How the Masai Mara is sinking under its own global success

Tour vans line in up in Masai Mara National Reserve on 31/7/2018 as tourists ready themselves to watch the wildebeest migration, one of the Seven Wonders of the World [Peter Muiruri]

When the history of establishments that crushed under the weight of their own success in the 21st century is written, Kenyans and indeed conservationists across the world could only hope that the great Maasai Mara will not make it to this list.

All signals however point to a bleak future for the national reserve, the crown jewel of Kenya’s tourism and whose popularity has drawn droves of tourists and investors in numbers that have reached a point where its sustainability appears impossible. This is more so if radical changes are not effected fast.

While pointing fingers at public officials for lack of action is cliché, the Government, both at the National and County levels, whose officials have chosen to just add up the visitor numbers and the revenues that their visits bring and ignore the impact that this has on the ecosystem, will squarely stand accused. The hospitality industry too, whose players have cut corners in erecting facilities and tour operators that veer off track to get their visitors closer to the animals, will share the blame.

Other than the crowding, the Mara is also grappling with the challenge of climate change, with changing weather patterns slowly altering the wildebeest migration patterns. Good rains in the Serengeti this year resulted in delays in the movement of the animals as the animals did not have to cross over to Kenya in search of pasture as is tradition. The animals trooping into Kenya, particularly their crossing of the Mara River is a spectacle that attracts tourists from around the world and usually makes up the high season around the months of July to October every year.

The Mara Conservancy, which manages a segment of the reserve – the Mara Triangle – on behalf of Narok County, documented the challenges of increased visitors at the Mara in a September report. It noted that a high number of visitors during this and other high seasons has been detrimental to the wellbeing of the reserve.

“Is unregulated traffic at key crossing points actually destroying the very spectacle that attracts tens of thousands of tourists to the Mara... answer is an unequivocal yes. There is absolutely no doubt that the number of vehicles witnessed at crossing points (up to 300 were reported in one case) totally disrupted the crossings – driving the animals away to quieter spots,” said the conservancy in its report.

“There was complete chaos at many of the crossings … there was some attempt to control the vehicles and people running up and down the river bank… but without much success.”

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It noted that the congestion has seen “many of the more up-market operators are avoiding the Mara in high season”, adding that there is need for urgent measures to be put in place to slow down the degradation.

“It is very difficult to gauge how much the wildebeest are affected by too many vehicles.  One cannot but speculate that the chaos at crossings is actually destroying the very spectacle that so many people come to see,” said the Conservancy.

“There will have to be much more order at crossings – how will we do that?  Restrict vehicle numbers, charge a crossing fee (US$ 200 per vehicle), or build blinds?”

The Conservancy also noted the challenges that changing weather patterns have had on the migration of the wildebeests. The animals are usually pushed to cross over to Kenya and the Mara River in search of pastures and water when the Tanzanian side is dry, this year the Serengeti reported good rains resulting in delayed migration.

“We are looking at one of the worst migrations in recent years – the wildebeest arrived very late... this year there was so much rain between March and June that there was no need for the wildebeest to move as far as the Mara.  The wildebeest only move as far as Kenya if they have exhausted water and forage in the Serengeti,” said the Conservancy.

Ledama Ole Kina Senator Narok County said the environmental challenges that the reserve is facing are emanating from the destruction of the Mau Forest. The Senator has been vocal on the need to preserve the forest but has along the way been accused of fanning hatred. Last week, Ole Kina noted that the forest is critical catchment area for the Mara River and eight other rivers in the area ecosystem.

“What we are seeing in the Mara (drying up of the Mara River) is because of the Mau Forest,” he told Weekend Business.

The Kenya Association of Tour Operators (KATO) noted that authorities and industry needed to move fast to stop the degradation and reverse the damage that has already been done. The tour operators lobby noted the Mara needed some radical changes including limiting the number of people and vehicles getting into the reserve possible hiking entry charges.

“The problems that are facing Mara have the simple solution of bringing order. There is need to bring order and simple as it sounds, it will be a lot painful for players and tourists but to the benefit of the country and the Mara,” said Fred Kaigua chief executive Kenya Association of Tour Operators (KATO).

“You do not necessarily need to make it premium, at least not immediately. By just bringing order into the place, it might solve more than 50 per cent of the challenges that Mara is facing now. Perhaps after we have brought order, then we can consider about making it premium.”

