The Masai Mara is unquestionably one of the great wildlife destinations on Earth. So how do you make it even better? Like so many of our wilderness areas, the Mara is under pressure, in part due to its enormous appeal to lovers of the natural world. Efforts are being made to seek ways to protect it and retain the extraordinary spectacle it provides for future generations of safari-goers. And your visit can make a huge difference. By Jessica Hatcher
Syd Downey arrived in Kenya in January 1925, a nineteen-year-old hungry for adventure. He lived in a grass hut, rode a Harley Davidson and earned 160 Kenya shillings a month by hunting. He made his first journey to the Masai Mara in 1929, dropping down the Rift Valley escarpment west of Nairobi and carving a path out to the vast plains beyond.
Each day, he and his clients would choose an area with a few trees to pitch their tents in, and then remove all trace of their presence when they left. It would take them days to return to Nairobi, their car’s engine boiling furiously under the strain. Syd and his friend Donald Ker would cover over their tracks, so other people couldn’t find the places they went to.
‘Safari’ means ‘journey’ in Kiswahili, but every trip taken with Syd was an adventure. Once he took a route so unsuitable he burst every one of his tyres. His glamorous guests were made to stuff the burst tyres with grass, and they bumped along at a snail’s pace. On another occasion, Downey forgot all the food apart from a wheel of cheese. His clients later gave him a silver plaque to commemorate the Great Cheese Safari. But the wheels of change were turning. After the Second World War, Syd was told that if he wanted the animals and the landscape of the Mara to be protected, it would have to be opened up to mass tourism. Before long, his secret tracks had become roads, and his favourite camping spot, with its immense panorama over the plains, had become a hotel.
Over the following decades the Mara would draw people from all over the world, attracted by the opportunity to see a wealth of wildlife unlike anywhere else on the planet, to gaze over endless vistas and to feel, if only for a moment, the magic sense of exploration that Downey had experienced years before. The Mara became the centrepiece of Kenya’s tourism product. Palm-fringed white sand beaches and other national parks diversified the offering, but the Mara remained the quintessential safari destination.
Tourism is now Kenya’s second-largest foreign currency earner, accounting for up to twelve per cent of gross domestic product and employing 1.3 per cent of the population. But it has taken a knock in the last two years. In 2013 terrorists attacked a shopping mall in the capital Nairobi; then Ebola broke out in West Africa. The epidemic struck over 3000 miles away, the distance from London to New York, but hyperbolic and misinformed responses tarnished the whole continent. It became a pan-African problem, and it dealt a heavy blow to hoteliers and tour operators in East Africa.
The silver lining of the fall-off in tourism, conservation experts say, is that the land in the Mara, which usually receives thousands of vehicles, has had time to recover. “Never in the last thirty years has there been a better time to go to the Mara,” says Charlie McConnell, a safari guide who has been taking guests there for forty years. Thankfully, tourists are once again returning in their numbers, realising that Ebola is not a concern in Kenya, and with confidence in the country’s security restored.
The Masai Mara is a vast area of undulating plains in the southwest of the country. It forms the northernmost part of the 6000 square kilometre Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, which supports more than 95 mammal species and over 550 bird species, making it one of the most appealing safari destinations in Africa. The state-protected area – the Masai Mara National Reserve – is, at 1500 square kilometres, relatively small, just one quarter of the entire ecosystem.
Equally important for the wildlife is the Greater Mara landscape, encompassing the adjacent community lands and the adjoining Loita Plains. Vast herds of wildebeest and plains game follow seasonal migratory patterns in search of grass. Territorial predators lie in wait for their arrival. On every day of the year, the now-familiar drama of shifting predator-prey relations plays out on this land.
The Narok County Council, which manages the National Reserve, has attracted criticism in the past for the high number of vehicles, tourist lodges and settlements that are overburdening the ecosystem. In the last fifty years, a number of lodges have been built inside the reserve, despite an official moratorium on construction. Shanty towns have sprung up on the edge of protected areas. But the creation of conservancies all around the National Reserve – privately owned areas of land set aside for the protection of wildlife – has increased the protected area from a quarter to almost half of the entire ecosystem: a triumph for conservationists.
