Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Game Drive in the Masai Mara

This blog post should start with the caveat that it is written as a critique of the Masai Mara. The establishment of a reserve or a park for the preservation of native species through tourism is a questionable undertaking which may not yield the intended results for people and native species.

No alternative suggestions are given in the blog. It is simply a critique of the Masai Mara based on the experience of the author with no basis more reliable than my own impressions, some grey literature and a few papers.

Overview of the Masai Mara:

The Masai Mara National Reserve covers an area of 1,510 square kilometers. The reserve belongs to the Masai people. It is named for the Maasai, original inhabitants of the area and the Maasai word 'Maa' which means spotted (as it is spotted with patches of shrubs and shadows of passing clouds). The Masai Mara acts as a kind of continuation of the Serengeti National Park game reserve in Tanzania and as a through-way for animals in the Great Migration from July to October.

The altitude of the Masai Mara ranges from 1,500 to 2,170 meters and temperatures range from 30 to 15 degrees celsius. December and January are the warmest times of the year; June and July are the coldest. The rainy season 'long rains' generally happen in April and May and 'short rains' are in November. The dry season is usually from July to October. The dry season is the time when the majority of the tourism happens in the area.

Questions remaining from the experience:

The first question: Is the Masai Mara Reserve effective? Does it act as a mechanism for preservation of wildlife and for the betterment of the people of the area? i.e. does creation of wildlife reserves act as a mechanism for the meeting of the millennium development goals?

A study funded by WWF and conducted by ILRI from 1989 - 2003 looked at several ungulate species populations in the Masai Mara finding losses of 95% for giraffes, 80% for warthogs, 76% for hartebeest, and 67% for impala. Increased human settlement in and around the reserve was cited as the mechanism for the loss (Ogutu et. al. 2010). This means that people were eating them and sending the meat off for black markets as 'bush meat' which comprises a part of the diet for many Kenyans (Kiringe et. al. 2007)

These negative anthropogenic effects are not just felt for the ungulate species. The Spotted Hyenas of the Masai Mara are also experiencing stress and increased death rates. The proportion of deaths caused by humans has been dramatically increasing for this species since 1985 (Pangle & Holekamp 2010). Cheetahs have also experienced a negative effect of the anthropogenic factors in the area. The population has been declining from 30- 50% since 1966 (Isaboke 2004-2005).

Second question: Is the establishment of a reserve job creation for the Maasai? The Masaai we saw were living in slum like conditions on the outskirts of the Masai Mara and selling lion tooth necklaces, knives etc. Creating a reserve in this case seems to have caused them to be sedentary.

Job creation is a complicated economic outcome of a number of events. If the markets are allowed to openly choose the mechanisms and standards of work then little chance exists for the Maasai to get jobs in the Masai Mara. Free market creation of jobs often means that industry will choose experienced workers from the existing pool; people who already work in the industry. One example of this that we witnessed is that the drivers of the busses in the park were mostly Kikuyu. One Maasai I met told me that he really wanted to become a driver. He wrote me later that to learn to be a driver "i must travel to the city and go and learn there." He said it will take two years to complete the school and "in kenya everything u do need money..."

Finally our experience begs the question: How wild are the animals that live in the Masai Mara? They live like celebrities surrounded by paparazzi at every move. The Cheetah we saw eating an impala was surrounded by backcountry tourism vans full of tourists. The lions resting in a patch of Acacia were seen by hundreds of tourists in whose drivers drove right up to them. Literally we were a few meters away from the resting pride. The Gnu and Zebra walking near the roads were running away from the speeding tourism vans who were on the way to go and look at the cheetah.


Isaboke W., Kahiu M., ROSS M.W., Wambua C. 2004-2005. Cheetah census in Kenya; Priority 1: South Western Kenya, East African Wildlife Society Cheetah Conservation Fund, Kenya

Kiringe J.W., Okelloa M.M., Ekajula S.W. 2007. Managers’ perceptions of threats to the protected areas of Kenya: prioritization for effective management, Oryx. 41:314-321

Ogutu J. O., Piepho H.P., Dublin H.T, Bhola N., Reid R. S. 2009. Dynamics of Mara-Serengeti ungulates in relation to land use changes, Journal of Zoology. 278(1): 1–14

Pangle W.M., Holekamp K.E. 2010. Lethal and nonlethal anthropogenic effects on spotted hyenas in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Journal of Mammology. 91(1):154-164

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