The Masai Mara offers some of the world’s best wildlife experiences – but for how long? Will human over-population destroy Kenya’s flagship reserve? Graham Boynton investigates
Our Land Rover crested the hill and there before us were plains full of animals: elephants, wildebeest, zebras, Thomson’s gazelle, a herd of some 30 giraffe – the most I had ever seen in one place. The morning sun had turned the plains rich gold and the sky was the deepest blue. This was Africa’s most iconic wilderness. The Masai Mara at its finest.
My companion and driver was Gerard Beaton, owner of several camps in the Mara and the son of Ron Beaton, one of the guiding lights of the movement to save this incredible patch of wild Africa. We had just driven from the Mara’s south-east corner, having spent the night with Calvin Cottar, another significant player in the salvation of the Mara, at his luxurious tented camp.
We had debated, argued, wrestled over the fate of this special part of Africa
The previous night, in the company of a roomful of like-minded Kenyan conservationists and safari operators, we had debated, argued, wrestled over the fate of this special part of Africa. This wasn’t just dinner table chitchat – the Mara is at a precarious point in its history and the next decade will determine whether it continues as a pristine wilderness, a haven of biodiversity in a rapidly overpopulating Africa, or collapses under the weight of human demands.
On this morning drive I’d insisted that Gerard show me the other side of the Mara, the dark side of human inhabitants encroaching, littering and generally messing up the wilderness. So we drove through a place called Talek, a settlement of between 3,000 and 4,000 people that is growing in the higgledy-piggledy manner of so much of Africa’s human gathering places.
Gerard had appeared somewhat reluctant. He wanted to show me his remote, pristine safari camp, which represents all the good things about the Mara, rather than this dishevelled shanty town that is wedged between the game reserve and the group of wildlife conservancies that are Beaton’s pride and joy.
“You really want to see Talek?” he’d asked, genuinely perplexed. “It isn’t somewhere we normally take visitors.”
Competition for land is one of the region’s biggest problems as population growth in Maasailand is 17% a year, among the fastest in the country. So, I needed to see this collection of squat, ugly concrete buildings, tin shacks and ragged trading stores because if the current attempts to rehabilitate the Mara don’t work, this is its fate.
The Masai Mara wilderness is made up of a 1,510 sq km National Reserve and a cluster of Maasai-owned group ranches, many of which now function as privately run wildlife conservancies. These conservancies started emerging around ten years ago and were the brainchild of several white Kenyans, among them Gerard’s father Ron and Jake Grieves-Cook, a former chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board.
They managed to persuade Maasai landowners to set aside large sectors of their land for wildlife, thus agreeing not to live on that land and only graze their cattle there at restricted times. In exchange they receive a monthly rent that is agreed, whatever the number of tourists.
Jake Grieves-Cook says the conservancies have achieved three things: “They’ve added protected habitats right next to the reserve so wildlife numbers have increased, they allow the Maasai landowners to derive real benefits for setting aside land for wildlife conservation, and they give a more rewarding safari experience to visitors who can see wildlife without minibuses.”
In many parts of the Mara, wagon trains of white minibuses emerge from 200-bed hotels like rush hour
Tourism overcrowding has increasingly become a major problem in the Mara; due to corruption, companies have been allowed to build lodges and hotels within the reserve and along its borders. In many parts of the Mara, wagon trains of white minibuses emerge from 200-bed hotels like rush hour at Piccadilly Circus, making the wildlife experience overwhelmingly unpleasant.
One of the many positive aspects of the conservancy model has been to reduce the numbers dramatically. In and around the reserve there are now an estimated 7,000 tourist beds, double the number there were a decade ago, while in the conservancies there are between 500 and 600 beds. The conservancy formula is one tent/two beds for every 700 acres.
The overcrowding horror show is at its worst during the annual wildebeest migration, which sees a massive movement of wildebeest, zebras and accompanying ungulates from the neighbouring Serengeti reserve in Tanzania to the sweet red-oat grasslands of the Mara plains.
It has been dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World but, although the famed wildebeest Mara River crossings do represent an extraordinary wildlife spectacle, the experience is largely ruined by the presence of hundreds of tourists in minibuses jostling for space, yelling, crying and generally behaving like cartoon versions of homo sapiens. For these reasons the Mara is both loved and loathed – loved because of the sheer exuberance of the wildlife experience and loathed because of the crowds.
There is now, however, a concerted move to rehabilitate the greater Mara ecosystem. The emergence of the conservancies, driven by the tourism industry’s private sector, is a big part of this, but there has even been progress at government level to reform what has essentially been decades of corrupt administration practices.
A new constitution and elections saw the appointment of a new governor, Samuel Tanui, who has promised to cap the number of vehicles in the reserve, stop hotel development and work closer with the conservancies.
