What is now Amboseli was part of the Southern Maasai Reserve at the turn of the last century. Then tourism arrived in the 1940s and the Amboseli Reserve was created as a wildlife sanctuary. Unlike Nairobi and Tsavo national parks, created at the same time and sparsely inhabited, Amboseli’s swamps were used by the Maasai to water their herds and they saw no reason not to continue sharing the area with the wildlife and – if necessary – with the tourists. In 1961, the Maasai District Council at Kajiado was given control of the area. But the combined destructive capacities of cattle and tourists began to tell in the 1960s and a rising water table in the following decade brought poisonous alkali to the surface and decimated huge tracts of acacia woodland.
Kenyatta declared the 400-square-kilometre zone around the swamps (the present-day Amboseli) a national park in 1970 – a status that formally excluded the Maasai and their cattle, although in practical terms the park staff could do nothing to keep them out. Infuriated, the Maasai all but exterminated the park’s magnificent long-horned black rhinos over the next few years, seizing on Amboseli’s tourist emblem with a vengeance (the surviving rhinos were translocated). They also obliterated a good part of the lion population, which has still not recovered. Not until a piped water supply was set up for the cattle did the Maasai finally give up the land. For years, compromise appeared to be the order of the day, and, in the dry season, you’ll see numerous herds of cattle and their herders encroaching well into the park unhindered, as they always did. Tensions rose in 2012, however, after a Maasai boy was killed by a buffalo and a number of animals, including elephants, were speared in retribution.
The erosion of Amboseli’s grasslands by circling minibuses did a great deal of damage in the 1980s, turning it into a vehicle-clogged dustbowl that appealed little to animals or tourists. A concerted programme of environmental conservation, road-building and ditch-making was initiated, and this, combined with the toughest approach of any park to off-road driving (including fines and expulsions), has improved the situation enormously.