Course:CONS200/2023WT2/Colonial conservation in Serengeti National Park: History and Ongoing practices

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The largest country in Eastern Africa, Tanzania, is home to some of the world’s most unique ecosystems and greatest biodiversity. It provides significant ground for the world’s conservation efforts and practices, as 36% of its lands are defined as protected areas.[1] In total, the United Nations records approximately 200,000 protected areas worldwide, with 840 residing in Tanzania.[1][2] The Greater Serengeti Ecosystem spans over 25,000 km2 in Northern Tanzania.[3] The Serengeti National Park was established in 1951.[4] Subsequently, the Serengeti was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, symbolizing its overarching importance to cultural heritage and conservation.[5] The protected areas that comprise Serengeti are dominated by wildlife-focused research programs conducted by Western-funded NGOs and are managed by the Tanzania Parks Authority.[1][5] However, their establishment came at a great cost to local Indigenous communities, as they were unwillingly expelled from their traditional lands without prior notice or compensation.[6] This was a decision justified on the basis of population growth being a threat to the Greater Serengeti Ecosystem, notably for its effect on tourism.[6] Both tourism and protected areas contribute significantly to the country’s economic development, with tourism alone contributing 17.5% of Tanzania's GDP.[7] Conversely, the abundance of protected areas also stands as a barrier to the complete livelihood of local Tanzanians and tribes, rendering them unable to use the land to make a living or participate in their traditional practices. About 51% of citizens living in the Greater Serengeti Ecosystem are living under the basic needs poverty line, far lower than the national average, with many relying on natural resources to survive.[7] As Earth's planetary boundaries continuously grow closer, the mitigation of and adaptation to current threats and the re-evaluation of conservation practices–while abolishing colonial influences on conservation in the process–is critical. This raises many urgent considerations when it comes to approaching conservation so that balance can be struck to sustainably foster the livelihood of all people, flora and fauna as climate change unravels.

Environmental Context

Giraffes wandering in desert landscape
Giraffes in Serengeti National Park.

The Serengeti National Park is a 27,000 km2 savanna ecosystem, which is a mix of grassland and woodland biomes with seasonal precipitation and high temperature.[8][9] The dry seasons occurs from June to September; the monsoon season occurs from December to April, getting 500mm to 1200mm of rain.[9][10] Fires are common and natural during the dry season, initiated by lightning, volcanoes, or humans.[11] The temperature ranges from 15°C to 37°C. The vegetation inclues patches of grass, low shrubs, and the sparse trees.[9] Common herbivorous animals include wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, buffalos, hippos, elephants, rhinos, and giraffes.[10][12] Common carnivorous animals include leopards, lions, and cheetahs. There are also many birds, the majority of which are raptors.[12] Many foraging animals follow lengthy annual migration paths, going south during the wet season and north during the dry season.[10] The Mbalageti, Mara, Grumeti, and Seronera rivers flow during the wet season. Lakes are the only source of water for wildlife during the dry season.[10] Currently, the land of the national park is commonly used for safari excursions, and has tourist lodge accommodations spread throughout.[13] Agricultural expansion, wood harvesting, and other human activities have had negative impacts on the environment and biodiversity throughout Tanzania.[14]

Historical Context


Prior to colonization, Tanzanian societies coexisted among wildlife for 10,000 years.[15] Their cultural practices typically conserved ecosystems naturally, such as worship of natural elements, superstitions, rituals, taboos against hunting, and limited eating of animals.[16] The ethnic groups in the Serengeti region included Bantu-speakers, Nilotic-speakers, Khoisan-speakers, and Cushitic-speakers.[15] The pre-colonial societies partook in hunting and gathering, crop and cattle agriculture, food processing, ironworking, and political organization.[15]


The colonization of Tanzania began in 1885 by the Germans, and their rule became official in 1905.[17] The colonial land management practices threatened local communities and ecosystems by restricting Tanzanians' land access and prioritizing hunting and tourism.[16] The Germans created "reserves", areas of land where humans were excluded, to save the area for hunting or forests.[17] The reserves deprived native Africans of fertile lands and wild meat.[18] The Germans did not understand Indigenous wildlife control and were mainly interested in trophy hunting. They disrupted human-wildlife coexistence by dispossessing land and increasing the risk of wildlife raiding.[17] They spread disease by disassembling traditional systems of controlled contact between livestock and tsetse flies, a common disease vector.[19]