As this issue of Travel Africa goes into circulation, approximately one million hungry wildebeest will be on the move north from the short-grass plains of the Serengeti in search of fresh grazing and water. They will be accompanied by zebra and gazelle; and a host of predators will be waiting for them. Between them and the abundant plains is the fast-flowing Mara River, replenished by recent rains. Thousands of animals accumulate on the southern banks of the river, hesitant to cross.
The muddy water is teeming with hungry crocodiles, waiting to snap up the hapless beasts. But the pull of the grazing beyond is too great and eventually one goes. Then, in a dramatic frenzy, they all follow. Columns of panicked wildebeest and plains game leap into the river and battle across. It is no surprise that wildlife-lovers travel from across the globe to witness this phenomenal event, which usually takes place around July-September each year (it varies). It is a focal point, but one which should not overshadow the abundant game-viewing available year-round. So how to get the very best out of the Mara?
Head to the conservancies
During a visit to the National Reserve in June two years ago, the sun was dropping and the sky softening from blue to purple above the golden plains. My guide Josphat and I were quietly watching a young male cheetah. The dome of its small head was barely visible above the sweet red-oat grass. Josphat was beginning to talk me through the cheetah’s hunting tactics when we found ourselves in the path of a convoy of minibuses. A driver had spotted the cheetah, notified a number of others via radio, and they had raced across the reserve to secure their clients another great wildlife sighting.
Many people believe there are too many vehicles in the system at peak times. The debate will no doubt be lengthy, but you can avoid inadvertently contributing to this problem by staying on one of the conservancies that fringe the National Reserve. This doesn’t mean you won’t be able to visit the core area – most operators in the conservancies run day-trips into the National Reserve. But it does mean you’ll encounter fewer vehicles and you will have more flexibility to explore. In addition to game drives, walking safaris are permitted on some conservancies, unlike in the National Reserve.
Consider how many others you will be sharing your wilderness with. Jake Grieves-Cook of Gamewatchers Safaris was an early pioneer of the conservancy model and instrumental in determining a metric for how many beds per hectare a conservancy should offer. To do this, he climbed to the top of a hill, and looked out over Ol Kinyei, a 7000-acre estate. “Knowing where the borders are, I asked myself how many vehicles would be reasonable in that 7000-acre area. I basically came to the conclusion that the maximum should be five vehicles,” he said. From there, he did some more basic maths: “Okay, five vehicles, so 1400 acres per vehicle. In one vehicle, you have two tents, so that’s 700 acres per tent.”
As a result, today the conservancies offer a more exclusive wildlife viewing experience as visitor numbers are limited by a similar formula in all of them. “This conservancy concept has made a major contribution to conservation of the Mara and has prevented the leased areas from becoming fragmented, fenced and developed into settlements, shambas, residential houses, villages, commercial buildings and shopping centres, which is now the situation in most of the remaining areas around the Mara reserve,” said Grieves-Cook.
The Mara Triangle – the northwestern third of the National Reserve – is also considered better managed than the southern sector of the park. A dedicated non-profit organisation was established to manage it in 2000, after local leaders became concerned by the threat to the Triangle from rampant poaching, corruption, insecurity and the disintegration of infrastructure and assets. It now hosts seven lodges and a number of private and public campsites to cater for every budget.
Look beyond the migration
Charlie McConnell, who with his wife Mouse has been guiding in the Mara for forty years, suggests that unless you are bound by school holidays you should visit out of season: “It’s the world’s best wildlife spectacle just as much for the other seven months of the year. The Masai Mara is one of the few truly unseasonal safari destinations in Africa. Throughout the year the roads are largely passable and you are guaranteed to see tremendous amounts of game.”
Weather patterns are becoming less predictable in East Africa, which also means that it is increasingly possible to see wildebeest river crossings at other times of the year. The animals follow the rains in search of long grass, but if the rains haven’t come, then they won’t cross the river, says Helen Gibbons of the Masai Mara Conservancies Association.
