths out. More fruit rained down, this time unchewed. Were they deliberately throwing it at us? Either for fun or because they'd had enough of us hanging around.

"It's time to go" said the ranger, nodding with a smile.
"They're telling us to." We laughed.

Our hour with the chimps of Kyambura had passed as if it was ten minutes. We had been so lucky to see so many aspects of their nature, behaviour and environment. We completed the last river crossings over boardwalks and around muddy pools, then ascended back out of the gorge. Talk among the group relived the moments with enthusiasm. This had been such a special experience, I knew I would remember it for the the rest of my life.

Back in the warm sunshine, it was time to say thank you to our guides. As well as a grateful handshake, we offered a tip to the ranger and his two assistants. While the group thanked the assistants before they headed home, the ranger discretely spoke.

"Thank you for remembering our assistants. Many guests forget about them."
"With pleasure." I replied "You've all been superb."

The coaster bus arrived in a cloud of red dust to take us and the Ranger back to Mweya. 
After five minutes on the track, the driver slammed on the brakes.
"Leopard!" He exclaimed, as the white tip of a 'follow-me" tail disappeared into the bush.
It was my second leopard sighting, in exactly the same circumstances at the first when on the way to Bwindi to go gorilla trekking. 

Today had been a good day. 

No. Today had been a great day.

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions

Thursday 15 September 2022

#074 Meeting Mountain Gorillas

Kasese, Uganda, 2007

As I stood at the rendezvous point, the horrors of thigh deep Rwenzori mud had already begun to fade to the extent that I impulsively wished we could all go back to Nyakalengija and re-live the experience.

Rwenzori trekking

But no, it was time to move onwards. A very special adventure was next.

The bus appeared out the heat haze, pulled off the straight tarmac road and into the dusty layby. Esra introduced myself and two travelling companions to Mustafa, our new driver and we headed south across the acacia studded Ishasha plains. Twice we saw large troupes of baboon crossing the road ahead, but by the time we had closed the distance they had ducked into bushes lining the verge. The condition of the road was steadily deteriorating, with tyre ruts becoming deeper channeling the wheels and pulling against the steering. Mustafa, kept the vehicle under control, making small correcting adjustments and braking well in advance of deep suspension cracking pot holes. We juddered over a set of hardened mud corrugations.

“Are the roads this bad in England?” he asked. 
For most of the time he had been quiet, eyes covered by a pair of dark sunglasses, while he  concentrated on driving.
“No, people would really have something to complain about if they were like this.”

But before Mustafa had an opportunity to reply, he slammed on the brakes and I whipped my head round, expecting to see a lorry or some other hazard filling the windscreen.
At the same moment, he exclaimed “Leopard!”

And I saw the spotted body and thick, white tipped tail of a very big cat bound into the dense undergrowth. This was my first sighting of a leopard in the wild, I was thrilled just to catch a fleeting glimpse of its beautiful patterned coat and energetic physical presence.

“Wow, what a treat,” my voice raised an octave in excitement. 

Then as we crested the brow of the next hill, a sight to behold tired eyes spread before us. Beyond the plain, the eastern shore of Lake Edward shimmered, flecks of reflected light sparkled on the surface. Even from our high position the far shore was still not visible, forty kilometres away.

There were few settlements of any notable size along the route, just the odd abandoned tin roofed hut. Yet, we regularly passed people riding bicycles in the heat of the day, apparently miles from anywhere and not carrying a water bottle. On the arduous surface we were travelling, a bicycle rider would be making good progress if he covered more than fifteen kilometres in an hour. 

The first town we arrived at was Kikarara, where men clothed in clean well pressed suits accompanied women wearing brightly coloured dresses, some in the East African kanga and others in Edwardian style with voluminous leg-o-mutton sleeves. Children followed in their school uniforms. It was an eclectic mix, amongst the garage mechanics, stall attendants and poorer kids in little more than rags labouring under their loads of firewood. I realised it must be Sunday. Church services and Sunday School had just finished and now the congregation were making their way home. 

