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Annual wildebeest migration at risk as vast ecosystem faces intense harm

By Steve Mkawale and Caroline Chebet | Aug 11th 2018 | 7 min read
Wildebeests cross the Mara River.

As we approach the scenic animal view-point in the Masai Mara National Reserve, our convoy of three vehicles came to an abrupt stop.

“There, look! They are converging near the river (Mara River) ready to cross!” says Nicholas Tingisha, our tour guide.

We struggle to get a view of wildebeests gathering along the shores of the Mara River ready to cross.

It’s is a sight to behold. Within a few minutes one tour van pulls behind us and three heads pop out of the roof.

We wait to watch the spectacle with bated breath.

Suddenly, Land Cruisers crest the horizon in droves. Ten of them surround us.

In less than 30 minutes we counted 21, the drivers and tour guides communicating via radio calls to make sure their clients capture the fascinating wildebeest migrationacross the crocodile-infested Mara River.

Huffing and snorting, wildebeests look reluctant to make the daring plunge into the river.

Skittish at the slightest sound, the wildebeestsperpetually pound their hooves on the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust, retreating -- dashing our hopes and those of tourists.

Undeterred, the tour van drivers start moving the vehicles closer to the herd. Eventually they give up.

We ask if this happens often. “Not often,” Tingisha says, adding; “The level of water has gone too low and the crocodiles are exposed this time around.”

The wildebeest migration is one of the greatest natural spectacles on earth and is going at the Masai Mara.

For the last three weeks, more than two million wildebeests have crossed over from Tanzania to Kenya’s Masai Mara to graze.

The wildebeests, also known as gnus are the stars of the show, but in supporting roles are hundreds of zebras and gazelles -- then there are crocodiles, lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs.

A few years ago, the wildebeest migration was declared the ‘eighth wonder of the world.’

It is this natural phenomenon that local and foreign tourists flock to the game reserve to witness, with hotels recording full bookings.

But there’s a story that travel sites and social media posts don’t share. The wildebeest migration is in danger of being disrupted.

The population around this natural resources is increasing -- lodges are sprouting almost everywhere, the Mara River catchment area in the expansive Mau Forest complex has been destroyed - sending the strongest signals that all is not well.

“It will not be long before it is gone, unless some drastic and urgent steps are taken now,” says, Liaram Molai, an administrator at the Mara Triangle -- that is part of the expensive reserve.

Some of residents have been complaining that the revenue from the game reserve is not trickling down to them, and have now turned to charcoal-burning and farming to make ends meet.

In short, a combination of factors -- mostly contributed by mankind -- threaten the game reserve habitat.

Interviews with various stakeholders, including the management of the Masai Mara reveals the concerns over its future.

Being disrupted

Narok County Government executive committee member in charge of Tourism Joseph Koila admits that a lot needs to be done to ensure the survival of the Masai Mara and to secure the wildebeest migration.

“Yes, we have challenges but we are addressing them and if you have been keen enough when going around the park, there is no single livestock grazing here,” Koila says of the past conflict between human and wildlife.

For the past five years, the county government has been in charge of the 371,000 acres on which the game reserve lays.

Before devolution, the two parks were managed by the defunct Narok and Trans Mara county councils

The county government gets 100 per cent of Sh1.9 billion annual revenue collected from the Reserve. Revenue from the Mara Triangle is shared between the County Government and the Mara conservancy Group.

Molai says the conservancy is involved in the day-to-day management of the park.

Conservationists have warned that the wildebeestpopulation is declining across the East Africa region.

“Their dispersal areas and migratory corridors are being lost due to high human population densities, increasing urbanisation, expanding agriculture and fences. Their loss would contribute to biodiversity decline, and jeopardise tourism and other ecosystem services. Urgent efforts need to be made to protect wildebeestmigratory corridors and dispersal areas to ensure these great migrations for the future.” Says Dickson Kaelo, the CEO Kenya Conservation Association.

Reports by various conservation groups and the Maasai Mara University have at length discussed the challenges and the future of the Masai Mara.