Kaigua cites the case of Rwanda, which has successfully been to manage Mountain Gorilla Tracking and is now a key revenue earner for the tourism industry. The country issues only 96 tracking permits a day and each permit can allow a maximum of eight visitors. The permits are also priced at a premium, with each visitor having to for $1500 (Sh150 000) while more personalised and up close visits cost up to $30 000 (Sh3 million), that give three visitors a tour of three consecutive days with the gorillas.

Though different from what the Mara offers, it is easy to conclude that visitors are getting a huge discount with entry fees to the reserve currently standing at Sh1 000 for Kenyans, Sh1 200 for East Africans and Sh8 000 ($80) for non-residents.

Kaigua said the current state has been a turnoff for tourists, especially the moneyed and who should ideally be the target for Mara.

“There are those very upmarket clients that are choosing not to go to the Mara considering the current state,” he said.

Kaigua noted that while there has been goodwill from players to implement management plan that would control investments and visitor numbers to the reserve, it has not moved from boardrooms to implementation.

“All discussion that have place on the management plan have stressed its need and different actors, both state and private sector, have supposed the need for the plan. What has been lacking was is the actualisation of the plan,” he said.

The Government has made at least two attempts to have in place the Mara Management Plan but flopped owing to differing interests and divergent opinions among stakeholders as well as a half-hearted push by the Government.

The plan had some radical proposals including limiting the number of visitors through a central booking system, shutting down camps and lodges located in sensitive areas as well as putting a moratorium on new developments.

The plan has been in the works for more than a decade now and discussed at length in conference and other tourism and wildlife forums. It has however never been taken up with past drafts, as with other great plans, are now gathering dust.

There are however attempts to control investor activities in the reserve, which however lack the needed punch to bring about an about turn needed to make Mara sustainable.

The Narok County earlier this year said it will in the coming years be reluctant to allow further investments in the Mara, especially putting up additional accommodation facilities, including temporary camps that spring up during the high season.

Samuel Ole Tunai Governor Narok County then blamed investors and their reluctance to pull down the camps after the season and instead converting them to permanent camps.

Controlling investments and the number of visitors to Mara to help increase the currency of the Mara as a premium attraction and in turn attract high net worth tourists.

“We will not have any temporary camp this year,” he told players at an industry stakeholder forum in February.

“We do not want investors in tourism. The Mara has enough camps and lodges. Serengeti is 10 times bigger than the Mara but there are 100 more times the number of camps and lodges in the Mara than in the Serengeti.”

“We don’t mind losing to conserve and make Mara sustainable. It is a premium destination that should be attracting top paying tourists.”

A bold statement that is yet to translate into visible action including bringing down what the Governor has in the past said are camps set up illegally.

He blamed investors for the deterioration of the Maasai Mara, noting they have been corrupting his county officials in a bid to get approvals to put up camps and lodges, even in instances where the structures are built on environmentally sensitive areas.

The county’s officials in charge of tourism were earlier this week were more keen on the number of tourists visiting the Mara and talked of the numbers this year surpassing other years. This is contrary to industry sentiments of managing

Tourism Executive Joseph Koila said: “Roads leading to the reserve are busy. Airstrips too are busy. As the season peaks, hotels and lodges have recorded full bookings. For the past three months, we have received over 54,000 tourists.”

Najib Balala Cabinet Secretary Tourism and Wildlife has in the past talked passionately about the need to make the Mara sustainable. The CS, who has been in and out of the tourism docket over the last decade, has publicly appeared to push for the implementation of a management plan. He has also had brilliant proposals on campaigns to would spread visitors to the Mara throughout the year, as opposed to the surge in numbers over the high season with business being below average during the other months.

“We are working with the County Government in developing a management plan and we will start executing this soon,” he said earlier this year.

His words too however have not translated to action. We made a follow up on the progress that has been made in execution of this management plan and officials at the Tourism Ministry said the Mara, being a reserve, is under the purview of the Narok County, which is implementing a management plan with the Ministry only offering support from the periphery.

The reserve received 146 000 visitors over 2016 and while not the highest visited wildlife attraction, the numbers translated to a higher visitor density at 1.6 people per square kilometre. This is ten times higher than the some other Kenyan parks and 17 times more than Tanzania Serengeti. Visitors and high concentration of lodges have partly contributed to the reduction in animals’ numbers, with some such as resident wildebeests declining over time by as much as 75 per cent.

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Wildebeest MigrationMasai Mara National ReserveTourismCS Najib Balala