A large open top army lorry approached from the from the direction of the Congo, stirring a cloud of red dust in its wake. The back was loaded with soldiers in full camouflage and armed with machine guns, an abrupt reminder of the border tensions.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

The village of Bwindi lay deep in the hills, south of lake Edward, at the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National park. We were booked into the Kitandra camp for three nights. A delightful array of thatched banda huts and canvas safari tents pitched onto wooden platforms on terraces cut into the hillside, surrounded by exotic planting. Around the back of each tent was an open air bathroom, screened by bamboo matting. Stocked up with a bottle of coke, I kicked off my boots and relaxed into a directors style chair.

Photo: Stu Westfield

The Bwindi park operates a system of permits to see the mountain gorillas, with a maximum of eight allocated to each gorilla family group. My travelling companions and I had hoped to keep together for the gorilla tracking. Unfortunately, despite his best negotiating efforts, Ezra could not secure three permits for the following morning. So, while they took their turn first, I opted to take the longest guided walk on offer along an old trade route called The Ivy Trail.

Trekking with Medi

My guide was a young recruit to the Ugandan Wildlife Service, called Medi Twongyeirwe. Two armed rangers, Alfred and Isaac, walked with us who also helped spot wildlife for me to photograph.

Medi. Photo: Stu Westfield

“Isaac has very good eyes,” Medi informed me as he pointed out several L’Hoest’s monkey almost hidden high up in nearby trees.

Further along the trail, we saw red tail monkeys moving through the canopy. I was absorbed in watching them, when a group of people appeared from the Bwindi direction. The father at the front, followed by a young woman, talking with her mother, their children being very well behaved at the rear. Each carried a suitcase or small bag with a blanket roll. I moved to the side of the path, wished them a good morning and they continued on their way. A short time later another large group of people came, all dressed in their best, rather than for work in the fields.

Photo: Stu Westfield

“This is a popular route,” I said.
“These people are returning home. Did you hear the music in Bwindi village yesterday?” Medi asked.
“Yes.” There had been some sort of jamboree, with enthusiastic singing and drums which could be heard in our camp.
“Every month the church organises a gathering, people come from all around. They have a meal and stay overnight.”

In the past the Ivy Trail had been used as a route to smuggle coffee over the border to the Congo, where the growers could get a better price. Nowadays it is a convenient path to the nearest village. We stopped for lunch where a river cut through the forest and a log footbridge spanned it to an enclosed meadow on the far bank. 

Photo: Stu Westfield

Medi had brought a flask of ugali, a type of liquid porridge ideal as both a drink and a meal to sustain a day’s hiking. Alfred and Isaac had nothing so I divided my sandwiches out amongst us. Medi kept on asking if I was feeling unwell, as if he was not used to seeing food from clients being shared. From the last of my Rwenzori rations I had a slab of fruit cake brought from home, which was particularly appreciated by Isaac. His face lit up and he nodded as he chewed on the currants.

Alfred & Isaac. Photo: Stu Westfield

The steady traffic of people along the trail had scared off the monkeys, so on the way back we concentrated on the smaller creatures, seeing a large blue salamis, mother of pearl, butterfly and a land snail as big as my hand, crawling over a plant stem.

Photo: Stu Westfield

Gorilla Trekkers Assemble

Over the course of a year, Bwindi hosts thousands of visitors. Each feeling very lucky to have obtained one of the much sought after permits and hoping that the moment they looked upon our distant cousins there would be some recognition of an intelligence on the same plane.

After the solitude of the Rwenzori, seeing so many other tourists was quite a culture shock. On the second morning I joined the next tracking group, waiting to be introduced to our guide. Standing in a semi-circle, it was rather like being on a parade of safari chique. I’ve worn my share of khakis whilst in Africa, but I’ve always managed to stop before adorning comical accoutrements such faux gun belts and intrepid Indiana Jones leather hat, completed with a feather quill. In the real jungle, nice new dudes don’t stay looking nice and new for long.

Many of the trekkers seemed perfectly fit and able, until we got out of the Landcruiser and headed into the forest. In this alien environment, they were incapable of walking more than a few paces on uneven ground without tripping and stumbling, as if the absence of tarmac had completely scrambled their sense of balance.

