Although there is considerable research on the ecological effects of fire in sub-Saharan Africa, research on traditional fire practices is very limited and the consequences of substantial changes to historical fire regimes have not been adequately explored. The present paper examines historic and contemporary uses of fire as a land management tool among Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania and explores the potential impacts of changing fire management and fire suppression on savanna vegetation. Village members were interviewed about historical and current practices, reasons for burning, the history of land use, and their perceptions of fire. Eight recent burn sites were selected for examination of size, ignition source, and timing of the burn. The Maasai identified eight major reasons for using fire on a landscape scale in savannas and historically used a progression of small fires throughout the dry season as grasses cured to create a fragmented burn pattern and to prevent large, catastrophic late-season fires. Currently, there is little active vegetation management using fire largely owing to federal fire suppression policies, unpredictable rai fall patterns, increasing population pressures, and a subsequent increase in the number of catastrophic accidental fires. Substantial modifications to historical fire regimes could have cascading consequences for savanna health by increasing late-season fuel loads and the occurrence of large, catastrophic fires.
Additional keywords: Acacia–Commiphora scrub, Maasai, semiarid savannas, Tanzania.