Ngorongoro Conservation Area: wildlife, warriors and early man

by Sandy Salle on October 3, 2017

The wildlife authorities, government leaders and tribal chiefs who helped establish Ngorongoro Conservation Area in 1959 surely had no idea that they were creating a template for similar projects in much of Africa and the rest of the world.

They were just trying to keep the peace — between the local and global environmentalists trying to save the Serengeti Plains and the Masai people who had inhabited the region for more than a century.

A decade earlier, the Serengeti had been set aside as one of the world’s largest national parks, vast grasslands and savannah inhabited by millions of mammals and their entourage of predators — big cats, hyenas and jackals, scavenger birds and meat-eating reptiles.

Masai living and grazing their cattle within the national park boundaries were eventually forced to leave their ancestral lands in the Serengeti. Needless to say, they objected.

In order to prevent what surely would have been bloodshed, authorities carved out a large adjoining tract called the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) — 3,202 square miles where the Masai could continue their age-old pastoralist traditions.

Although the NCA was created for very practical, political reasons, it was also a grand experiment to see if humans and wildlife could exist side-by-side in the modern world without the former wiping out the latter.

While hunting had long been banned (since 1928) inside the walls of Ngorongoro Crater, the Masai were free to hunt in much of the rest of the NCA. And they were also able to graze their cattle in the crater, a status that lasted in 2009 when it was clear the fragile ecosystem couldn’t tolerate both cattle and wild game. Farming is allowed inside the NCA, but only on a subsistence level.

The project certainly hasn’t been perfect. There are still ongoing issues about grazing, cultivation and water rights. But the NCA has kept the peace for nearly 60 years and demonstrated that people and animals can coexist on the same patch of African turf.

In the process, Ngorongoro has inspired the creation of scores of other conservation areas and nature conservancies where humans and wildlife share the land in Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and elsewhere.

It’s also evolved into a safari destination in its own right, a popular stopover on the long and winding road between Arusha and the Serengeti.

Wildlife in the crater is the big attraction, but the NCA also affords visitors an opportunity to visit the Masai people at home, amble through Olduvai Gorge and other celebrated archeological digs where early man was discovered, and ponder the incredible geological forces that spawned this landscape millions of years ago.

Ask Hills of Africa about the best ways to discover Ngorongoro — how to get there, where to stay, and the various activities available year round, and encounters with the Masai people.

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