Photo: Stu Westfield

At the edge of forest I heard one of the escorts say “Dakika kumi,” meaning ten minutes.

The locating of the Habinyanja gorilla family did not involve any tracking in the true sense of not knowing the whereabouts of the animal being sought out. What we actually saw was a role play with the head guide identifying examples of sign. The real trackers went out at first light and starting where the gorillas were last seen, followed their spoor until they located the new position, then radioed back to the guides as the clients were gathering at the park headquarters.

This method of operation meant clients with a wider range of physical abilities could be accommodated thus generating more income for the park’s upkeep. Also the additional time needed to escort visitors either side of their allocated one hour gorilla contact time was kept short, enabling the cost efficient deployment of rangers. 

Bwindi, is undoubtedly a highly successful operation and the revenue generated by ecotourism has enabled the protection of the gorilla’s environment, along with the other primates that share the forest. The funds have also helped maintain national park security, as an effective deterrent to poaching and the bush meat trade as well as holding back the pressures of agricultural expansion.

With no sign of its popularity waning, I was aware that Bwindi could be in danger of being laid under siege by the very industry that sustains it. Paradoxically, my presence supported gorilla conservation while simultaneously increasing burden upon the park’s resources and environmental impact.

Mountain Gorilla Encounter

It was indeed ten minutes until we saw our first gorilla, received with a chorus of rapture from the clients. The dark shadow ahead stirred amongst a thick tangle of creeping vines, cracking the rotten twigs of fallen branches and rustling through a thick layer of brown leaves. It moved closer and took form, an outline of dense silky black fur which bristled as heavy muscles underneath flexed and retracted. I stood at the edge of a swampy depression in the forest floor, the ranger and other clients to my left. The air was filled with a heightened state of awareness, like standing near to high voltage cables. I felt reverence and respect for the presence which passed just a few metres below.

Photo: Stu Westfield

Our guide used his parang to hack across a branch, then bent it away to reveal the silver saddle back of a fully adult dominant male browsing on green leaves. He sat unperturbed, turning his head abruptly to check our approach. The Habinyanja family was unusual in that it was headed by two silverbacks, who will eventually split to form two separate groups if the second silverback mounts an effective challenge for the right to his own harem. We paused, keeping to the seven metre distance which minimises behavioural disturbance to the gorillas and risk of their exposure to human borne diseases. 

The male issued a low rumbling vocalisation before descending into a ravine, followed by two females. At a distance we followed them through the bog, walking across decaying logs which bridged the morass. Somebody slipped and sploshed into the mud and a low branch was allowed to loudly whip back, this was tough terrain for many of our group. Our approaching presence was well advertised to the gorillas.

On the far side of a bush a juvenile, possibly a yearling, sat on the ground eating yellow fruit. The automatic focus of my camera was confused by the intermediate sprigs of vegetation so I switched to manual and slowly moved sideways to find a clearer line of sight. The family gathered together on dry ground and settled in a loosely formed group. Gorillas spend forty percent of their time resting, the remainder divided between travelling and eating. The main periods of feeding are at the beginning and end of the day, interspersed with rest during the hottest hours.

Photo: Stu Westfield

Screams of a tiny infant demanding to be picked up were placated when an older female arrived to suckle. Another baby, full of exuberance, continued to play with his drowsy elder brother, tumbling over his back then climbing up onto an low overhanging branch and launching himself onto his siblings head before rolling over again.

Nearest to me a sub-adult male lounged on a bed of leaf litter, his large brown eyes looked at me intensely. He relaxed when I bowed my head and submissively averted my gaze. When I watched him through the viewfinder of the camera, he remained unconcerned and felt safe enough to sleep in my presence. The head guide called our attention to the time and asked us to finish our photographs. The maximum we could spend with the gorillas was one hour, allowing them to be free from the curious humans for the remainder of the day. 

Photo: Stu Westfield

Having seen behaviour which could be interpreted as tenderness, tolerance and joy, one could think of the mountain gorilla in terms of human emotions. To do so would be wrong and anthropomorphic, although after watching their interactions at close quarters, I have no doubt that gorillas experience feelings and thoughts that are more significant than automatic and learned.

