Mkomazi National Park is located in northeastern Tanzania on the Kenyan border, in Kilimanjaro Region and Tanga Region. It was established as a game reserve in 1951 and upgraded to a national park in 2006. The park never attracted the financial support provided for the better-known wildlife strongholds such as the Ngorongoro and the Serengeti National Parks. Only since 1989, when the Tanzanian Government re-examined the reserve’s status and designated it a National Priority Project, was its true significance and importance recognized.
The park covers over 3,234 square kilometers (323,400 ha), and is dominated by Acacia–Commiphora vegetation; the Pare and Usambara Mountains form a dramatic backdrop, and, to the north, Kenya’s vast Tsavo National Park shares a border with Mkomazi, making common ground for migratory herds of elephants, oryx, and zebra during the wet season. Together with Tsavo, it forms one of the largest and most important protected ecosystems on earth.
The area commonly called ‘Mkomazi’ is the union of two previous game reserves, the Umba Game Reserve in the east (in Lushoto District, Tanga Region) and the Mkomazi Game Reserve in the west (in Same District, Kilimanjaro Region); in government documents, they are sometimes called the Mkomazi-Umba Game Reserves. Of the two, Mkomazi is large and has more diversity of relief and habitat, and a long shared border with Tsavo West National Park. In the rest of this entry, ‘Mkomazi’ will refer to both the Mkomazi and Umba reserves together.
History of contest
Like many national parks and game reserves, Mkomazi’s history is one of the contests, with the main contenders being government conservation planners and local rural resources users. It differs from many other cases in East Africa because limited resource use within the reserve was initially permitted. When Mkomazi was first established by several pastoral families from the Parakuyo ethnic group were allowed to continue to live there with a few thousand of their cattle, goats, and sheep. The (colonial) government of the time permitted them to reside there because they had been in the area for many years and were thought not to threaten the ecological integrity of the reserve. The pastoralists were only allowed in the eastern half of the reserve. Immigrant Maasai pastoralists and families from other ethnic groups were evicted when the reserve was established.
However, Mkomazi was soon subject to immigration by other herders, some of which were resisted by the Parakuyo residents, and some which were facilitated by them. What with resident stock breeding and immigrant stock joining the reserve, the first decades of Mkomazi’s history were dominated by rising cattle populations. Some 20,000 animals were counted in the eastern half of the reserve in the early 1960s. In the early 1970s pastoralists began living and grazing in the western half of the reserve and by the mid-1980s around 80,000 cattle were counted inside the reserve as a whole. There were probably thousands more using it intermittently. Many of the immigrants were Maasai, who are very closely related to the Parakuyo, speaking the same language and sharing many customs. But local herders from other ethnic groups, such as the Sambaa and Pare, also grazed thousands of cattle inside Mkomazi.
The quantities of cattle within the reserve caused considerable concern for the environment and there was continual pressure to have them evicted. In the late 1980s, the government resolved to cease all grazing permission within Mkomazi and evicted all herders. By July 1988 these evictions were complete. Evicted Maasai and Parakuyo pastoralists contested the legality of the evictions, claiming customary rights to the reserve in the Tanzanian courts, but lost their case. After the evictions, the British charity, the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, and its American sister charity, the Tony Fitzjohn, George Adamson African Wildlife Preservation Trust became interested in Mkomazi, and have since been spearheading a campaign to restore the reserve. They have set up fenced sanctuaries for African wild dogs and black rhinoceros, and are restoring the reserve’s infrastructure and supporting local communities with its outreach program.