Ngorongoro Crater: Disturbed peace in the Garden of Eden

Noel B. Salazar

© Noel B. Salazar, 1 June 2006, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is a UNESCO natural World Heritage site located in the northern highlands of Tanzania. The Ngorongoro crater, the world’s largest caldera, is often referred to as ‘Africa’s garden of Eden’. It is a commonly told anecdote that when Noah left his (Biblical) Ark, he let all the animals he had taken with him disperse from the Ngorongoro crater. Humans are remarkably absent in these imaginaries, although many of the oldest human remains—sometimes imaginatively called mitochondrial or African Eve—were discovered in and around the nearby Olduvai Gorge (next to the hominid footprints found at Laetoli), and some scholars have concluded that the ‘true’ Garden of Eden or cradle of humankind must have been located in East Africa.

The NCA was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1979 (with an extension of the area in 2010). The property adjoins Serengeti National Park, which is also included on the World Heritage List as a natural property (inscribed in 1981). Because of their global importance for biodiversity conservation, the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme recognized the Serengeti-Ngorongoro area in 1981 as Biosphere Reserve. NCA’s web page of the World Heritage Centre ( wrongly states that there were no inhabitants in the Ngorongoro at the time of inscription. In reality, the NCA was established in 1959 as a multiple land use area, with wildlife coexisting with semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists practicing traditional livestock grazing. During the German colonial era, the Siedentopfbrothers briefly had a farm and cultivated on the crater floor.

The Maasai, speakers of the Eastern Nilotic Maa tonal language, are a widely dispersed group of seminomadic pastoralists and small-scale subsistence agriculturists who occupy arid and semiarid rangelands in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania—collectively known as Maasailand.In 1959, with the establishment of Serengeti National Park, the Maasai who lived there were evicted and moved to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.In 1974, they were forced to evacuate some parts of Ngorongoro as well, because their presence was believed to be detrimental to wildlife and landscape. In the 1980s, they faced further restrictions as the conservationist attitude of the government stiffened. In 2006, the Tanzanian government even gave an ultimatum to Maasai communities living inside Ngorongoro, around 60.000 people at that time, to vacate the area by end of the year.

The development of tourism in the area dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when John Hunter guided the first paid safari to the Serengeti. He also led the expedition that opened up the Ngorongoro crater to visitors.The first game park hotel, NgorongoroCrater Lodge, was built in 1934. When hunting became more restricted and expensive, photographic safaris such as depicted in the photograph offered an attractive alternative. In the beginning, there were very few guides available for this type of tourism, only drivers or local game scouts. Until the 1980s, the Ngorongoro Crater had park rangers whose task it was to show drivers where to go. In the 1990s, the National Outdoor Leadership School (a US non-profit educational organization) started training walking guides. Today, it is not allowed to enter the crater without being accompanied by a licensed guide.
Tour packages in northernTanzania usually consist of a trip from Arusha, the country’s ‘safari capital’,to Lake Manyara and Tarangire National Parks,Ngorongoro Crater, and on to Serengeti NationalPark. To maintain the fantasy of unspoiled nature, tourists are not being told how the Maasai and other ethnic groups were originally expelled from their lands in order to create national parks and protected areas. Although not recognized or protected by any international convention, the Maasai are as much part of the Ngorongorotourism ‘attraction’ as the Big Five—a huntingterm historically used to denote the five most dangerousAfrican animals: lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and buffalo. Not without irony, some have expanded the Big Five to the Big Six by includingthe Maasai people.

Apart from receiving considerably large commissions for bringing clients to souvenir and curio shops, driver-guides can earn good money by visiting Maasai bomas (homesteads) along the main roads that were specifically created for receiving tourists. Guides charge around US$50 to take visitors there, giving the boma people itself as little as TZS 10,000 (less than US$10).The Maasai know about this malpractice, and some are extremely upset about it and angry with the drivers. As a result, the visit to a Maasai homestead is generally preceded by lengthy discussions about the price to be paid. In order to avoid this, in 2007 the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority introduced a fixed price of TZS 20,000 (around US$17) for a visit to a boma within their area. Guides as well as resident Maasai, however, often pretend not to know about this arrangement.

Given these tensions, it is not surprising that Arusha not only functions as a safari gateway but it is also the place where sustainable tourism is being debated and developed. The city hosted the Africa Travel Association annual congress (1998, 2008), the MIGA-Swiss Investment Forum on Tourism (2002), the Association for Tourism and Leisure Education (Africa) Community Tourism conference (2003), the UNTWO Seminar-workshop on Sustainable Tourism Development and Poverty Alleviation (2004), the UNEP International Seminar on Sustainable Consumption and Production (2006) with a working group on ecotourism in developing countries, the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation summit on Tourism and Infrastructure Development (2008) and the UNWTO First Pan-African Conference on Sustainable Tourism in African National Parks (2012).

Since the liberalization of the Tanzanian tourism sector in the mid-1980s, visitor numbers (including researchers such as myself) have steadily increased. More than the presence of the Maasai, tourism pressure is now a major concern, including in relation to the potential impacts from increased visitation, new infrastructure, traffic, waste management, disturbance to wildlife and the potential for introduction of invasive species. The yearly increasing entrance fees have not stopped the rising number of tourists to Ngorongoro. The more expensive it becomes, the more people feel attracted to visit this mesmerizing ‘Garden of Eden’ (before it is too late). Contrary to the tourism imaginary, the picture attests that it can get so busy on the crater tracks that the wildlife is barely visible anymore in between the multitude of safari vehicles…


Electronic reference:
Noel B. Salazar, Ngorongoro Crater: Disturbed peace in the Garden of Eden, Via@, Pictures, posted on october 26th, 2014.


Noel B. Salazar
Cultural Mobilities Research (CuMoRe), University of Leuven