How Women Will Save the Serengeti

Women’s health, education, welfare, and rights have a decisive role to play in saving the Serengeti

  • Human population around the Serengeti is reaching critical mass
  • Climate change is having an increasing impact
  • Women are key to reversing both threats
  • Empowering women and girls must be a priority

The Real Serengeti Ecosystem

Serengeti means “endless plains” in the Maasai language. But this is far from true. The Serengeti is an island in a sea of people, and unchecked growth of communities around the Serengeti is the primary, existential threat to its wildlife and habitat.

If human needs are not met, it will be impossible to save the Serengeti. Despite the best efforts of scientists, the bravery of rangers, the good intentions of conservation organizations and donors, or the income from wildlife tourism, runaway population growth amplifies all other threats, and it can make all conservation efforts futile.
For this reason, it is best to think of the Serengeti (both Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya), as one inclusive ecosystem in which humans and wildlife interact, adapt, and compete. The margins of the protected wildlife areas are porous and vulnerable, as are those of humans.

Tanzania’s population is on track to more than double by mid-century, from 57 million people in 2017 to 137 million in 2050. At this rate, there will be nearly 300 million by 2100.  Tanzania has one of the world’s highest adolescent pregnancy rates: one in six girls between 15 and 19 become pregnant. It also has one of the highest child marriage rates, with 37 percent of girls marrying before age 18.

Population growth around the Serengeti National Park is the highest in Tanzania. The Mara District, sandwiched between Lake Victoria and the Serengeti on the western side, has the highest fertility rate in the country (5.9), followed by Shinyanga District to the south of the Serengeti (5.6). In the western Serengeti, there were 600,000 people in 2010. There may be over one million by 2050. These areas are also among the poorest in the country. People currently get much of their protein from the poaching of wild animals. Currently, about 100,000 animals are killed for bush meat. If this doubles, it would be devastating to the migration.

The Maasai Mara Reserve in Kenya faces equally staggering population growth:  Around the Mara, population is on track to quadruple by 2033, just fourteen years! One Maasai leader states that without urgent intervention it is “the end of the world as we know it.”

Population around the Serengeti National ParkI: 2016 (map: Amy Haak/Serengeti Watch)

Projected population: 2050

How can development possibly keep up? How can people be fed, healthy, and educated. How can protected areas like the Serengeti survive such an onslaught of human presence and basic needs? Will governments have to choose between people and wildlife?

People First

In the end, conservation is all about human welfare, and this welfare, or lack of it, will ultimately determine the fate of wildlife, natural habitat, and biodiversity. Simply feeding and providing health and education for such a growing population is a huge challenge for conservation.

But there is more: climate change.

“Tanzania is acutely vulnerable to climate change: mean annual precipitation has decreased significantly across the country from 1960 to the present, and seasonal rainfall patterns have already changed. With 80% of the population relying on agriculture and pastoralism for their income, livelihoods, and employment, ensuring that the country and its people are able to adapt to a changing climate is essential. And family planning is a critical component of building resilience.”

Obstacles

Family planning faces cultural and political headwinds in Tanzania. Tanzania’s President Magufulii this year made a sobering announcement: “As long as I am president…no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school…After getting pregnant, you are done.”  He was trying to address a problem, but to blame young girls misses the point and reflects a dominant patriarchal view. The decision was met with protests from many women’s and human rights organization.

Helen Minchew of the International Women’s Health Coalition explains that “adolescent girls often have little control over their own lives. This lack of autonomy, combined with little or no access to education, information, or sexual and reproductive health care, often leads directly to adolescent pregnancy.”

This dictate is a marker for deeper issues facing family planning. Many faith-based organizations in East Africa are against any artificial contraception. After Magufuli’s prohibition on schooling for teen mothers, one religious organization added: “Now our job is to support the President and his administration with up to date information on the harm done to women, families and societies by widespread use of contraceptives.”

In many communities in Tanzania, women already understand the need for smaller family size. Many want to use contraceptives. But only 26% of married women use modern contraception (mostly in urban areas), compared with 53% for Kenya.  A recent study near the Serengeti by Aine McCarthy, a Professor of Applied Economics, found that only 12% of women were using contraceptives, even though 89% wanted to delay or prevent pregnancy.

One big obstacle – men. Men want larger families, six times more children than women according to this study. Unfortunately, men rule, while women bear most of the burden and most of the risk. The mortality rate among women who give birth in Tanzania is among the highest in the world. Reducing pregnancies also reduces death of young mothers.

The Key: Women’s Education, Health, Rights

So for the two huge issues that face the larger Serengeti ecosystem, population growth and climate change, women have a remarkably powerful role to play. Educating women has a proven effect on reducing family size and improving welfare. And when girls stay in school they have a reduced risk of becoming pregnant.

Damaeris Seleina Parsitau knows this well. A visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, she is a Maasai woman with a Ph.D., the first Maasai woman to ever achieve this level of education. She says that in Maasai society, men have the power and women must remain silent. But after earning her doctorate, the elders made her an “honorary man,” and allowed her to speak. And now she is, advocating Maasai women’s education through her organization, Let Maasai Girls Learn.


Women also have a key role in climate change.  A recent Brookings Institution article, girls’ education has an impact in several important ways:

(1) Focusing on girls’ and women’s education and health empowers them and helps stabilize population growth.
(2) Investing in girls’ education builds female leadership in society, and women leaders are “incredibly effective in conservation and protection efforts, and are more likely to pursue more sustainable futures for their communities.”
(3) women’s and girls’ education is important for developing skills for a green economy.

In short, for the great threats to the Serengeti from climate change and diminished human welfare from population growth, it is women who can have the greatest impact.

As Damaris Parsitau says,

“Girls from all over the world hold the key to our most pressing challenges, including climate change and environmental sustainability. Studies suggest girls’ education significantly and positively impacts families and communities. Investing in girls’ education is imperative.”

How can all this be done? Given existing attitudes and powers, the task is huge. But it must be done. Serengeti Watch is focusing its efforts on raising awareness, educating communities, and building support. 

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