Violent clashes as Masai ‘driven off land’ for Emirati trophy hunters
The Sunday Times
June 18, 2022
The Tanzanian soldiers must have moved in very late at night, said Nosisim,
a Masai woman, but they were there and primed when she woke. Soon after
that, the bullets started to fly.
For two decades in a part of northern Tanzania rich with wildlife, a
disagreement has simmered over rights to territory claimed by the Masai but
which the government has earmarked for lucrative trophy hunting by Arab
Those tensions exploded into violence in recent days when the security
forces arrived in Loliondo under cover of darkness, without prior warning,
and began evicting the Masai herders from their ancestral pastures.
Soldiers, game wardens and police officers installed posts to demarcate 540
square miles of indigenous lands near the world famous Serengeti National
Park for a new reserve to be operated by a United Arab Emirates-owned
company. When the Masai demanded an explanation, clashes erupted.
Dozens of nomadic herders were wounded — shot with bullets, hit with
sticks, or choked with tear gas. Many were arrested and have not been seen
or heard from since, the Masai claim. One police officer was reportedly
killed in the clashes, which sent hundreds of nomadic herders fleeing north
across the border into Kenya. Last week The Sunday Times found about 100 of
them, mostly women and children, perching on a patch of grass a stone’s
throw from the border. All said they had been driven from their lands.
“I feel so much hurt,” said Nosisim, 50, a mother of seven. Behind her, the
lush plains she had left stretched for miles. “People were beaten and
arrested. We could have perished.”
“I have never seen the government treating its people like this since I was
born,” said another eyewitness, 70-year-old elder Olemonjo, who claimed to
have been beaten with a stick in his knee and shoulder. “They are all my
children,” he said of the dispossessed. “I am pleading for help. I don’t
know what to do.”
Although rights groups and the United Nations have accused Tanzania’s
government of forced expulsion and displacement, the administration of
President Hassan, 62, Africa’s only female leader, insists no one has been
forcibly evicted during what it calls a conservation drive to protect
But Kileleshon, 38, a herder sheltering in a village near the border, has
wounds that undermine that claim, after a bullet tore across his upper
back. “I wondered, why is this happening to me, I have no weapon,” he said.
“That’s our land, that’s where we grew up.” He had just left hospital with
medical bills of 127,000 Kenyan shillings (£880), forcing him to sell ten
of his prized cows.
The Masai peoples’ accounts backed up widely circulated video clips of the
evictions recorded by activists, which Tanzania’s government has called
The country’s authorities have long allowed pastoral communities to live
alongside wildlife within its sweeping national parks, including the
Serengeti, a jewel in its crown that welcomes 300,000 visitors each year.
However, in recent years the government has embarked on plans to evict an
estimated 150,000 Masai living in both the Loliondo wildlife corridor and
the Ngorongoro conservation area, a Unesco world heritage site, for the
purposes of conservation. Those in Ngorongoro have been offered the chance
to relocate 370 miles south, to Handeni.
The government says rapid population growth — of both humans and livestock
— is degrading the environment, an argument shared by some
conservationists. However, the Masai claim the state is using conservation
as an excuse to hand their familial lands to hunting parties comprised of
Arab royalty and their well-heeled guests.
Tanzania reportedly first gave the Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC)
hunting licences in Masai lands in 1993. Tanzanian lawyers,
conservationists and human rights activists say that the company is owned
by Dubai royals and was set up to plan hunting excursions for the emirate’s
first family. According to local media it has contributed millions of
dollars to Tanzania’s security services in exchange for its tourism access.
Princes have been known to fly into a custom-built landing strip in
Ngorongoro and hunt eland, buffalo and other wildlife. Masai interviewed by
The Sunday Times said they had seen Middle Eastern men “patrol” their lands
in the past. In 2016, Tanzania banned wildlife exports after scandals
involving rare birds and animals, including giraffes, being flown to
collectors in the Gulf from secluded airstrips. An attempt to reverse the
ban was scrapped this month, after an outcry from conservationists.
Activists claim that OBC will control commercial hunting in the Loliondo
area after the evictions. It has already been accused in the past of
pushing for Masai expulsions and building a luxury hotel on ancestral
lands. A Twitter page purporting to represent the company but inactive
since 2018 locates the headquarters in Arusha, the largest city in northern
Tanzania, and describes it as “investors in Loliondo (Game Controlled Area)
hunting concession”. It claims to do “sustainable utilisation (hunting)”.
Previous attempts to evict Masai in northern Tanzania, including in 2018,
crumbled under international pressure. This time, though, the government
has censored local news reports, rounded up those who posted footage of the
evictions on social media platforms, and pledged to take action against
those who speak up.
“Loliondo has become a police state,” Joseph Oleshangay, a Masai lawyer and
human rights activist, said. “No one has been consulted in the process to
annex the land. This is the reason why all political leaders are now in
detention with trumped up charges.”
Kassim Majaliwa, Tanzania’s prime minister, alleged that villagers had
staged a “mock attack”, adding that his government was making note of false
reports and would act against those sharing false information.
“Some people started making videos with those who didn’t like seeing game
wardens in their village,” Majaliwa said this week. “In truth, there wasn’t
any group, either of police or villagers who wanted to harm the other
The Tanzanian High Commission in the UK said the “exercise” of placing
beacons near Loliondo “is being carried out under the rule of law and has
not sought to forcibly evict any occupant of the area”. It added: “Tanzania
is party to several international conventions and protocols with respect to
human rights and as such, is not likely to take on any abuse of its people.
Indeed, the demarcation of public and protected lands is normal practice
that does not merit or justify the negative attention and vilification that
it is currently being attributed to the Loliondo exercise.”
However, a team of UN-appointed independent rights experts warned that the
evictions “could jeopardise the Masai’s physical and cultural survival . .
. and could amount to dispossession, forced eviction and arbitrary
displacement prohibited under international law.” The expulsions are the
subject of a case pending before the East African Court of Justice in
On Friday, a small protest against the Loliondo evictions by Masai in
Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, was broken up by police using tear gas. Two were
For the Masai, the land is not only their home, but the bedrock of their
pastoral lifestyle. “When we are out of our land we have nothing,” said
Kapuru Letura, 41, gazing towards Tanzania’s tree-lined hills. A few metres
away, a child hung off the white bollard denoting the Kenya-Tanzania
border. “How can we get peace and live in harmony?” he asked. “We don’t
have anywhere to run.”
Those that fled across the border are relying on handouts from Kenyans.
Their children are unable to go to school.
Kileleshon, the gunshot victim, who has three wives, fears arrest if he
returns to Tanzania. He said another Masai man shot at the same time as him
was carted off by police. As he spoke, clasping his traditional warrior
stick, eight other Tanzanians sitting stoically beside him. Chickens pecked
at the ground beside their feet.
With few options left, the Masai say they hope international pressure can
be brought to bear on the Tanzanian government.
Then Shinka Tira, a 38-year-old pastoralist, stood up and addressed the
hundred-strong crowd. “Let’s stay calm, let’s be hopeful,” he said. “The
world is going to know.”