Kenya: Masai Mara in peril

By Dieter Ebeling

Those visiting the Masai Mara Reservation for the first time are overwhelmed. But those who had visited the Mara area 30 years ago and remembers the way it was then see a different place.

A local soaking in the late afternoon sun at Kenya's Masai Mara Reservation. Photo / Thinkstock
A local soaking in the late afternoon sun at Kenya's Masai Mara Reservation. Photo / Thinkstock

The hyena is laughing away, while a hippopotamus is sniffing at the wall of the tent before moving off again. Monkeys are swinging from tree to tree. Somewhere, a lion is roaring.

And this is actually a quiet night in the Mara Bush Camp in the middle of the Masai Mara National Park, for at least for now no elephants, water buffaloes or leopards have gone wandering amid the cluster of ten tents pitched at a bend along the Ololorok River.

But in paradise you're never alone. When the sun rises on one of Africa's most scenic spots, then the view is one of many all-terrain vehicles. They can't be overlooked. At best, the vehicles are a few kilometres away. At worst, things can get like a red carpet reception at the Oscars, what with all the cars.

Tourism is Kenya's most important source of revenue, followed by exports of flowers, coffee and tea. The key industry has recovered since 2008 after a period when bloody unrest scared safari tourists away.

The route leading to the animal kingdom's paradise of Masai Mara Reservation is lined on both sides by fenced-in wheat fields, and goes past many large herds of cattle. Secondly, there are clearly fewer wild animals than before.

Population growth pressures have reached the apparently idyllic wilderness. Since 1980, Kenya's population has grown 150 per cent to 41 million. Humans need space, work, food.

David Karanja, a safari guide, knows the huge national park like the back of his hand. There are a great many animals and perhaps a few poachers. But the poaching is within bounds - above all it is the young Masai warriors who for ages have been proving their masculinity by killing a lion with their spear.

However, Joseph Ogutu, a bio-technician from Hohenheim University in Germany, sees things differently. He says that the number of cattle which are illegally grazing in the national park has risen more than ten-fold since 1977 when aerial surveying began. At the same time, the numbers of wild animals has dropped by two-thirds.

This first-ever long-term study has caused an uproar. Critics say the figures provide only a momentary picture. But many experts admit that the negative trend cannot be disputed.

Brian Heath, head of the Mara Conservancy that administers the so-called triangle in the north-western part of Mara, estimates that in the entire Masai area the number of wild animals has shrunk 80 per cent over the past 35 years.

Hundreds of thousands of hectares of grazing land had been handed over to farmers for wheat cultivation. Forests which the Masai had cultivated and protected are being sawed down at an alarming rate.

A stay in the Mara however is still a grand and unforgettable experience. There are ample offerings for overnight stays, although almost all of them are very expensive. There are lodges, and then above all there are tent camps of varying degrees of quality.

In the Mara Bush Camp, a cowbell belongs to every tent to sound the alarm, since the camp is not fenced in. And before you head to a restaurant, a tavern or a campfire, you are best advised to call on a spear-carrying Masai warrior to accompany you.


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