Reduce the impact
With ever-increasing human populations around the National Reserve, and the resulting pressure on the land, strenuous efforts are being made to encourage lodges to be more environmentally conscious. In many lodges solar energy powers lights and hot water showers, and innovative waste disposal mechanisms lighten the human footprint. Eco-tourism ratings have been developed to help responsible tourists to choose which lodges have the highest environmental standards. These are based on sustainable use of resources, their protection of the environment and support of local economies. Seven of the seventeen Gold-rated facilities in the country are in the Masai Mara, according to Ecotourism Kenya’s website, more than in any other park.
Not only do tourists who use these ratings when deciding where to stay reinforce the importance of good environmental practice, they’re also likely to have a better time, says Gibbons. “There are a number of things they’re doing to get that Gold rating. They must have really cared to obtain it. And that’s simply going to make for a better experience.”
In downtown Nairobi touts offer three-day Masai Mara tours for as little as US$150. Your Nairobi guide will no doubt be entertaining, and will probably make sure you do see the Big Five, but by hurtling down from the capital city in a minibus only to return just two days later you will be missing out on a rare opportunity.
A safari experience in the Masai Mara is not just about the wildlife. The Maasai people’s semi-nomadic, animal-herding way of life is endangered. Schools, healthcare, the distribution of title deeds for land, access to financial services and new agricultural opportunities are encouraging them to stay in one place. At the same time climate change, population growth and declining soil quality are making it harder for semi-nomadic pastoralists to survive. A lone young man dressed in a red shuka walking behind the family’s goats and cattle is a common sight. But for how much longer?
Josphat, my Maasai guide, would entertain me on the uneven roads with anecdotes from his youth as a cattle herder, and how his family struggled against big cats to keep their livestock alive. Technology is helping them to innovate: one nearby Maasai village, he said, is using strings of flashing bicycle lights to keep lions and elephants at bay. Tales of rites of passage also abound. Jackson Looseyia, a guide and presenter of the BBC’s Big Cat Diaries, told me that, as a young man, he once fled from his prescribed task of killing a lion with a spear, overwhelmed by a combination of fear and respect for the creature.
On land neighbouring the National Reserve, the Koiyaki Guiding School trains 24 men and women every year to become qualified guides, creating a new generation of conservationists. “Education is the best way forward for the Maasai people who are proud of their history and culture but who, again, have to adapt as the world changes and less land is available for people to make a living from cattle,” Jackson Looseyia says.
By spending a little extra to stay in a lodge or to travel with a tour company that has strong local connections, you are paying for the privilege of experiencing a lifestyle on the verge of extinction. You are also helping to safeguard one of the most important ecosystems in the world.
Cherish every moment
Sam Stogdale, a safari guide for Ker and Downey today, was born almost a century after its founders Donald and Syd, but he shares their passion for the Mara and its wildlife. The way his eyes light up when he talks about it gives him – a tall dirty blond wearing a khaki shirt – a timeless quality. It is easy to imagine Syd looking just the same, enthusing about “his best four days of safari ever.”
Stogdale recalls a recent safari in the Mara. He and his guests stayed at the Mara Plains lodge, in Olare Motorogi Conservancy. “The first day, we saw a lioness kill a wildebeest. Then she left it, so we followed her. She went off to summon another lioness, who had cubs. We sat for three hours watching them, with not another vehicle in sight,” he says. “The second day, we saw a leopard in a tree with a kill. Hyenas surrounded the tree. They tried to get up into it and then sat around at the bottom getting the scraps. The third day, we went for a walk and saw a pair of leopards mating. We’d already seen fresh lion tracks. Then three lionesses and four sub-adult cubs emerged from the bush. We just stayed sitting, with the lions watching us and the leopards.
“On day four, we went for a game drive inside the Reserve and saw a mother cheetah and four cubs. They came across a herd of Thomson’s gazelle. The mum took off, caught a baby Tommy and brought it back alive to the cubs. The cubs spent the next hour and a half catching it, letting it go, catching it, letting it go. It was a game for them.
“The next day, we saw a lion hunting wildebeest, then after it lost that it had a go at a buffalo. In the evening, we watched an amazing sunset over the Mara. You couldn’t script it any better,” he says, after a pause. “Every day the Mara will throw something different at you.”