The war on tourism
Half an hour after our visit to Talek we arrived at Beaton’s camp. Naboisho is set in a 200 sq km conservancy of the same name. Although the nine tents are large and luxurious, they are so discreetly placed that from a distance you would not know a fully functioning safari camp operates here.
Unlike the giant camps both inside the reserve and running along its eastern border, camps such as Naboisho not only perform an important community-relations function but also provide safari-goers with a much more authentic bush experience.
This was affirmed within hours of my arrival as I found myself walking almost beside the zebras and wildebeest grazing around the campsite. I then heard tell of an incident, just two days earlier, when a lioness chased a topi through the mess tent area as guests eating their dinner looked on in amazement. “That,” Gerard noted, “is a wildlife experience they’ll remember for the rest of their days.”
Naboisho and the other four camps in this conservancy pay the Maasai landowners more than US$1 million a year, whether they have tourists or not. Right now, the camp was quite full, with eight of the nine tents occupied, and there was a reasonable occupancy for July and August, peak season for the Mara; however, after that the numbers diminish rather dramatically.
“We’ve had cancellations,” said Gerard, “and we are now beginning to think that tourism alone is not going to support these ecosystems.”
Since the terrorist attack at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in September 2013, in which 67 people were killed, the international tourist cancellations have gathered momentum. Several terrorist attacks on the Kenyan coast in 2014, followed by US State Department and British Foreign & Commonwealth Office warnings, and the decision by two British tour operators to pull their customers out of the country, have resulted in a serious downturn.
Tourism contributes a billion dollars a year to Kenya’s economy so it simply cannot afford an international tourist stay-away. Most importantly, wilderness areas such as this depend for their very survival on the presence of international tourists. As Gerard said, this situation needs sorting out immediately.
After taking an outdoor shower – and there is nothing quite as authentic as a bucket shower in a bush camp – I resumed my wanderings around Naboisho. This is a beautiful, unspoiled wilderness, an ecosystem of wide-open plains, acacia woodlands, gorges and ridges. It is big sky country.
After scattering a few feeding zebras I ran into the camp’s manager-cum-walking guide Roelof Schutte, a South African who was worked in the bush in his home country, and then Zambia and Tanzania before arriving in the Mara. He told me that this is the richest ecosystem he has worked in. “This is a great walking area,” he said.
“We walk to places where there are no roads, no vehicles, no people. You are alone with the wild animals. There are few places in Africa where the wildlife viewing and interaction with nature is as easy and immediate as it is here.”
Naboisho offers its guests the opportunity to spend a day walking with Roelof, and then to fly-camp afterwards. At a time when luxury lodges with hot-and-cold running water, flush toilets and Wi-Fi connectivity are becoming the norm, this return to the traditional pleasures of safari life is particularly pleasing.
Wildlife guides such as Roelof are key to getting the most benefits out of your time in the bush. It is the unpredictability of nature that makes an African safari such a compelling event for regimented, pressured, clock-watching Westerners, and the best guides are the ones who manage to persuade those Westerners to fall in with the rhythm of nature. Guiding is another aspect of the Mara that has been improving significantly over the past decade. And again, Gerard Beaton’s family has played a significant part.
Ten years ago most Mara wildlife guides barely knew the difference between a Thomson’s gazelle and a kudu and were little more than vehicle operators. Then Ron Beaton built the Koiyaki Guiding School, near Naboisho camp, and everything changed. With the help of people such as Jackson Ole Looseyia, Gerard Beaton’s friend and business partner and one of the Mara’s most famous guides, young Maasai were taught the subtle arts of wildlife guiding. More than 200 guides have graduated from the school and most are now guiding in the Masai Mara.
A good guide will will encourage you to get away from the ‘Big Five’ mentality
According to Jackson this has had a profound effect on visitors’ experiences in the Mara. He told me that bad guiding has been a major contributor to the overcrowding that has given this wilderness a bad name. “A good guide,” he said, “ will plan the day to avoid the crowds, leaving earlier and moving off sites when other vehicles arrive. He will encourage you to get away from the ‘big five’ mentality and go and look at birds and smell the flowers.”
At the end of my week in the Mara I found myself standing in the morning sunshine at Ol Seki airstrip waiting for the Cessna Caravan to pick me up and return me to the general chaos that is modern Nairobi. I could see a herd of elephants on the distant horizon and was reminded of Karen Blixen’s line about elephants crossing the plains ‘as if they have an appointment at the end of the earth’.
There is nowhere in Africa like the Mara. And the glimmers of reform, rehabilitation and progress offer real hope for its future. I couldn’t wait to return. The author travelled with the Ultimate Travel Company, which can tailor-make trips to the Masai Mara. Main image: Cheetahs in Masai Mara, Kenya (Shutterstock)