The British took over in 1917 after World War I.[20] Their goals included extracting resources, taxation of Africans, taking fertile land and using it for their properties, exploiting African labour, preserving wildlife for hunting, increasing agricultural production, and excluding Africans from reserves. [21][18][22][23][17] In response to the worsening tsetse fly disease epidemic, the British displaced and densified communities.[17] They armed native Africans with guns to protect from wildlife.[24] They ignored the United Nations' mandate to consider native laws and respect native peoples' rights.[25] They poorly attempted to use traditional tribes to push forward a colonial organizational regime, which only harmed native Africans by promoting inter-tribal division.[25] They also harmed the Maasai tribe by allowing them to live in Serengeti National Park while tightly restricting their activities and resource access.[25]

The colonizers largely viewed humans and non-humans as incompatible.[17] Colonial conservation displaces wildlife and native populations from secure sections of land for tourism, hunting, and profits.[17]


Tanzania gained independence in 1961.[16] Although several colonial management practices remained, Tanzanian conservation has experienced large shifts, including vast improvements in science and technology, implementation of community-based conservation, cooperation with other countries, and sustainable and equitable resource use.[16] The post-colonial conservation movement shifted slightly from human vs non-human towards reestablishment of human coexistence with native biodiversity.[17]

Post-colonial conservation is still highly influenced by colonial conservation values. The Tanzanian president delivered the Arusha Manifesto in 1961, which appeared to promote wildlife conservation, but was written by Western conservationists with top-down conservation theory.[25] Immediately following independence, the president favoured maintaining the human-animal separation to bolster profitable tourism.[26] The Tanzanian government used the keyword "conservation" to win financial assistance from other countries, perpetuating the colonial value of profit gain.[27] Tanzania preserved and expanded the colonial wildlife "reserves", claiming the expansion was to better serve humans and protect wildlife.[28] In reality, the government was still pushing colonial conservation ideas onto rural Africans; they were perpetuating the colonial values of tourism and profit, while concealing it as "community conservation" or "benefit-sharing" by giving native Africans morsels of compensation.[25] Later on, the environmental movement grew, and more sustainable non-colonial conservation tactics began to be implemented, such as buffer zones, government-imposed taxation of trophy hunting, and protection against elephant poaching.[23][29][30] [31] However, throughout the post-colonial period, the Tanzanian government has continued to use western theories in their conservation design. For example, the government used Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons concept to enforce western property regimes, ignoring Indigenous property stewardship methods, such as mobile pastoralism.[25][32][33]

Current Threats

The potential impacts that threaten the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a highly complex and diverse ecosystem, create uncertainty and could result in heightened instability that cascades through both local and global ecosystems. Ecological and anthropogenic threats possess the capacity to disrupt the global system in a way that may have permanent hindrance on conservation mitigation and adaptation going forward. The unique ecology of the Greater Serengeti Ecosystem provides valuable characteristics, but these same characteristics also make it especially vulnerable to our changing world. It harbours significant biodiversity, including many endangered species, and serves as a naturally vibrant home to the Great Migration for over two million animals.[34]

Climate change stands as a considerable threat that could significantly transform the Serengeti ecosystem. Driven by anthropogenic causes, there will be alterations to the hydrologic cycle, vegetation and wildlife diversity, and wildlife migration patterns.[34] Water quality and quantity has been identified as the driving force for the Serengeti ecosystem, explaining migration timing and vegetation growth patterns.[35] Thus, climate change inevitably altering temperature and rainfall will have a significant hindrance on migration patterns of Serengeti wildlife. Climate change, a global-scale issue with implications for every city and ecosystem, poses a particularly severe threat to the Serengeti due to its exceptional ecological value, making it highly sensitive to potential adverse effects.

