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Elephants and the Maasai Culture: Today’s Problems, Tomorrow’s Solutions

By Siranka Lesisa, Keruki Kairung, and Gini Cowell 

The Maasai and the Elephant have lived on the same land for many centuries. They have shared the same resources and suffered similarly in times of scarcity. A mutual form of respect has existed between the two for a long time.

This may partly be because elephants play a role in many Maasai beliefs, practices, and traditions. One belief is that the elephant is the second god, second to Enkai—God of All in Maasai culture—because of its powerful voice and immense size.

In the past the Maasai pastoralist culture has always been one that has nurtured the land and used only the resources that were needed for the people. Abuse of the land or its animals and plants was frowned upon in the old days and still is by elders today.

The Maasai have long held the belief that eating the meat of wild animals is wrong. It was said that if one was to consume wild meat, the udders on all cows would close up, and they would never produce milk again.

Elephants have been considered majestic, sacred, even wise, by many ancient cultures. In the Maasai culture, if the birth sac of an elephant is found, it’s seen as a good omen.

The elephant’s size, strength, and renowned wisdom have inspired many tales, sayings, and riddles synonymous with these virtues. “Meek olenkaina ilala lenyena” (“the elephant doesn’t hang up his teeth”—in other words, never tires of his tusks) is one example. Stories of elephants are passed down through generations, captivating audiences today just as they in the past.

A Tone of Conflict and Animosity Today 

There was a time when some semblance of harmony was maintained between elephants and Maasai; problems between them were minimal in comparison to now. But that was when the human population was far lower, and competition for land and resources was considerably less.

Indeed, conflict and animosity mostly set the tone these days.

The Maasai have long been dubbed some of Africa’s greatest conservationists because the majority of wildlife in Kenya (and to a great extent in Tanzania) lives on Maasai land.

But this also means the Maasai are subjected to the challenges of living in such close proximity with elephants and other wildlife, challenges of repeated crop-raiding, property damage and personal injury—or death.

A traditional Maasai homestead. Credit: Elizabeth Cowell
A traditional Maasai homestead.
Credit: Elizabeth Cowell

In the past the Maasai were nomadic, moving their herds every few weeks in search of better pasture. Now although pastoralism is still very much a part of their culture, the nomadism is all but gone.

Land ownership has taken on a whole new meaning, with individual plots subdivided and settlements becoming permanent.

One of the main causes of human-elephant conflict today is the rapid decrease of wild habitat. Vital elephant corridors once free of human interference are now blocked by human structures and activity.

Islands Amid a Sea of Humanity 

With every wildlife access route that’s cut off, the number of isolate wilderness “islands” within an ecosystem, with what seems like a sea of humanity on all sides, increases, preventing migratory species from moving.

Lack of habitat connectivity squeezes elephants into smaller areas, inevitably leading to confrontations with people as the animals try to move from one island to another.

It’s unrealistic to apply circumstances of the past to the situation today. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

“The biggest change for us has been education.” says Hellen Muntet, chair of the Ol Moti Women’s Group, one of many grassroots initiatives promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in Maasailand.

“When I was a young girl, far fewer Maasai girls were able to go to school. I was lucky because my father had a job, and he supported my education.

“One example of how things have changed is how a long time ago it was usually the least favorite child in a family who was sent to school because school was viewed as unprogressive and anti-tradition,” Helen says. “But nowadays this mindset is reversed.”

Many Maasai favor change and desire certain modern luxuries such as consumer goods, better transportation, education, and the Internet.

Yet comparatively few Maasai have access to these, and many still adhere to traditional customs and practices. Some have managed to balance both.

“My house is built in a modern fashion with a solar power system and even a satellite dish on the roof, but I still keep my traditional homestead and our family’s livestock, which are just a short walking distance from here.” Hellen explains.

Hellen and her modern house. Credit: Gini Cowell
Hellen and her modern house.
Credit: Gini Cowell

As a prominent member of her community, Hellen also feels a responsibility to send a conservation message.

“With development and fences increasing everywhere, it must be confusing for the elephants. But I have seen with my own eyes that when given the room to live in peace, elephants do not bother anyone,” she says.

“Our property goes down to a nearby river, but I have made room for a small corridor so that the elephants are still able to go to the river as well.”

In the Maasai culture, Hellen says, elephants are respected for their similarity to humans—their maternal love for their young and for their intelligence.

“We want our elephants alive because they will continue to benefit my family and myself tomorrow and the day after that. When poachers kill an elephant,” Hellen says, “they’re taking this away from us because the elephant is dead. Poachers are considered outcasts in this community.”

Growing Tolerance for the Giants

Hellen isn’t the only one to express these sentiments. While not all want elephants on their land, many Maasai have become more tolerant of having the giants as neighbors. A growing number of people feel the need to protect their elephants, their wildlife, and their land—their heritage—for posterity.

The rangers doing "homework" - writing reports on their day's patrol. Credit: Will Cowell
The rangers doing “homework” – writing reports on their day’s patrol.
Credit: Will Cowell

Maasai rangers who work to protect wildlife and simultaneously strive to build a peaceful bridge between the wild animals and their custodians who own the land have an important role as ambassadors.

Rangers like those from the conservation project Elephant Aware have a culture behind them which ties in with the work they do. This makes a big difference to their own people.

Rangers watching elephants whilst on a patrol. Credit: Gini Cowell
Rangers watching elephants whilst on a patrol.
Credit: Gini Cowell

With the many conflict incidents these Maasai rangers have to deal with almost daily, it’s not easy for them to be optimistic about the future of their own people’s relationship with elephants.

But hope lies in their dedication and in the enlightened attitude of Maasai leaders like Hellen Muntet.

Siranka Lesisa and Keruki Kairung are Maasai rangers with the Elephant Aware project, based in the Greater Olarro Conservancy, Kenya. Gini Cowell, also with Elephant Aware, works closely with local Maasai communities on conservation matters. 

Comments

  1. Denise Cottam
    June 9, 3:03 am

    What a fascinating articlle.This diverse culture is what makes our planet so interesting.The maasais are a unique race.
    We need to keep these traditions alive.
    To witness elephants in the wild is like nothing on earth.Their silent walk and their knowing looks will stay with me forever.