Future Conservation

There are only about six hundred mountain gorillas left in the wild, the greatest of the great apes, hemmed into a small enclave of high forest on the Rwanda, Congo, Uganda border region. It occurred to me that Bwindi National Park could be missing an opportunity for increasing its revenue. The sole purpose of most visitors entering Bwindi is to see the gorillas. For some of these people, tracking and trekking holds no interest and their enjoyment is concentrated in the one hour of contact time. They leave having fulfilled their ambition and are completely satisfied. Others may have physical limitations which means they are more comfortable with the existing guiding arrangements.

I considered the downplaying of the tracking element to represent a undervaluing of the gorilla experience as a whole. I left wanting to see more of the rangers’ craft and to have time to learn more about the wider ecology of Bwindi. 

Photo: Stu Westfield

I mulled over my ideal. A longer trek over several days, stopping in temporary, mobile bush camps, providing exciting opportunities to participate conservation projects and absorb the art of tracking at a natural pace. This would also give the client an increased likelihood of seeing other forest dwelling primates. The walk could even be in the style of a biological study, led by rangers, noting the wider flora and fauna of the jungle as the group progressed. 

Moving between different gorilla families would give a purpose and structure to the expedition. Naturally, to protect the welfare of the gorillas, the park rules would have to be adhered to and enforced in the same manner as at present. This format would obviously have a great appeal to the more independently adventurous and lower maintenance eco-tourism client. The trek might start and finish with an overnight stop in a village, thereby benefiting a wider range of communities than just Bwindi. 

Additional jobs would also be created in staffing the camps and providing logistical support. Revenue from the higher chargeable premiums might be used to fund the expansion of the park boundaries. A bigger range, supporting a larger number of gorilla families would bring the species an important step in the right direction away from endangered classification. 

Photo: Stu Westfield

I walked back to the Landcruiser mindful at the tragedy that these intelligent creatures, sharing 98% percent of our DNA, could be under such threat of extinction. Tourist revenue affords the mountain gorilla a high level of ranger protection, compared to other apes. Elsewhere in central Africa, body parts of lowland gorillas are openly on sale in markets, baby apes are being captured as exotic pets and adults are being shot by the small but persistently destructive trade in trophy hunting. Both the mountain and lowland gorillas deserve so much more from mankind than persecution.

Going home

It was early, barely light, as I stuffed the last of my things into my kit bag. I had sorted most of it out the previous evening after eating dinner, leaving little to do before breakfast. I unzipped the heavy canvas tent door and sat outside on the chair. Sounds of chatter and clanking pots drifted up from the village in the still air.

The direct route back to Entebbe took us through the landscape of Rukungiri where deep valleys and rolling hills had been completely deforested and given over to cultivation. Mustafa slowed down to allow a herd of long horned ankole-watusi cattle to cross the road. These bovids, descended from the ancient aurochs which became extinct in the seventeenth century, have the ability to digest poor quality food with limited amounts of water making them particularly suitable for East African farming.

Photo: Stu Westfield

In the fertile alluvium plains, a herd of Friesian cattle grazed, hemmed in by coppiced hedgerows and birch trees which could have been mistaken for the down land of southern England. We passed a lorry so over loaded with large bunches of freshly cut green matoke bananas, that the back leaned unsteadily over on the shot suspension as it cornered.

Photo: Stu Westfield

The point of a four sided spire rose above the trees with the appearance of a typical stone built, slate tiled roof, cathedral. This was a mission church, its open arched walls actually built from kiln baked mud bricks and the roof fabricated from galvanised corrugated steel, pinned to timber joists. Without its congregation in attendance to bring it to life, it seemed out of place and incongruous, the empty void a sad pastiche seeking to emulate greater Christian works.

Further on, the Masaka police checkpoint, looked like a motorway toll booth without barriers. It acted as a staging post for busses large and small. Vendors, carrying biltong, bananas in large wood bowls and skewered kebab meat on blackened platters offered food up to bus windows in exchange for a few schillings. After the checkpoint, fish mongers sold tilapia and Nile perch from roadside stalls. They attracted the attention of passing drivers by holding their catch by the gills and waving it up and down. 