The impacts that climate change will have on the Serengeti are only compounded by the anthropogenic threats that are destroying both quality and quantity of wildlife habitat presently. Human activities, such as agriculture, fires, settlements, overgrazing and mining, have been directly degrading critical wildlife habitats, leading to significant loss of many species.[36] As a result, the Serengeti has been losing area inside its legal boundaries, shrinking an unquantified but assumed significant amount in the last 15 years.[36] This can mostly be attributed to the growing human population, which has increased the demand for land use significantly.[36]

Balance must be struck in order to successfully conserve the protected areas within the Greater Serengeti Ecosystem to value human rights and needs while maintaining ecological integrity. As the human population grows exponentially and poverty increases in rural Tanzania, more pressure is initiated on the Serengeti’s boundaries, to the point of villagers illegally using resources in order to survive.[36] The scarcity of resources among the local population has led to an increase in wildlife poaching and encroachment on wildlife habitats. Studies have shown that over 75% of illegal hunters in Serengeti experience low income and have insufficient livestock, motivating a need to resort to poaching in order to simply survive.[37] It is evident within Tanzania that there is a conflict between protected area land rights and human rights.

Current Conservation Efforts

In the colonial era, the Serengeti National Park was exploited for conservation, which typically benefitted the elite European settlers instead of the local people. Laws created by the colonizers made many Indigenous practices illegal, such as hunting, collecting wood, and gathering natural resources. They ignored the fact that Indigenous members had sustainably used the land for thousands of years before their arrival. Today, the Tanzanian government has more recognition for the wrongdoings of colonial conservation. The 1998 Wildlife Policy recognizes the importance of including the people of the Serengeti in policy-making and preserving the land. In the promotion of viable wildlife conservation, organizations have acknowledged that the cooperation of local people is key to fair and equitable sharing of the area.[38] This kind of cooperation is best executed with the concept of Community Based Conservation, where the local community participates as much as possible in the attempt to protect biodiversity.[39]

The participation of locals in natural resource conservation in Serengeti was found to be abundant among many households.[5] While there were challenges associated with socio-economic factors and cultural context, the six villages of the Bunda and Serengeti districts demonstrated an ample commitment to participating in wildlife management. The surveyed individuals appeared to be decently knowledgeable about resource protection. While not all were considerably involved, many were very informed about the subject of Community Based Conservation, indicating a high level of commitment to community.[5]

Community-Based Conservation Efforts alongside the Frankfurt Zoological Society regarding conservation planning, game scouting, and natural resource management training.

The implementation of Community Based Conservation is highly effective, empowering local communities and fostering collaboration. This form of conservation, at its core, is defined as community based efforts to shield wildlife and biodiversity from the debilitating effects of poaching, climate change, and habitat degradation. The whole community actively participates, from the scientists to the children. Moreover, it advocates inclusivity of locals and connects each individual under a common goal.[40]

The Serengeti National Park plays a vital role in preserving the rich biodiversity present within the area. Across the reserve, several measures have been conducted to maintain ecosystems and protect the treasures in the safari.[15] However, poaching is still an issue within the Serengeti National Park. Among the diversity of species, wildebeest are the most persistently hunted in comparison to other fauna. The poaching of these animals persists despite anti-poaching regulatory techniques such as patrols, de-snaring teams, and conservation education.[41] The presence of biodiversity monitoring units, anti-poaching efforts, and habitat restoration focus on the wildlife species and community. Local authorities and conservationists collaborate to keep the flora and fauna intact. Legislation and enforcement, coupled with official park management, assist in keeping the area adequately safeguarded.[42] There are efforts from zoological societies and conservation organizations to include the local people in their missions.

Moving Beyond Colonial Conservation

Current literature for the decolonization of conservation efforts argues for changes in the scientific processes and methods of research surrounding conservation practices; however, little action has been made to achieve these goals. As science is one way that the power of knowledge can be developed and shared, it can also be manipulated to fit a colonial agenda.[43] Currently, there is a disparity between who has actively and successfully maintained and enhanced biodiversity, and who dominates research, getting credit for conservation successes. As it stands, prevalent figures in conservation remain as Western academics.[44] Contradictorily, the Global South holds the majority of the earth's biodiversity, being one of the more vulnerable areas to climate change, yet the field of conservation tends to neglect the influence and voices of people indigenous to those spaces. To combat this, improving the research conduction of colonized areas would play a part in shifting the scientific conversation and conservation methods to those of the original inhabitants, subsequently turning to less colonially driven ways.[43]

