Amanda Lewis-Nang’ea’s research brings historical perspective to the issues of land management and resource stewardship in Kenya.

By Robyn Rime

Amboseli National Park in Kenya is one of the best places in the world to get close to free-ranging elephants. The park, formalized as a national game reserve in 1948 and as a park in 1974, seeks to protect a unique ecosystem through conservation, wildlife viewing and tourism. Supporting endangered species in the wild seems indisputably worthy — after all, who doesn’t want to protect elephants?

And yet, responsible land stewardship isn’t that simple.

Assistant Professor Lewis-Nang’ea conducts participant observation with David Maitumo in Amboseli National Park. Maitumo, a local Maasai conservationist, has been collecting botanical data for over 30 years. This data provides information on climate change, foliage coverage, and grazing patterns of wildlife. /Photo by provided Amanda Lewis-Nang’ea

“I thought I would be researching a positive, progressive history that looks at bad actors in colonial Kenya and ends with the indigenous Maasai able to manage the land themselves,” says Amanda Lewis-Nang’ea, assistant professor of history. “Of course, it’s much more complicated and messy than that, which is how history usually is.”

Lewis-Nang’ea, who specializes in African history and the history of science, has focused her interdisciplinary research on the history of pastoralists and wildlife conservation in East Africa and Amboseli, a region where the Maasai people have lived for many generations. Her examination of the park’s history and its ramifications on the surrounding community blends archival and scientific research with oral histories of scientists, conservationists, Kenyan wildlife service officials — and particularly the Maasai. 

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic, pastoral tribe that lives by herding cattle and goats under a communal land management system. For hundreds of years, they have moved their livestock based on a seasonal rotation, utilizing resources in a sustainable manner. However, explains Lewis-Nang’ea, the growing conservation movement in the mid-20th century led Kenya’s colonial policymakers to set aside land for game reserves and national parks, and new land management systems took hold. 

Assistant Professor Amanda Lewis-Nang’ea conducts oral histories with women, who are the builders of homes and have intimate knowledge of local environments, which provide the resources they need to take care of families. Neiyo Kuperia explains the use of wetland reeds to make mats. /Photo provided by Amanda Lewis-Nang’ea

And the Maasai’s way of life began to change. With restricted access to critical pastureland and water resources, says Lewis-Nang’ea, Maasai were forced away from livestock grazing and into farming, becoming less nomadic and more sedentary. For a people financially and culturally dependent on livestock — a man’s worth was measured by how many cattle and children he had — the conservation movement has led to significant socio-economic challenges. 

Today, the area around Amboseli is witnessing the emergence of what Lewis-Nang’ea describes as community-based conservation. “Those concerned about wildlife and people’s relationship with the environment have found ways to reconcile the needs of the community with the long-term survival of wildlife,” she says.

Lewis-Nang’ea’s research looks at how scientists and local communities have developed a better understanding of both the ecosystem and human-animal relationships. “In the 1960s, scientists were attracted to what they thought of as ‘untouched landscapes’ in which to study species like elephants and baboons, which was not true at all — more recently, they’ve realized this is actually a human-shaped landscape,” she says. “Scientists are also involving local Maasai so it isn’t just white western researchers coming in and doing the work. They make sure that local communities benefit from incoming tourism dollars with new schools and clinics, as well as from the science — for instance, how to better manage the land when elephants come through on a migratory route so they don’t trample your farm.” 

Assistant Professor Amanda Lewis-Nang’ea holds a tranquilized hyena while conducting participant observations with the Mara Hyena Project. She spent time with field scientists who were learning about hyena behavior. Researchers took blood samples from the hyena and put a tracking collar on it. /Photo provided by Amanda Lewis-Nang’ea

Watching community-based conservation develop in Amboseli encourages Lewis-Nang’ea to hope for its growth in the United States as well. “Most of our parks have what’s called fortress conservation, where you may build an invisible or literal fence around the park — people are kept out and wildlife is kept in,” she says. “That idea did not work well for Africa. Thinking of the history of parks and protected areas as social spaces could be a better way to understand this dichotomy that we always create between civilization and nature. I believe the history of the conservation movement in Kenya can dispel the notion that pastoralists are somehow antiquated and not part of the modern world.” 

After all, she says, the Maasai are interested in the same responsible land management and resource stewardship that modern ranchers are — “it’s just that their lifestyle looks a little different.”