The Masai Mara It Will Not Be Long Before Its Gone

Masai Mara

Giraffes in Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. Photograph: Guillaume Bonn

Our vehicle comes to an abrupt stop. “There, now watch,” says Josphat, my exacting young Masai guide. We cut the engine and the silence is acute. Josphat points out a cheetah’s head in an ocean of golden grass. One minibus has already pulled up on another sandy track a few hundred metres away and four heads are craning out of the roof. We sit and watch for the cheetah. All of a sudden white minibuses crest the horizon in droves. We are in a stampede. Eight of them surround us. Within five minutes we have counted 30, the drivers communicating via radio to make sure their clients tick off “the big five”. A cheetah will never kill like this; its prey will have been alerted. And if it has killed, the vehicles will make it blind to a subsequent hyena attack. But this cheetah is now nowhere to be seen. Undeterred, the minibus drivers start ploughing into the long grass. Eventually they give up. I ask if this happens often. Every day, Josphat says.

Josphat is a member of the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association, which means he knows the Latin names and mating rituals of every animal in his domain. He is 27, small, intelligent and deeply serious about his work. He is accustomed to tracking animals and avoiding humans, but he is also proving adept at the inverse, showing me the “real” Masai Mara. One of the greatest natural spectacles on earth is under way. More than a million hungry wildebeest are on their way from Tanzania to Kenya‘s Mara National Reserve to raze tons of sweet red-oat grass. Primordial gnus are the stars of the show, but in supporting roles are a few hundred thousand zebras and half a million Thomson’s gazelles; then there are the resident crocodiles, lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs.

Masai Mara tourists A tourist plane lands in the Masai Mara. Photograph: Guillaume Bonn

Their show is in danger of being upstaged. Every year, thousands upon thousands of tourists descend on the Masai Mara to witness the migration. The resident human population is increasing; lodges are proliferating. Rampant corruption means money is not filtering down to the Masai population, who are increasingly turning to charcoal and arable farming to make ends meet. In short, mankind is in danger of squandering one of the most important habitats left in the world.

“It will not be long before it is gone, unless some drastic and urgent steps are taken now,” says Joseph Ogutu, a scientist who has studied changes in the area’s fauna for 24 years. The Masai Mara represents the northern quarter of the Serengeti ecosystem that stretches down into Tanzania. The wild animals that remain here require vast and various dispersal areas to survive drought, predators and human pressure. These safe havens are disappearing. Lodges surrounding the park have erected kilometres of electric fencing; lions have been known to use them to trap their prey. Shanty towns are developing fast, and some may soon be on the national grid. There are too many cows for not enough land, and wheat fields are advancing (wheat has become a swearword among conservationists). Human waste is being buried or dumped. The environment is displaying symptoms of its mismanagement. Algae are emerging in rivers upstream, a consequence of fertiliser use. The Mara river, where wildebeest cross from Tanzania, dried up completely in 2009, says Dickson Kaelo, a respected Masai guide. He recalls seeing scores of minibuses queueing to watch wildebeest splash through the water. But there was “just dust”. Inside the treasured reserve, monkeys play with crisps packets. Even the predators’ behaviour is changing. Malaika is a cheetah who will sit on the roof of your car; Josphat is disgusted by the guides who encourage her, to secure a good tip.

Kenya‘s economy is heavily reliant on tourism and the core area, the Mara National Reserve, generates an estimated £13m each year. The place projects a timelessness that speaks to notions of man’s origins and the beginnings of time. But it also epitomises a modern conflict over land and resources playing out across Africa today.

Landowner Kaitet Ole Naingisa sips hot chocolate in a central Nairobi cafe. He has travelled to the capital to present his case to the commissioner of lands. He pulls his title deed from a brown A4 envelope. Naingisa’s family had a plot close to the National Reserve in Siana where they had lived for more than 20 years, and where his 10 children are being schooled. Siana was one of many “group ranches”, areas of communal land around the reserve, which have been subdivided among members in recent decades. It was this subdivision, locals say, that opened the door for the land-grabbing that is now epic in scale. When the land registry finally issued Naingisa with his title deeds last year, he got “this”, he says, brandishing the embossed title deed to plot 366, far from his home, on unproductive land. The deed states his name as the land’s original owner, but another name is semi-legible beneath it. There is a hole in the paper where someone has tried to rub it out. This is not his original land; the authorities have fiddled it, he says.

In battling for their rights, the Masai are seen as greedy by many conservationists, but most are not, an exasperated Josphat says: they just want their rightful share. The Masai occupied most of western Kenya at the turn of the 20th century, but disease, massive evictions by British colonialists and civil war reduced them to only 0.5% of the population. Centuries of survival in harsh lands gave them a strong sense of mutualism, but a culture of cronyism now pits the Masai against one another. The uneducated minority are represented, and exploited, by an educated few. There are countless lawsuits languishing in the courts and a number of unsolved, politically motivated murders. Paramilitary police have carried out forced evictions by night. People are bitter, and trust has eroded. Somali émigrés run thriving businesses in the Mara, because the Masai trust them more than Kenyan tribes.

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