Other theories suggest that introducing and increasing the prevalence of tribal national parks is a step towards decolonization by undoing original conservation movements which displaced peoples in the name of preserving their land. Many national parks, including Serengeti, currently carry representation of the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and are rooted in colonial practices. Even efforts that purport to include and respect Indigenous perspectives can ultimately uphold colonial power dynamics and support their Indigenous erasure. This perpetuates the ongoing colonial symptoms of conservation by suppressing other voices like Indigenous groups. The intervention of bringing these groups back to their land and allowing a reclamation could bring with it a paradigm shift in how these parks are viewed and treated, bringing back a level of respect for the displaced people and re-integrating their traditional ways into the current day ones of national parks. This would allow for protected areas and national parks to remain, but is an attempt at re-rooting them and redefining their objectives by reversing underlying colonialism that prevails in their foundation and ideology. This method has occurred in a number of U.S. and Canadian national parks, and so could be relevant and effective for others such as Serengeti.[45]

This leads into the encouragement of co-existence between traditional groups with their natural environments. Conservation efforts of national parks have historically suppressed native people from interacting with their original land and its biodiversity. Fossils and footprints in Serengeti have shown proof of humans from over two-three million years ago, and colonization and the formation of national parks severely impeded upon their political, economic, spiritual systems which made up their livelihood.[15] In this process, the surrounding nature and ecosystems were also impacted. Introducing these tribes back into the currently protected land not only works towards socio-cultural decolonization goals, but is also possibly significant in contributing to conservation of endangered species and maintaining healthy habitats.[15] One example of a mechanism for governing and preserving different flora and fauna species used by local Serengeti people is the idea of taboos, locally known as ‘emeghilo’, which restrict usage of resources and act to protect local biodiversity. Local tribes also have established sacred totem species which are held in very high respect, giving them immunity to hunting and exploitation.[44] This keeps native animal populations safe in their lands and allows for the habitats of many species to be preserved naturally, overall benefitting the local biodiversity in ways that colonial conservation practices neglect to. These examples of mechanisms that are embedded in the ways of Indigenous people have shown to be efficient and effective forms of conservation, expressing the benefits that would come from further reverting back to original traditional methods.[44]


The Serengeti National Park supports a vast array of biodiversity and is a key figure in the preservation of the flora and fauna of Tanzania.[46] It not only serves as a foundation of wildlife but also encapsulates the importance of respecting Indigenous peoples and their place in policy-making regarding the land. Although the protected areas have implemented more efforts to regard the wishes of the local people, many Indigenous groups have been profoundly affected by conservation efforts.[25] These include displacement, discrimination, and tourism bias.[38]

The Protected Area is deeply intertwined with colonial legacy and still bears the effects of European settlement amongst the natives. In the past, Western conservation ideas frequently overlooked the traditional practices and sustainable knowledge of locals.[47] Today, there is a greater focus on re-evaluating these ideas and replacing them with more equitable litigations. Both the government and conservation organizations have taken steps to explore more inclusive conservation strategies that uplift the rights of Indigenous peoples.[48] This addresses injustices of the past and enhances the influence of conservation endeavors by utilizing local expertise and fostering Community Based Conservation.[49]

Community Based Conservation is a favorable approach to regulating the Protected Area of the Serengeti. Instead of letting Conservation Organizations handle the bulk of the efforts, societies collaborate with local people and consult them for their advice.[38] The active participation of both parties emphasizes a more just and empowering method of preserving the biodiversity within the area. Tanzania's conservation policies try to re-evaluate the legacy of colonialism and create a community resilient to global climate change.[50]

The road ahead for the Serengeti National Park requires a redefinition of narratives. Although the government has made more of an effort to implement inclusivity and fairness in its conservation practices, there are still issues that need to be addressed.[38] Local organizations work to create a more inclusive and equitable conservation narrative. The balance between the needs of the land and the rights of the people is the key to setting a global example of respectful protection of the safari.[25]


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