Alarm as wildebeests' stay in the Mara shorten threatening tourism

Wildebeests in Maasai Mara Game Reserve. [File, Standard]

The huffing and snorting of wildebeests will light up tourism in the Maasai Mara game reserve for the next two months, attracting throngs of tourists to Narok County.

The millions of wildebeests, also known as gnus, accompanied by zebras, are poised to stampede across the Sand River, a tributary at the Kenya-Tanzania border, into the Mara, kicking off the annual peak season for tourism.

This migration, one of nature's grand spectacles, spans 200,000 square miles of woodland, hills, and open plains across the Serengeti in Tanzania and Maasai Mara in Kenya.

It begins in the southern Serengeti, where half a million calves are born each year between January and March. From July to mid-September, the wildebeests traverse the western and eastern sides of the Mara River to the Mara Triangle and back, crossing the river almost daily.

However, this magnificent event, often dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, is under threat. The duration of their stay in the Mara is shortening annually. Last week, scientists raised alarms about changing rainy seasons, which are reducing the time wildebeests spend in the Maasai Mara game reserve. Consequently, they arrive later and leave earlier than in previous years.

Dr. Hellen Gichohi, a Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) board member, warned that the Mara is losing valuable days during the tourist peak season due to this phenomenon. "In the past, over two million wildebeests migrated from Tanzania to Kenya as early as May, staying until October. Now, they arrive in mid-July and barely stay until September. This is concerning," Dr. Gichohi said.

Dr. Gichohi also cautioned that wildebeests might stop migrating to Kenya altogether due to barriers such as fences, settlements, farms, roads, and other developments that are shrinking their roaming areas.

Speaking at the official launch of the National Wildlife Census, she emphasized that Narok County, which generates significant revenue from the Mara, stands to lose the migration spectacle if current trends continue.

"Findings from the Wildlife Research and Training Institute (WRTI) and KWS indicate that the wildebeest's stay in the Mara is becoming shorter each year. Narok Governor Patrick Ole Ntutu should be concerned as this impacts tourism directly," Dr. Gichohi noted.

The leading threats to wildlife in the Mara ecosystem include poorly planned agricultural expansion, human settlements, urban centers, roads, and competition with livestock for resources. Government policies promoting private over communal land tenure have exacerbated land subdivision issues in Narok, leading to habitat loss and increased stress on wildlife.

Kenya stands to lose to Tanzania, which is expanding the Western Serengeti to provide more space for the gnus, allowing them to migrate within Tanzania instead of crossing into the Maasai Mara. "Tanzania has set aside a vast dispersal area. They observe Kenya's mistakes to avoid repeating them. The loss of peak season days is just the beginning of our challenges," Dr. Gichohi added.

Governor Ntutu, present at the launch, announced efforts to reverse these trends through the Greater Maasai Mara Ecosystem Management Plan, the Maasai Mara National Reserve Management Plan, and the Narok County Physical & Land Use Development Plan.

These plans focus on wildlife protection, natural resource preservation, land use management, and opening wildlife corridors. The already implemented management plan aims to save the famous park from population pressures. The new plan will control visitor numbers during peak migration seasons, shut down some tourist facilities, issue permits to lodge developers in a controlled manner, and promote mobile camping over permanent camps and lodges.

The park's elevated global status has attracted numerous visitors and investments, leading to environmental degradation. The Maasai Mara remains a premier safari destination, ranked Africa's leading national park by WTA in 2018.

Ecologists and scientists warn that erratic weather patterns, driven by global warming, are impacting wildebeest migration patterns in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.

Dr. Patrick Omondi, director and CEO of the Wildlife Research and Training Institute (WRTI), emphasized the importance of understanding these changes during Kenya's one-year wildlife census.

"The impacts of climate change are evident, affecting wildlife habitats and migration patterns. The census will help us understand these changes better and devise strategies to mitigate their effects," Dr. Omondi said.

Human-wildlife coexistence is another emerging issue, with expanding human populations encroaching on wildlife habitats and intensifying conflicts.