Government says 750,000 signatories to online petition are 'misled', as campaigners attack 'policy from another century'l David Smith in Johannesburg guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 15 August 2012 11.04 EDT Migrating wildebeest in the Serengeti, Tanzania. Photograph: Getty Tanzania is facing a global protest campaign over claims that it wants to force Maasai pastoralists off their land to make way for game hunting by royals from the United Arab Emirates. Nearly 750,000 people have signed the Stop the Serengeti Sell-Off petition on the online activism site Avaaz.org, which says government ministers' Twitter and email accounts are also being swamped by messages from its members. But the Tanzanian government vehemently denies the allegations, maintaining that those who sign the petition are being misled by an "unfounded and nonexistent eviction claim". Disputes over the land on which the Maasai live and herd their cattlehave been running for 20 years. Seeking income from tourism, the government has welcomed foreign investors including the Ortelo Business Corporation (OBC), a safari company set up by a UAE official close to the Dubai royal family. Up to 48,000 Maasai living in the Loliondo area face eviction in a deal that could hand over huge swaths of land for the commercial hunting of prize game such as leopards and lions by UAE royals, claims Avaaz. Mzee Orosikos, a Maasai elder, said: "For us, our land is everything, but these Arab princes have no respect for the animals or our rights. Many of us would rather die than be forced to move again." Another local pastoralist and campaigner, Samwel Nangiria, accused the government of planning to create a corridor of 1,500 sq km for use by UAE hunters. "This is a shock," he said. "The government is telling us to compromise but people say they have given up enough. Giving up the Serengeti national park was a lifelong compromise then. They will not be pushed again." Nangiria, co-ordinator of the Ngonett civil society group, added: "The government is saying to pastoralists go back where you came from." He said the last mass evictions took place in 2009, forcing thousands of Maasai to surrender land where they had grazed cattle for generations. Avaaz added that some 350 homes were burnt to the ground, 25 people beaten by the police and tens of thousands of animals starved. Representatives of the Maasai appealed to Avaaz for help in opposing any deal. The petition is addressed to Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, but the government insists that there are no plans to force the Maasai out. George Matiko, spokesman for the resources and tourism ministry, said: "Such a move cannot be taken by the United Republic of Tanzania in the Serengeti as it is a national parkwhere people do not settle. Moreover, no eviction exercise has been planned for the Serengeti district, which is one of the districts in Mara region. In the Serengeti there is no hunting bloc allocated to Middle Eastern kings and princes to hunt lions and leopards." Emma Ruby-Sachs, campaign director at Avaaz, said: "Rather than address the substance of the Avaaz campaign and the concerns of the Maasai, the Tanzanian government is playing cynical word games – the Maasai lands in question are commonly understood to be within the Serengeti ecosystem. If the government does not believe there is any threat to the Maasai lands, it should be easy for it to commit to a policy of not forcibly evicting any of its people to make way for foreign interests."