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Masai Mara chokes on its own allure

BUSIA
By | March 9th 2010

By Macharia Kamau

The allure of the Masai Mara is turning out to be its achilles heel, with the ecosystem facing an imminent collapse under the weight of heavy investments by hoteliers and camp operators.

In addition, the national reserve, home to more than 25 per cent of wildlife in Kenya, also faces challenges of large visitor numbers that threaten to bring down the quality of the ecosystem.

Ms Agatha Juma, Chief Executive of the Kenya Tourism Federation, said most of the investors into the sector want to put up lodges, either at the Kenyan coast, or the Mara, as the two are the major attractions for tourists to the country.

Investments into Mara have, however, disregarded the sensitive nature of the ecosystem, and now threaten not only the Mara, but also the larger surrounding ecosystem that includes Tanzania’s Serengeti.

The wildebeest, one of Masai Mara’s most celebrated spectacle, is under threat of human activity in the game reserve. Photo: File/Standard

Munene Ngotho, general manager of the Fairmont Mara Safari Club said an embargo on further development of lodges and camps in the area by the Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers (KAHC) in the past has not deterred players from setting up.

He said some of the developments come up as temporary camps during high seasons, to cater for excess tourists due to the constrained capacity of existing players.

Significant strain

"After the high season is over, the temporary camps continue operating with the full knowledge of the association and authorities," he said.

He warns says the situation is so dire, that a five kilometre-stretch in the Mara today accommodates more than five hotel camps.

"This poses a significant strain to the ecosystem. Streams in some of these areas have dried up, not due to dry weather, but human activity."

Most of the facilities dotting the Mara stretch, especially those that started as temporary camps, are operating without licence. There are others, however, which were licensed to build in significantly overcrowded areas of the Mara.

To stem the human activity that now threatens the Masai Mara ecosystem, Tourism Minister, Najib Balala has launched a plan to shut down camps and lodges operating illegally starting next week. There are 108 camps and lodges in the Mara by the last count.

Stakeholders are, however, calling for the gazettement and implementation of the Mara Management Plan that promises to offer a long-term solution.

The 10-year plan is a blueprint that is expected to balance the essentials of conservation and business in the Mara.

The county councils of Narok and Transmara in consultations with industry stakeholders developed the plan in partnership the Conservation Development Centre (CDC).

"The Reserve has lacked a comprehensive management plan for more than 25 years, which has severely hampered the efforts of conservators to address the challenges. This situation has also limited access to vital financial resources, manpower and infrastructure," says CDC, which offered technical support in development of the plan.

The Tourism Federation says the plan should be implemented as a matter of urgency, to prevent further deterioration of the ecosystem in the area.

The Federation, the umbrella body for all private sector players in tourism, however, noted that there are challenges that would come with the implementation of the plan.

Balance interests

"We should aim at striking a balance among business, conservation and humanity... We need to do business sustainably while taking into consideration that there are more people living within the system and we cannot just push them out," said Ms Juma.

Land use is also fast changing in the wider Mara ecosystem, with agriculture being among the activities that are slowly taking root on the edges of the reserve, a development that Government has little control over.

Juma says both the industry and Government have their hands tied over change in land use, where it is individually owned. Other than the park, which is a protected area, under the mandate of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), there are individually owned areas that make up the Mara Conservancy.

"There are unprotected areas that are individually owned and outside the mandate of the Government. There are instances where owners have changed land usage and there is little the industry or government can do to prevent this despite effect on the ecosystem," she said.

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