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Queries after fire delays wildebeest migration to Mara

By Jacob Ng’etich | November 10th 2018
Wildebeests at the Mara River.

On Monday, the last group of the wildebeest (gnus) trooped back to the northern part of Serengeti National Park, crossing the Mara River in their remaining thousands.

About two million herd together with thousands of zebras, gazelles and eland that often join the migration have been moving back to the Tanzanian park in search of food and water, in a spectacular and scenic sojourn that completes the great wildebeest migration.

Dubbed one of the ‘Seven New Wonders of the World,’ the cyclic movement of the wildebeest religiously accompanied by a host of predators, including lions, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards and others that follow the cycle just as much as the herds do attract visitors from across that globe.

Notably though, the animals arrived after the cyclic 600 to 1,400km movement into the Maasai Mara Game Reserve through the Sand River gate and other entry points in late July and parts of August, signalling an almost one-month delay.

Ideally, the clockwise pursuit for food and water movement towards crossing Mara River into Kenya begins around March when the Serengeti National Park starts to dry.

The sojourn will have been preceded the births of hundreds of thousands of calves in the southern part of the Tanzanian national park. In early June, the first group begins to file in.

The two million ungulates migration also ropes in a host of predators, including lions, wild dogs, hyenas, cheetahs and leopards who take advantage to prey on the herd in the world’s largest migration.

Scientists claim the spectacular movement of the wildebeest herd in single file is a way to protect themselves from predators such as lions, hyenas, cheetahs and wild dogs which always hover around.

In the cyclic wildebeest movement through the Sand River gate to Maasai Mara, the cycle starts from the south of Serengeti in a long journey from April and arrives in Maasai Mara in late June or early July in single files.

Before they move to the north and north east of Serengeti, most of the wildebeests will have calved around January and March and sometimes in April.

Now tourism stakeholders are claiming that wild bush fire in the northern part of Serengeti could have interfered and delayed the movement of the ungulates into crossing the Mara River into Kenya.

Led by Mara-Serengeti ecosystem coordinator Nicholas Murero, the stakeholders insist that the inferno, that lasted for about a week, affected the movement of wildebeest that had gathered at Serengeti plains ready to cross the Mara River.

The wild bush fires, Murero observed, travelled fast and could have gutted down thousands of acres of vegetation in Serengeti and blocked the gnus’ migration corridors.

Although what may have started the fire is still a mystery, Murero suspects that there may have been foul play.

“How will they (Tanzanian authorities) convince us otherwise? The fires started near the border just as we were expecting the migration to start, hence affecting the cyclic flow,” he said.

But Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala doubted any ill intention on the part of the Tanzanian authorities, noting that grass burning was happening everywhere in the ecosystem including in the Mara.

“At the Mara, they burned grass at some point, it is a way of making it luxuriant; we should not read malice from our neighbours,” said Balala.

Balala argued that lots of rain that cut across the region could also have affected the movement because there was a lot of grass everywhere, including in the Serengeti at the time.

“This are effects of climate change, let’s not read more into the fire,” he said.

But according to William Sanoe, an employee at Emayan Luxury Camp and a resident of Ololamitiek village bordering Maasai Mara Reserve, last year the animals started crossing the crocodile-infested Mara River on June 6 and such a change was huge. “What explains such a long delay?” he wonders.

This year, unlike in others where they normally begin trooping in early June after the end of the rains on the Tanzanian side, there was delay in movement with the first group of wildebeest sighted in late July. Following the rains and between late June to October, most hotels at Masai Mara reserve were fully booked, recording booming business.

Thereafter, the wildebeest, just like they arrived spectacularly jumped, headed back to the northern side of the Serengeti National Park.

Efforts to reach Tanzanian officials were futile, as emails send to their embassy in Nairobi went unanswered.

In the past, there have been plans by the Tanzanian government to construct a highway through Serengeti National Park, thereby disrupting the migration - a move that was strongly opposed by conservationists and international community.

Tanzania later shelved the building of the 385km road that would have linked Arusha to the lakeside town of Mwanza, with 55km cutting through Serengeti National Park with potential to affect wildebeest movements.  

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