Photo: Stu Westfield

A mini bus jammed full of passengers overtook us with two tilapia tied onto the wing mirror. Laid out on open stalls, amongst the flies and in the heat, the fish wouldn’t stay fresh for more than a day unless it had been smoked. A few miles before Kampala, the equator was marked at the roadside with a white painted concrete hoop sculpture, into which each of us stood for our tourist photos. 

As we continued into the city, traffic choked the streets, belching out fumes from un-serviced engines. It was a free for all, undertaking, driving on wrong side of road, double parked commercial vehicles and gridlocked unmarked junctions. Road workers blocked off one carriageway for  resurfacing, not with cones, but with rocks. There was no contra flow, the opposing traffic had to share one lane causing chaos. My contact lenses felt as if they were melting in a chemical soup after our transport crawled through the congestion for a couple of hours and onto Entebbe. 

We arrived at the Botanical Hotel after dark, so missed the chance to walk around and appreciate the gardens. This was our last stop, early the next morning we would catch our flight home. The final night of our expedition was marked with a bottle of red wine and a large serving of Margherita pizza. 

Hayfield, Peak District, 2022

Over the intervening years, Medi and I have stayed in touch, messaging from time to time. I've travelled and led expeditions elsewhere in East Africa, but I do wish the opportunity would have arisen to return to Bwindi. Not just to watch gorillas again, but more so, to trek the trails with Medi again. 

Copyright: Medard Twongyeirwe

Recently, he sent some wonderful pictures which he took of a very special moment shortly after one of the female gorillas had given birth. With his permission, I'm sharing them here. 

Copyright: Medard Twongyeirwe

Each precious new baby gorilla, takes these beautiful and impressive creatures one step further away from extinction.

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions

Thursday 1 September 2022

#073 The Great Bantu Migration - Part 4 (The iconic Maasai)

In this blog mini-series, we've explored the journey of the Bantu people, from their West African homeland, as their culture spread across sub-Saharan Africa in a series of great migrations. Beginning no later than 2000BC and lasting at least three millennia. With our focus upon East Africa we have seen how indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures did not fare well with the rise of agricultural practices. We've also discovered more about how the Bantu culture diversified into distinct modern identities, such as the Chagga of Kilimanjaro.

Maasai - Photo: Stu Westfield

We close this series with a look at another major group, the pastoralists. Their origins, beliefs and how they interacted with the early Bantu incomers. As well as in modern times, how the most iconic and recognizable of pastoralist tribes, the Maasai now struggle to retain rights to their traditional lands and culture.

Early Kushtic Pastoralism in East Africa

Ethiopia is the ancient home of the Kushtic language. Most of the present Bantu and Nilotic languages in Kenya and south east / central Tanzania reveal evidence of borrowing from Kushitc languages, including words relating to cattle keeping, circumcision initiation and aversion to fish. From the Horn Of Africa, these tall and relatively light skinned pastoral Kushtic people expanded southwards into the great savannah grasslands of Kenya and northern Tanzania, about 3000 years ago.

The Nilotes

Between 1000 and 500 BC, Southern Sudanese pastoralists moved east and south into the old Kushtic zone of Kenya and Tanzania, assimilating some of the previous Horn Of Africa diaspora population. Their arrival occurred shortly before the introduction of iron to East Africa. 

The Bantu meet Nilotic Pastoralism

As the Bantu progressed eastward, they probably learned about sheep and cattle from Sudanic speakers living in north Uganda and Tanzania, near Lake Victoria. 

Bantu and Nilotic migrations overlaid on a map of present day geography

Around this time the climate turned drier and the existing lakeside aquatic fishing culture became less widespread. The more successful pastoral groups saw this practice as uncouth and unclean. Here, there is an interesting, but culturally unrelated, parallel to the British Neolithic farmers and keepers of domesticated livestock.

