NAIROBI, Kenya -- Tanzania's government is preparing to kick Maasai tribesmen off cattle-grazing land near the country's most famous wildlife park and will instead allow a hunting company from the United Arab Emirates to take control of it, groups and community members trying to raise awareness on the issue said Friday.
The reclassification of the land will create a "wildlife corridor" that will prevent the Maasai from accessing lands they've long used, thus destroying their traditional nomadic cattle-herding lifestyle, said Sarah Gilbertz of Survival International, a London-based group that works for the rights of tribal people worldwide.
Tanzania's Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism announced last week that it would not allow Maasai on a 1,500-square-kilometer section of the Loliondo Game Controlled Area "in order to resolve existing conflicts" and "save the ecology" of the Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Loliondo game reserves.
But the groups say that's just an excuse to benefit a hunting company.
"Although the government claims that the land is needed as a corridor for wildlife, the area is leased to the Ortello Business Corporation of the United Arab Emirates to use for trophy hunting," Gilbertz said. Ortello couldn't be reached for comment Friday. Businesses are typically closed on Fridays in the UAE.
The Serengeti is considered to be one of the world's natural treasures. The reserve is a vast plain dotted with acacia trees and watering holes, where wildebeest and zebra gather in huge herds for annual migrations. More than 2 million animals migrate north from Serengeti into Kenya's adjacent Maasai Mara reserve every year.
The Maasai tribes indigenous to the region also use the land to graze cattle and other animals. Robert Kamakia, a Maasai community member who works for an aid group that helps pastoralists, said many meetings have taken place in recent days to try to solve the impasse, but no progress has been made.
"Now the government is organizing to set up the place so that livestock and human activity will be prohibited, and it will be the end of the community here because actually 90 percent of the community are depending on pastoral activity," he said, referring to Maasai who herd cattle and goats.
Ian Bassin, campaign director for the activist group Avaaz, said tens of thousands of Maasai villagers could be driven off the land. The last time the government tried to clear land for Ortello, security forces burned villages and tens of thousands of head of livestock died, Bassin said.
"This time the villagers say they will vehemently resist the eviction," Bassin said.
Avaaz posted a letter on its website it says is from Maasai elders asking for support to prevent the government from taking over the land. The petition had more than 1.2 million signatures by mid-day Friday.
"The government has just announced that it plans to kick thousands of our families off our lands so that wealthy tourists can use them to shoot lions and leopards. The evictions are to begin immediately," the letter says.
The letter says the government previously tried to carry out the plan, but that international attention forced the government to shelve it. "But the President has waited for international attention to die down, and now he's revived his plan to take our land. We need your help again, urgently," the letter says.
Bassin said that Maasai have deeds showing they are legally entitled to the land the government plans to close off to them.