Savannas of Our Birth: People, Wildlife, and Change in East Africa

Savannas of Our Birth: People, Wildlife, and Change in East Africa

by Robin Reid

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This book tells the sweeping story of the role that East African savannas played in human evolution, how people, livestock, and wildlife interact in the region today, and how these relationships might shift as the climate warms, the world globalizes, and human populations grow.

Our ancient human ancestors were nurtured by African savannas, which today support pastoral peoples and the last remnants of great Pleistocene herds of large mammals. Why has this wildlife thrived best where they live side-by-side with humans? Ecologist Robin S. Reid delves into the evidence to find that herding is often compatible with wildlife, and that pastoral land use sometimes enriches savanna landscapes and encourages biodiversity. Her balanced, scientific, and accessible examination of the current state of the relationships among the region’s wildlife and people holds critical lessons for the future of conservation around the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520273559
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Robin S. Reid is Director of the Center for Collaborative Conservation and Senior Research Scientist in the Natural Resources Ecology Lab at Colorado State University.

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Savannas of Our Birth

People, Wildlife, and Change in East Africa

By Robin S. Reid


Copyright © 2012 Robin S. Reid
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-27355-9


Searching for the Middle Ground

Wildlife are an invaluable renewable resource that developing nations must learn to utilise judiciously, so that their benefits accrue today but in such a manner that future generations shall inherit with pride the legacy of previous generations. This will not be achieved by banishing the indigenous wildlife guardians from the land of their birth, and relegating them to marginal areas where impoverishment and deprivation will become their lot.

MORINGE PARKIPUNY, former Tanzanian Minister of Parliament, 1991

Nature preserves ... are not places to be saved to be used at a later stage when an ever-growing human population claims more land because of lack of economic development.

HERBERT PRINS, biologist, 1992

Why can our animals not go there [to the Park] while the Park animals can come here?

MAASAI ELDER, Tanzania, interview with Kadzo Kangwana and Rafael Ole Mako, 2001


This is the story of where all our human ancestors probably came from: Africa, particularly the savannas of Africa. Over millions of years, these savannas gradually replaced forests and woodlands in some places, and hominins (including ancestors of humans) took advantage of these new environments. In these savannas are the oldest known footprints of hominins walking upright, a habit that freed our ancestors' hands for carrying, digging, and throwing. Here, our ancestors probably crafted their first tools and hunted and scavenged wildlife. And as far as we know, it is from here, millennium after millennium, that our forebears repeatedly left Africa and populated other parts of the world, eventually becoming the ancestors of all humans. To the best of our knowledge, every person who reads these words has australopithecine ancestors who lived in Africa.

Remarkably, this ancient home of humankind is also the setting for a unique story of people and wildlife who have lived side by side throughout thousands, perhaps millions, of years. Africa alone more or less escaped the massive extinctions of large mammals that occurred in the Pleistocene epoch. Today, only African savannas continue to maintain a startling diversity of large mammals. These large mammals thus thrive best not where they have been separated from people over the millennia, whether by accident of geography or history, but rather where people have lived on this planet the longest. This book is partly about why this is so.

Since the late 1800s, this ancient coexistence of people and wildlife in African savannas has often been ignored, often replaced by a modern practice of conservation which assumes that wildlife are best conserved in landscapes with no people. Colonists from southern Africa and the West imported this idea into east Africa to stem wildlife losses caused by colonial and African hunting. Rooted in a Western philosophy of the Middle Ages that separated people from nature, this new belief contrasted sharply with the belief in many cultures of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, which viewed humans as part of nature, interconnected and interdependent. Most colonial governments, and some African governments that followed, carved out large pieces of the savannas to create wildlife parks and reserves, most of which banned people from their traditional lands within the parks. Even though these parks today cover only about 9 percent of savannas across east Africa, they were often created where most species congregate in the dry season and in drought, places critical to the survival of wildlife and people alike.

Despite the creation of parks to protect wildlife, many large animals in Kenya and some other countries today still live in savannas outside parks, where they share their habitat with people. Why is this so? One obvious reason is that there is about ten times more savanna land outside than inside parks. But another, less appreciated reason is that some communities located outside parks have chosen to live with rather than exterminate wildlife. This is particularly true where low and variable rainfall make settlement and farming difficult; as a consequence, people often use the land in a way that keeps the land open for wildlife. Remarkably, the people who coexist with wildlife in these savannas are not just wealthy wildlife ranchers or tax-funded national governments with significant funds to support those wild populations. Many are herders, far poorer than nearby farmers, pursuing a pastoral lifestyle that has been common in these savannas for thousands of years (Figure 1).