Stable isotope analysis has startled the archaeological community by showing a rapid and widespread change from a marine to terrestrial diet (ie from fish to domesticated plants and animals) as people moved from a Mesolithic to a Neolithic culture. This could be a consequence of domestication, or a kind of fish taboo. - Michael Richards, (Simon Fraser University) & Rick J Schulting (University of Oxford)

The pastoralists placed such an importance and value upon cattle that their geographic distribution was confined to regions of extensive grasslands. Eg: The Crater Highlands of North Tanzania, the Rift Valley and Kenyan highlands. It is probable that sorghum and millet were also cultivated, evidenced by pots and grinding equipment used in the preparation and storage of grain. This added a diversity of diet which helped to see the pastoral population through drought, crisis and epidemic.

Ngorongoro - Photo: Stu Westfield

The arriving Bantu exploited areas unsuited to livestock grazing such as the fringes of coastal mangroves, which were avoided by the Kushitc and Nilotic tribes due to the presence of tsetse fly. To the west of a line from Mount Kenya to Kilimanjaro, Bantuization did not take hold until the period 1100-1600AD. Dominant in this region until 1500, were the Southern Nilotes. Expansions, assimilation and conflict between these tribes continued to ebb and flow, until ended by the Maasai invasion in the seventeenth century.

Inside the boma - Photo: Stu Westfield

The Maasai

The Maasai trace their geographic origins back to South Sudan. They adopted neighbouring customs, such as age-set social organisation and circumcision. Their language, Maa, is part of the Nilotic family, related to the Dinka and Kalenjin, who also have strong pastoral origins. Most Maasai now also speak English and Swahili. 

The proto-Maasai evolved into three separate groups:

  • Samburu - settling in north central Kenya
  • Tiamu  
  • Maasai - southern spread into Northern Tanzania
By 1800 a miscellany of Nilotic, Kushtic and Bantu speaking communities were scattered all over Kenya and Tanzania. Only in the Great Lakes region had large kingdoms developed. The typical socio-political unit was small and clan orientated. Most Bantu retained their farming origins, but where possible kept their own livestock. Herdsmen like the Maasai lived in more aggressive societies and controlled substantial areas of territory between the agricultural Bantu lands and the Swahili coast city states.

Early European Contact

Joseph Thompson is the 19th Century British explorer you likely haven't heard of, but actually have. As the Thompson's Gazelle is named after him. His expedition style was progressive and ahead of his time, avoiding hostilities and never killing indigenous people. His motto speaks volumes about his courage and restraint: "He who goes gently, goes safely; he who goes safely, goes far."

Tommys - Photo: Stu Westfield

His book Through Masai Land documented his 1883 expedition from the Swahili coast, around the foothills of Kilimanjaro, within sight of Mount Kenya and onto the Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria). As he traversed the savannah, he had several tense encounters with fearsome Maasai warriors. 

Thompson died far too young, at the age of 37 due to illness contracted from his travels. Another lesser known legacy is that Through Masai Land was the inspiration for H. Rider Haggard to write King Solomon's Mines.

Photo: Stu Westfield

Colonial Displacement of The Maasai

During the 1940's many Maasai were displaced from their ancestral lands. They were moved away from the fertile grazing between Mounts Meru and Kilimanjaro and most of the the highlands near Ngorongoro. More land was taken in Kenya and Tanzania to create extensive wildlife reserves and national parks: Amboseli NP, Nairobi NP, Masai Mara, Samburu NR, Lake Nakuru NP, Tsavo, Lake Manyara NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tarangire and Serengeti NP's.

Pastoralists and the balance of nature

Pastoralism in the human story of evolution is relatively recent. The same could be said for almost every other activity conducted by modern humans. It reeks of double standards when people with far bigger carbon footprints and consumptive behaviours, ignorantly admonish indigenous peoples while still claiming to be conservationists.

About fifteen years ago I sat in on a lecture by an astronaut who was part of the 1970's space programme. In his presentation he showed aerial photographs of East Africa, where drought had devastated the environment and many people had died of famine. But he then went on to blame the pastoralists for being the cause of their own predicaments, in words that they pretty much deserved it.

He was playing to his mainly wealthy and middle-class audience, effectively saying global habitat destruction couldn't possibly be anything to do with your choices regarding plastics, pollution, consumption and waste. No, its all down to those goat herders! The audience loved it. Their palpable sense of validation and self-congratulation was repulsive.

