By Njiraini Muchira and Macharia Kamau
|The road between Narok and the Sekanani, the entry point to the Mara, has for years remained in a deplorable condition. [Picture: Jenipher Wachie/Standard]|
It has been the goose that lays the golden egg. For decades, the Masai Mara National Reserve has been the pillar of the Sh100 billion tourism sector.
From the fact that its home to the big five, hundreds of species of animals and thousands of birds species and forms part of the ecosystem of the marvellous annual wildebeest migration that is a major tourists attract, the Mara has been a national treasure.
This, however, has only been when it is raking in billions annual. Now the famous game reserve is coming under constant threats with increasing risks, which if not addressed fast could see the Mara continue on a degeneration path and in the process robbing the country of what can only be equated to a treasured silverware.
That Masai Mara is losing its fascination is with no doubt. Access to the game reserve is through a road that has been in a deplorable condition for close to a decade.
Unplanned development of hotels and lodges are cropping up at an unprecedented rate, while human-wildlife interaction and conflicts are getting to dangerous levels because of high human population growth rate.
As if that is not bad enough, the local community has in recent times been at war with the Narok County Council for introducing a new card payment system that they say is denying them a piece of the cake.
Then there is the indifference approach by the Government when it comes to addressing the myriad challenges facing the Mara.
Now industry players are worried the reserve is fast losing out to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park that has all the attractions that Mara has given the fact that the two are within the same ecosystem but beats Mara because of better management policies and ease of access by road.
Other than the Serengeti, other local parks and reserves might benefit from the unattractiveness of the Mara and with time what has over time come to be a top attraction might end up just being another national reserve.
“Mara is certainly in jeopardy and needs urgent help. The population around Mara has been growing at a high rate, which is a strain on the ecosystem and on the animal population which is not contained in a specific area but spread in different areas,” said Agatha Juma chief executive Kenya Tourism Federation.
“We need to put in place a management plan for the Mara urgently. A plan would ensure sustainable use of the land now and in years to come... today any land owner can decide to alter their land use and there is nothing that would stop them,” she said.
Industry players have in the past come together to draw up the Masai Mara Management plan, a ten-year blueprint that balances investments and conservation in the reserve.
Its implementation has never gotten underway due to differences between the county council and the national government.
Fred Kaigua, the chief executive Kenya Association of Tour Operators (Kato) reckons that the implementation of a management plan would protect both investments and the environment.
Such a plan is expected to limit the number of accommodation facilities put up in a defined area, reducing the human impact on environment and ensuring that there are no new developments that would undercut current hoteliers.
But while there seems to be a rivalry of sorts between Kenya and Tanzania in the management of the Serengeti and Mara, cooperation would give them much more mileage in attracting tourists and growing revenues given that they make one ecosystem.
“Mara cannot survive without the Serengeti and the Serengeti cannot survive without the Mara. It is in the interest of both Kenya and Tanzania to put their differences aside and manage the ecosystem,” said Juma.
The road between Narok and the Sekanani, the entry point to the Mara, has for years remained in a deplorable condition due to close to a decade of neglect.
The 85km stretch takes up to three hours to drive, a distance that would ordinarily take an hour. It gets worse during the rainy season, where one can take as many as six hours and even then, one needs a four-wheel drive vehicle.
There have been repeated calls to the Government to fix the road by tourism industry players and even tourists that are usually met with promises but nothing seems to move.
Roads minister Franklin Bett has said the ministry will soon sign a financing deal with Chinese firm Jiangxi Zhongmei Engineering Construction Company to upgrade the road.
Juma, however, said the road needed fixing as a matter of urgency.
“We have heard the same time and again, what we want is to see a contractor on the road... the effects that the road has on our customers, the tour guides and the vehicles is not good. There are customers, either too young or too old who should not have to go through what the road puts them through,”