By Stephen Leahy
Nov 25 (IPS) – A prolonged drought in East Africa in the 1890s not only killed tens of thousands of the native Maasai people, it also reshaped the ecological and political landscape — this according to new research published in the current issue of the ‘African Journal of Ecology’.
Droughts and also disease outbreaks took place from 1883 to 1902, a series of events which the Maasai dubbed the “Emutai” (“to wipe out”). Rinderpest killed Maasai cattle in 1883-1884, then small pox devastated the people; this was followed by a drought, including two years with no rain. Not surprisingly a severe famine persisted for much of the 1890s.
“There were skeleton-like women with the madness of starvation in their sunken eyes, children looking more like frogs than human beings, ‘warriors’ who could hardly crawl on all fours, and apathetic, languishing elders…They were refugees from the Serengeti…” wrote Austrian geographer Oscar Baumann in 1894.
A period of severe erosion resulted from the combination of drought, fire and overgrazing, reports researcher Lindsey Gillson of the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Gillson’s study was done in Tsavo National Park in south-eastern Kenya.
This is a surprising result because the region is semi-arid and plants are drought tolerant. However when the cattle died, the Maasai were forced to rely on goats and sheep which probably led to temporary overgrazing, Gillson writes.
By the time the rains finally came, erosion had changed the region’s capacity to support livestock and other grazing animals.
Kenya’s world-famous national parks — Serengeti, Tsavo, Amboseli and Mkomazi — were traditionally central to the Maasai tradition and economy, but were nearly depopulated when European colonists arrived, says Jon Lovett of the Center for Ecology, Law and Policy at the University of York in England.