A central irony in this story is that the peoples who, amid tremendous change, still coexist with wildlife are those most often held responsible for overgrazing, the spread of deserts, and generally poor environmental management: pastoral herders (also called pastoralists). Herders themselves recognize that their lifestyle is not always compatible with wildlife. More than two decades ago, for example, I asked a group of herders in northern Kenya why there were so few gazelles in their pastures. They pointed to a herder leaning against an acacia tree next to his rifle, who served as a home guard against cattle raiders, and said: "100 bullets, 100 dead gazelles." Borana herders in southern Ethiopia see clearly that they are overstocking their land, causing woody plants to spread (though grazing might not be the only cause), which makes the land less hospitable for grazing livestock and wildlife. Even in places where traditional practices are compatible with wildlife, as in Maasailand, the land is changing rapidly with the spread of wells, settlements, and farming. These herders, who rarely hunt and consider themselves the guardians of wildlife, now see their age-old compatibility with wildlife under threat, even disappearing in some places. (See Maps 1 and 2 for the place names used in this book. Map 3 shows linguist Joseph Greenberg's distribution of language phyla; Maps 4–6 show anthropologist George Murdock's historical distribution of some of the major ethnic groups in east Africa.)

These contradictions have created two camps of outside observers, one supporting pastoral development and one supporting wildlife conservation. On the one hand, many social scientists and development practitioners see efforts to conserve wildlife through establishment of parks as a violation of both human and land rights and one cause of poverty. Across Africa many people still live in these parks, and an estimated 1 to 14 million people would have to be displaced to enforce the rules governing human populations within these protected areas. In African savannas, these parks are usually on land that hunter-gatherers and herders have used for thousands of years. Even in conservation areas where pastoral people are allowed to live, such as Ngorongoro in Tanzania, research shows that herders become impoverished when conservation policy requires they live mostly off their livestock, by restricting their ability to grow crops. And local residents, particularly those who are poor, often experience most of the costs and few of the benefits of living near parks and conservation areas. The creation of protected areas denies local people the option of using this land in other ways in the future, which could limit their economic growth. These realities create critical problems in African savannas.

On the other hand, many conservationists see parks and reserves as critical to conserving wildlife in Africa and as ecological baselines for measuring how people affect wildlife and savannas. As the human footprint grows in savannas outside protected areas, they are pointing to a long-term loss of wildlife and a rise in human-wildlife conflicts. In Kenya, for example, wildlife populations fell by as much as 80 percent in some savannas between the 1970s and 1990s. Around Kenya's Amboseli National Park, some elephants die at the hands of spear-wielding herders, especially during drought when elephants and cattle compete for limited food and water. In the wildlife reserves of Karamojong, Uganda, armed herders are a major cause of wildlife loss. In Tanzania, aerial surveys suggest that wildlife declined in the decade from 1990 to 2000 both in and around many protected areas, although elephant populations grew. In all of these cases, people, and sometimes herders, are a likely cause of wildlife declines. These realities also create critical problems in African savannas.

Underlying these views are conflicting values. From a human (or anthropo-) centric perspective, the health and welfare of people are most important and their needs should be served first. Nature has value because it provides people with material benefits; thus, conserving natural resources has value because it affects people's well-being. In Western societies, this view typically emphasizes the individual, whereas in many African societies it focuses on the clan, community, village, tribe, or nation. A contrasting, ecocentric point of view maintains that nature has value for its own sake, apart from how nature affects humans, and deserves moral consideration as such. People holding this view can appear indifferent to human welfare, seeming to consider conserving nature more important than feeding people. When people argue either for the development of pastoralism or for nature conservation, the argument often is about who should come first, people or nature. The Western philosophy of people's separation from nature typically underlies these dichotomies, which may explain why the divide is both large and seemingly unbridgeable.

What do pastoralists in east Africa think about the separation of people and nature—about people first or environment first? Scholars, whether from Africa or elsewhere, have written very little about this subject. The Oromo herders of Ethiopia (included with the Borana and Arusi on Map 4) depend on the land for food, shelter, and fuel, but they also view the environment spiritually and morally. Philosopher Workineh Kelbessa describes it this way: "For them, land is not only a resource for humans' utilitarian ends, but also it has its own inherent value given to it by Waaqa (God). For the Oromo, Waaqa is the guardian of all things, and nobody is free to destroy natural things to satisfy his or her needs." Anthropologist David Turton describes how Mursi herders in Ethiopia (included with the Suri in Map 4) regard wild animals: "They kill them to obtain economically useful products and, when necessary, to protect their cattle, but otherwise their disposition is, as Evans Pritchard ... writes of the Nuer, 'to live and let live.'" I have had many conversations with Maasai about this, and they take pride in their long-term stewardship of savannas; many clearly think that people and wildlife are meant to live together. Animal characters feature prominently in Maasai oral history and stories, as both bad and good examples of behavior. Maasai schoolchildren see parks as places that attract tourists, provide income, and protect people from wildlife and wildlife from people. Thus, while pastoralists are certainly human-centric, they also respect, or at least tolerate, wildlife and consider themselves a part of the life of the savannas around them.