Reports point at the challenges ranging from climate change, change in land use in the Mara ecosystem, political and economic; and also human and cultural challenges.

But what exactly does the future hold for this world jewel?

A drive around Talek, Sekenani, Mara Rianda and Ololaimutia -- trading centres that surround the reserve shows the extent of human encroachment into wildlife territory.

Residents say they were allocated land by the defunct local authority and some have put up semi and permanent structures.

“These are our plots, we have invested here to benefit from the tourism,” says Mary Naanyu, oblivious of the fact that her facility lies on one of the wildlife migratory corridors.

Virtually all wildlife migratory corridors have been encroached on as change of land use intensifies outside the park.

After the subdivision of group ranches which used to border the park, most individuals have rented their land for agriculture or are now grazing fields.

According to conservationists, because of fencing the former ranches after subdivision, more than 60,000 wildebeests are now unable to cross from Loita plains to the park and conservancies.

Most are entangled to death as they try to cross fences to join others in the park, especially during the annualmigration.

“Wildebeests that used to migrate from Loita plains to the reserve every year to join others from Serengeti no longer do that with ease as they used to several years ago,” says Mr Kaelo.

Over the last twenty years, according to various conservation groups, the Mara has lost about 35 per cent of what was once migratory corridors.

However, the county government maintains that they have reached agreements with various group ranches that have converted their parcels of land into conservancies.

“As we speak, we have 18 conservancies around the Maasai Mara reserve. We are in agreement with them not to fence off their land to allow free flow of wild animals, which they have done,” Koila says.

Moses Kuyuoni the Chief Warden at the park, notes that rangers have closed all illegal routes that were being used by herders to drive into the park thousands of livestock for grazing.

“We carry out regular patrols within the park to ensure that none sneaks livestock in. We spend night in the forest to repulse them,” Kuyuoni says.

He admits that the real danger to existence of the Masai Mara National Reserve and the ecosystem that sustains the annual wildebeest migration is the conservation of the Mau Forest complex, the source of the Mara River and other streams that flow through the park.

Springs dry up

“We support the national Government initiative to evict settlers from the Mau Forest. As a county government we have started helping in the rehabilitation of the forest,” says Koila.

The destruction of Mau forest upstream has over the years seen a number of springs dry up and water levels in the rivers reduce.

“The future of Masai Mara depends on Mau forest restoration which unfortunately has been politicised. This year’s migration for instance is not as spectacular as it should be because of the little water flowing through the Mara and Sand Rivers that define what real migrationis,” Ole Kuyioni says.

Despite outlawing grazing inside the park and legislating tough laws against it, county personnel have been having difficulties in ending illegal grazing therein.

“Competition for grass between wild animals and cattle has fueled wildlife-human conflicts. The conflict has led to habitat loss and disappearance of some wild animals,” says Kuyuoni.

But he quickly adds that the local communities are being sensitized to live in harmony with wildlife, a move that has minimised the conflict.

Koila adds that the county government ensures that at least 19 per cent of the revenue collected from the park goes to the community. “We have community initiatives that we support. These range from health facilities, schools, scholarships and programmes to reduce human-wildlife conflicts,” he says.

“The lodges and hotels within the Mara offer employment opportunities for hundreds of youth directly and indirectly. We support the Ushanga Initiatives for women to help them access the market for the ornaments and artifacts,” Koila says.

But Kaelo says because of absence of direct benefits from the multi-billion shilling tourism industry, locals keep large herds of cattle to supplement their income.

“For cattle to coexist peacefully with wildlife, a quick formula between the county government, hoteliers and conservancies to ensure there is commensurate benefits sharing should be worked out,” he says.

He suggests that formation of conservancies which locals should be incorporated into should be set up to slow down the degradation of the reserve.

He adds that locals view tourism as a preserve for a few which makes them to care less about conservation matters.

“To have locals appreciate conservation, their parcels of land should be merged to form big conservancies where members will be earning good money from tourism.

“It will also discourage them from keeping large herds of cattle,” he says.

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