In a remote corner of northern Tanzania, Boeing 747 planes land on a private airstrip, trucks with United Arab Emirates (UAE) number plates drive across the plains, and anyone with a cell phone receives an unlikely text message:
“Dear guest, welcome to UAE.”
For centuries, the sprawling savannah in the Arusha region of the East African nation was home to the Maasai people, but these days it can feel more like Dubai, one of the states that make up the UAE.
That is because this chunk of land in Arusha’s Loliondo area near the Serengeti National Park has been leased to an Emirati hunting company called the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC).
Since 1992, OBC has flown in wealthy clients to shoot lions and leopards, angering nomadic Maasai cattle herders who are blocked from pastures in the hunting grounds.
Now, Tanzania’s government wants to give more land to the hunters by establishing a 1,500 sq km (579 sq mile) wildlife corridor exclusively for OBC.
The plan would displace about 30,000 people and affect tens of thousands more who graze cattle there in the dry season.
The Maasai have erupted in protest, saying their livelihoods will be destroyed. More than 90% of Loliondo’s Maasai depend on rearing livestock on seasonal grasses there.
“Without land we cannot live,” said Naishirita Tenemeri, a mother of three.
Ms Tenemeri raises cows and goats in Loliondo to pay for food and her children’s schooling.
The Maasai have a history of losing their land in Tanzania since the British moved them from the Serengeti in 1959.
The former coloniser guaranteed future land rights, but post-independence governments further restricted grazing rights and the latest proposal would remove almost 40% of Loliondo’s highland prairie and forested mountains.
Ruling party cards spurned
Earlier this month, Ms Tenemeri, wrapped in a traditional red-checked blanket known as a shuka, joined 1,000 people, mostly women, under thorny acacia trees at Olorien village to protest at the plans.
Some walked for days for the chance to show their anger by publicly giving up their membership cards for Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
“If I have no land then I have no place to deliver my children,” said Morkelekei Gume, as she tossed her CCM card to the ground.
“My son is in secondary school because of the grass from here.
“If they need my land they can kill me.”
They have also led the protests since local politicians, who had said they backed the campaign against the wildlife corridor, later refused to resign from the party as they had promised to do.
The women’s outcry spurred the deputy secretary general of the CCM to trek all the way to Olorien, a collection of huts eight hours by four-wheel-drive from the region’s main city of Arusha.
CCM officials then denounced the planned corridor, but the ministry of tourism, and by extension Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, stands firm.
Mr Kikwete, who will stand down at the next election, in 2015, after two terms in office, has tried for almost a decade to give more land to OBC.
During a 2009 drought, he sent national police to help OBC block herders from a vital water source metres away from the company’s current hunting ground.
The Maasai say more than half of their cattle died as a result.
Isaac Mollel, the executive directive of OBC’s Tanzania branch, says people are only blocked from water resources during the July to December hunting season – which coincides with the dry season.
“If there is hunting going on, it is going to be dangerous if someone comes around and grazes,” he said.
For John Moina, who exports cattle from Loliondo to Kenya, Mr Kikwete’s message was clear.
“The government is saying OBC is better than citizens of Tanzania,” he said.
But Mr Kikwete’s government can earn more income in Loliondo from tourism through OBC – which has catered for English royalty like Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, and the UAE royal family – than livestock.
It is rich in game with few visitors, and borders the Serengeti, Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Park, and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Tourism Minister Khamis Kagasheki defends the evictions, saying the project will promote conservation as the Maasai are exhausting the land.
“These 1,500 sq km are a crucial breeding area for wildlife, a corridor for the iconic great migration of wildebeest, and a critical water catchment area,” he said in a press release.
However, academics say the Maasai barely affect wildlife.
“I would question those who say that the Maasai create more of a threat to wildlife than the hunting OBC is doing,” said Benjamin Gardner of the University of Washington, who has studied Maasai land issues for two decades.
The Maasai rarely hunt, and use the corridor’s highlands to avoid wildebeest that give birth in the lowlands and can spread disease to cattle.
If Loliondo’s 66,000 Maasai plus their livestock are hemmed into only 2,500 sq km, they may overstress land and wildlife.
“There is no big drought now,” said Samwel Nangiria, who heads a group of Maasai non-governmental organisations called NGO Network.
“But if they get the corridor it is going to affect twice as many people as 2009.”
Regardless, Mr Kagasheki has vigorously defended the government’s right to appropriate the land, accusing the Maasai of living in Loliondo illegally and blaming the unrest on foreign-funded groups.
OBC too points the finger at NGOs and says it has invested in the area over the last 20 years, digging five boreholes, building classrooms and a hospital.
“The people communicating for the Maasai are not the Maasai themselves. They make sure that [there is] no clear understanding between the investors and the indigenous people of Loliondo,” Mr Mollel says.
In fact, he says their current five-year concession was supposed to allow them access to the whole of the 4,000 sq km Loliondo area – so the smaller corridor is actually a concession to the Maasai.
He also says that, in the government’s eyes, the Maasai do not own the land, and it will help protect a drought-prone area.
Thirteen civil society groups from across Tanzania said in a statement that the Maasai do have title deeds for the corridor and the government is “going out of its ways to deliberately mislead the public”.
Maasai representatives plan to take the government to court over the corridor, but fear this may not lead to a quick resolution of the problem as a case from 2009 remains unheard.
Mr Nangiria believes there has been deliberate administrative blocking of their legal action as it is a constitutional case which requires three judges, but there is only one judge in Arusha and the other judges have yet to be sent for.
“The government should stop interfering with the judiciary,” the civil society groups said in a statement.
So the women under the acacia trees may be running out of options.
“Our government is taking us from our land,” said Paulina Leysa to a group of fellow protesters.
“We are crying to anyone who can help.”