The Maasai Mara National Reserve is undoubtedly one of Kenya’s most popular tourist attractions, especially due to the annual wildebeest migration that takes place in July to October every year, a spectacle that was declared the eighth wonder of the world in 2006. It forms the northern part of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, a wildlife-rich plain that is shared by Kenya and Tanzania. It then follows that an area with such immense value to Kenya would be intensely guarded and conserved, but sadly, that is not the case.
Located 270 kilometres to the south west of Nairobi, the Maasai Mara covers an area of 583 square kilometers, and consists of two main conservation areas. First , to the west of the Mara River, is the Mara Triangle in the west of the Mara River, in what was Transmara District, now part of Narok County. The Triangle is managed by the Mara Conservancy, an organization formed by the local Maasai to manage the reserve and prevent poaching of animals.
To the east of the river is the more visited Mara National Reserve, which is managed by the Narok County Government. Adjacent to the designated reserve are conservancies set up by local communities who have joined forces to protect the land that the wildlife are dependent on. These conservancies, which cover a total of 810 square kilometers, operate on a revenue sharing model with the lodges that are found scattered around the national reserve. Interestingly, the Maasai Mara has been managed since its inception by the Narok County Council, and its successor, the County Government of Narok and not the Kenya Wildlife Service.
The eastern side of the Mara is closer to Nairobi, and is therefore more popular with visitors by road, while the airstrips are mainly located in the north and west of the reserve, which has a higher concentration of animals.
The Mara has an exceptionally large number of resident animals, among them various antelope species, cheetahs, migratory and resident birds, as well as big cats such as lions and leopards. The Mara River, which rises from the Mau Forest water catchment, is itself home to a large number of hippos and other aquatic animals. The ideal time to view wildlife in the Mara is in the late evening and early morning, therefore a good option would be to travel from Nairobi, a journey of 50 minutes by air or 4 hours by road through Narok Town, and arrive in the late afternoon. On especially hot days, most animals prefer to rest in the shade, with only a few warthogs and baboons running about, but during the cooler afternoons and evenings, it is possible to spot a pride of lions or a coalition of cheetahs on the hunt. After an overnight stay in one of the lodges, a morning game drive offers prime viewing of the wildlife, ranging from vultures and hyenas cleaning off the remains of the previous day’s hunts, to giraffes browsing on the many scattered acacia trees in the area and hippos returning to their river habitats after a night of grazing.
Due to its popularity, the reserve houses a number of lodges and campsites which have been built to cater to the large number of tourists that visit every year. Initially, these lodges were built out of local materials, and care was taken to blend them with the surrounding environment through painting the buildings green and integrating them with the local vegetation, but with time, new lodges are being built out of materials that are visible from a great distance, thereby interrupting the scenery and natural environment.
While flying over the Mara, it is possible to see some of these lodges, which have been built along the Mara and Talek rivers, because they use highly reflective roofing materials. Another difference that is visible from the air is in the vegetation of the Mara Triangle and Mara Reserve. The Mara Triangle, which extends west of the Mara River and south into the Serengeti, has a strict policy prohibiting cattle grazing on reserve land, while regulation of the Mara Reserve is more lax towards grazing of domestic animals. As a result, the Mara Triangle has more grass available for wild animals, and therefore it appears greener than the land to the east of the Mara River.
There are a number of settlements in the vicinity of the Mara, which have grown as more people have moved closer to the park. One town, Mara Rianta, has grown because of the displacement of people who lived on land which has been turned into conservancies. Another town, Sekenani, has grown at one of the entrance gate to Maasai Mara, due to the commercial activity brought about by visiting tourists. The growth of these towns is a result of changing cultures of the local Maasai community, which is traditionally pastoralist but has become more sedentary due to the changing realities of land ownership in Kenya, thus greatly reduced their range and ability to move. Economic motivations, such as the revenue from visiting tourists have also led to the establishment of businesses such as balloon safari operators near the park, further contributing to the growth of these settlements.
As more people settle around the reserve, there is competition for pasture, which results in livestock intrusion into wildlife territory. Of particular concern is the human-wildlife conflict that results from this intrusion. The cattle eat the grass that the wild herbivores rely on, and since they wander into the reserve at night, they are preyed upon by the big cats of the Mara. This in turn causes the Maasai who own the livestock to attack and even kill the predators. It is therefore essential for the Narok County Government and the National Environment Management Authority along with other interested parties to review some of the policies that are in place for the management of the reserve in order to reverse the damage that has been inflicted on the Mara ecosystem in order to adequately protect this crown jewel in the Kenyan tourism circuit.