Listening to Stogdale talk about the Mara feels like dropping an anchor for a moment in another world, one that is more visceral and enduring than our own. It is the same world that Syd Downey battled cliff-faces and thorn bushes to experience: a world that we must strive to secure for generations to come.
The Mara Conservancies
The renowned conservationist Cynthia Moss has stated that the establishment of conservancies in Kenya has been the single most successful conservation initiative since the creation of national parks in the 1940s. “Conservancies protect land for Kenya’s wildlife and create sanctuaries of safety. In addition, they bring benefits in the form of direct payments and jobs to the people who share the land with wildlife,” she said.
The three biggest threats to wildlife are all related to human activity: habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and exploitation of wildlife and natural resources. In Kenya the human population has doubled in less than twenty years, to a figure of over 44 million today. Most of those people are poor.
The World Wildlife Fund says: “In a world where so many people live in poverty, it may appear as though protecting nature is a luxury. But it is quite the opposite. For many of the world’s poorest people, it is a lifeline.”
This is where the conservancy concept is so important. The land is leased by the tourism operator on a per-acre basis from the individual landowners whose plots have been put together to form the conservancy, and with an annual increase in the rent the landowners’ income is guaranteed regardless of whether tourist numbers fluctuate.
This removes the pressure to overdevelop the facilities and makes the low-density form of tourism less impactful on the environment – and more rewarding for the visitors. The environment wins. The wildlife win. The safari guests win. And the community wins. There is motivation to protect the resource.
Here’s our overview of the conservancies in the Greater Mara:
• Ol Kinyei The first private conservancy to be set up in the Greater Mara. It has recently been expanded to 6700ha. You’ll find plentiful game here with large groups of elephant, the Loita wildebeest migration passing through between June and November, a resident pride of over twenty lions, as well as leopards, cheetahs and giraffe. Wild dogs and aardwolves have also been sighted.
• Olare Motorogi Arguably the best place to watch lions. When the 13,000ha conservancy was established in 2006 the cats were in deep trouble. Today its prides are flourishing, with at least fifty individuals roaming the conservancy. A strict limit on vehicle numbers and tourist camps is enforced.
• Mara North More than 32,000ha, the biggest and most beautiful of all the conservancies in the wildlife dispersal zone, and includes Leopard Gorge and a stretch of the Mara River. Its member camps include some of Africa’s finest.
• Naboisho At more than 20,000ha, its presence is crucial to the wildlife dispersal zone, and the density of game to be seen here is among the highest in Africa. Like Olare Motorogi and Mara North, it is part of the Koiyaki Lemek Group Ranch and is home to the Koiyaki Guide School, many of whose former pupils are employed as professional safari guides throughout the Mara.
• Lemek This vast expanse of open plains in the far northwest corner of the wildlife dispersal zone is part of the old-established Koiyaki Lemek Group Ranch. Drive into the surrounding hills for stupendous views.
• Enonkishu 9700ha of bush country in the northwest corner of the wildlife dispersal zone. It enhances the life of its Maasai landowners through better education, cattle husbandry and conservation awareness. n Ol Chorro A private 6900ha wilderness bordering the Mara River. The owners obtain their income from entry fees. Accommodation on the banks of the Mara River or overlooking the Ol Chorro waterhole.
• Olarro Olarro Lodge has established its own 2800ha conservancy, offering a wilderness with rolling hills, savannah valleys and acacia trees.
• Ol Derikesi A remote 8000ha in the far southeast of the Mara region, it is home to just one camp. The district is teeming with wildlife (including huge lions), especially since an agreement was negotiated with the Maasai stakeholders to create a strict cattle-free zone around the camp.
Nearly 100 years ago Charles Cottar started one of the first registered safari companies in East Africa. Together with Syd Downey, his son Mike Cottar took the first vehicle into the Mara. In turn, his grandson Glen pioneered the photographic safari, setting up the first tented camp for this purpose in the Mara in the 1970s. And Glen’s son Calvin has been heavily involved in establishing the conservancy model.
“It’s a miracle what has happened on these conservancies,” Calvin told Travel Africa. “We are valuing wildlife by proxy; through leasing land. This is the only way to slow down and stop the alarming rate at which wildlife and its habitat has been removed.”