Photo: Stu Westfield / Image: WikiCommons

The thread of pastoralism culture in the East African grasslands, from the Kushites to the Maasai is now so embedded as to be part of the ecosystem. 

It is meddling with this ecosystem by outsiders that is the cause of habitat degradation. The prickly pear cactus is native only to the Americas. It was introduced to East Africa by colonialists as an ornamental plant. However, it is also a tasty fruit to elephants and baboons. With these additional wildlife vectors this invasive species has spread out of control to the extent it now threatens biodiversity, food security and human well-being.

In conjunction with the Northern Rangelands Trust, a solution is being implemented by the cattle herders. Cochineal bugs, which only eat prickly pear, are raised and multiply on cacti within greenhouses. When mature, the bugs are then placed next to uninfected prickly pear in the grazing areas. The aim is the complete removal of the prickly pear, so grasslands can recover. Thus reinstating a healthy environment, benefitting both pastoralists and wildlife.

Today's Challenges

Cattle are central to the Maasai identity and way of life, they meet all their needs for sustenance: Meat to eat, milk and occasionally blood to drink. But with displacement, the Maasai have become dependent upon carbohydrate staples and cabbage.

Despite co-existing with wildlife on savannah grasslands for hundreds of years, the Maasai are seen by some conservation organisations as incompatible with National Parks and Game Reserves.  In April 2022, the Guardian reported that 150,000 Maasai face eviction by the Tanzanian government as their land has been allocated for conservation and commercial hunting. 

Given that current wildlife conservation is fundamentally failing in its primary task of maintaining healthy habitat, wildlife populations and indigenous peoples. To evict the Maasai is either willfully or ignorantly turning a blind eye to the connection the tribe has with the land. A connection which has been sustainable for both them and wildlife, until the interference of others with their big ideas.

Moran - Photo: Stu Westfield

But even worse is to evict and potentially destroy a people's culture to create a playground for very wealthy people to shoot animals for fun. In June 2022, thirty Maasai were injured and at least one killed while protesting against a 1500sq km land grab. Which is to be used for an elite luxury development and private game reserve by the Dubai Royal Family.

How many times have we heard that such developments will bring jobs and benefit local communities? In reality, obscenely powerful people will lie, deceive and betray to get all their own way, as it is their instinctive nature to do so. Meanwhile, traditional pastoral cultures are displaced, deep connections to the land are torn away, callously violated and forever spoiled.

And if 'money-talk' is the only currency on the table that is understood: Then further depopulation of the Maasai culture from their homelands will be of a bigger loss and do more damage to Tanzania's tourism revenue and reputation, than any amount of champagne and bullets replacing them.

Rightly, the final word here ought to come from a Maasai;

As a Maasai myself, I provide something of an insider’s perspective on the issue at hand. When it comes to land rights, the Maasai have suffered more than any other community in Tanzania. The community has lost more than 60 per cent of its pre-colonial territories to wildlife conservation in northern Tanzania. The famous wildlife sanctuaries like the Serengeti, Manyara, Tarangire, Arusha, Mkomazi and NCA were carved out of Maasailand. In public discourse and practice, there is both a patronizing attitude and treatment, a marginalization and othering that has turned our people into strangers in their own land. The indigenous Maasai lifestyle and mode of livelihood is often ridiculed and the Maasai people are viewed conservatives, relics of the past. The total sum of these discourses and practices is a Maasaiphobia that we are now experiencing in the wake of climate change-induced dispossession by conservation. - Leiyo Singo, Aug 3 2022, writing for The Republic 

© Mdogo, The Republic Aug 3 2022

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions


UNSECO General History Of Africa Vol III
Ch 22: The East African Interior. C. Ehret, University of California, Los Angeles

UNSECO General History Of Africa Vol IV
Ch 19: Between the Coast and The Great Lakes. C. Ehret, University of California, Los Angeles

UNESCO General History Of Africa Vol V
Ch 27: The interior of East Africa: The peoples of Kenya and Tanzania 1500-1800 W.R. Ochieng, senior lecturer, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.

Touch not the fish: The Mesolithic-Neolithic change of diet and its significance. Michael Richards, (Simon Fraser University) & Rick J Schulting (University of Oxford).