In a sense, the pastoral view falls somewhere in the middle ground between support of human needs on the one hand and wildlife conservation on the other. Recently, the pastoral middle ground has been growing in influence among nonpastoralists, as those occupying this terrain attempt to move beyond an either-or view of people and wildlife and try to understand, rather, how people and wildlife coexist in the savannas and how they do not. The solution does not lie in a compromise of the extremes, however, but in the creation of a productive third way. Instead, it is critical that this third view recognize and address the real difficulties that pastoral families and wildlife face living with each other, and the inherent contradictions of this course: the fact that people have lived in savannas for millennia with wildlife and that wildlife are now fast disappearing; the fact that wildlife conservation policy can impoverish local communities and that agricultural development policy can harm wildlife populations; the fact that pastoral herders can coexist with wildlife and that they can extinguish wildlife. This book is about making sense of these contradictions—understanding how they came about in the first place and how they may shape the future of savannas.

But why look to a middle, more pastoral view for solutions? Aren't herders the problem, overgrazing pastures and causing desertification? As a matter of fact, new evidence suggests that the story is far more complicated, emblematic of the middle ground. Take the following examples of this shifting, and often conflicting, narrative. Once, scientists thought the Sahara Desert was marching south into the Sahel; now, that transitional zone appears to be greening again. In the past, scholars thought African pastoralists were irrational and even greedy to increase the size of their herds; now, many view periodic herd growth as a sound strategy for coping with recurrent drought. Once, overgrazing by herders was thought to cause bush to invade grasslands; now, evidence suggests that CO2 generated by burning fossil fuels (mostly outside Africa) may also encourage bush to spread. In the past, scientists alone defined and measured savanna decline and degradation; recently, however, scientists have begun to include the observations of pastoralists in this undertaking. Whereas scholars once thought that communal grazing damaged rangelands, they have come to realize that herders create rules-of-use that in fact sustain rangelands; now, though, even some pastoral leaders are saying that their communities are overstocking their lands. Some people think that parks protect biodiversity, while others consider those same parks a violation of human land rights. To some, pastoralists destroy biodiversity; to others, they are the hope for conserving it. This book assesses the scientific merits of these points of view and attempts to take this discussion to a third place, somewhere in the elusive middle ground.


The story of people and wildlife in African savannas is set within a much larger story of how people develop and live within their environment around the world. By some measures, the human condition is improving. The average child on Earth grows up in a family that is wealthier, better nourished, and better educated than that of their parents. There are now 100 million more adults who can read these words than could twenty-five years ago. Today, 2.1 million more children live past the age of five than they did just fifteen years ago. Since 1800, the percentage of people on Earth who participated in electing their governmental leaders rose from 2.5 to 45 percent. We eradicated two major diseases, smallpox and rinderpest, that used to cause sweeping epidemics in people and animals. We invented a worldwide system of parks to protect wildlife, plants, and ecosystems for present and future generations of people. A measure of our success, and a cause of our current undoing, is the sheer number of people alive today on Earth: about 7 billion—almost two people for every year the planet has existed.

But not all people share in this wealth, health, and education. The world is now more inequitable than it was just one generation ago. Nearly half the people on Earth, some 2.8 billion people, live on less than $2 per day. Almost half the population of Africa, 300 million people, live on less than $1 per day, and incomes are stagnant or falling. Directors of major corporations are paid as much as 30,000 times more than some of their rural African clients who walk several kilometers to buy corporate products in small village shops across the continent. The world's five hundred richest people together make more money than the 416 million poorest people. In 2004, for every child that died before the age of five in the world's wealthiest countries, thirty children died in sub- Saharan Africa, more than double the difference that existed in 1980. Belgium has about 450 doctors for every 100,000 people in the country, Rwanda only 4—less than 1 percent of Belgium's number. These disparities tend to be even wider where women are concerned. For example, although there are fewer illiterate people in the world today, two- thirds of those are women. One might wonder, given these facts, how well people in the richest countries are able to understand what it is like to grow up in the poorest countries, and vice versa.


Excerpted from Savannas of Our Birth by Robin S. Reid. Copyright © 2012 Robin S. Reid. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Searching for the Middle Ground
2. Savannas of Our Birth
3. Pastoral People, Livestock, and Wildlife
4. Moving Continents, Varying Climate, and Abundant Wildlife: Drivers of Human Evolution?
5. Ecosystem Engineers Come of Age
6. Can Pastoral People and Livestock Enrich Savanna Landscapes?
7. When Coexistence Turns into Conflict
8. The Serengeti-Mara: “Wild Africa” or Ancient Land of People?
9. Amboseli: “Cattle Create Trees, Elephants Create Grassland” in the Shadow of Kilimanjaro
10. The Kaputiei Plains: The Last Days of an Urban Savanna?
11. Ngorongoro: A Grand Experiment of People and Wildlife
12. Savannas of Our Future: Finding Diversity in the Middle Ground


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