Maasai Mara game reserve at risk as wildebeest populations shrink at alarming rate

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Wildebeest cross the Mara River during the epic migration season. (Picture Courtesy)

PHOTO: KIPCHUMBA KEMEI

BY KIPCHUMBA KEMEI

newsdesk@dailyreporter.co.ke

http://www.discoverafrica.com/herdtracker/

Mention Maasai Mara anywhere in the world and the first thing that comes to those who know the famous wildlife sanctuary is the annual spectacular wildebeest migration.

The wildebeest migration usually starts from Serengeti plains in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara game reserve through the crocodile infested Mara River.

Whenever the migration that is the eighth wonder of the world takes place, another group of resident wildebeest, also cross from the vast Loita plains in Narok County to the reserve to complete the annual event.

When the two groups meet, the reserve teems with about two million wildebeests and 200, 000 zebras that also migrate along with the two groups.

It is the time when lions, hyenas and other cats move to the parks and in the conservancies to feed on them.

Wildebeests always move to the reserve between July and September to feed and calve before returning to Serengeti mid October.

Last week, the first group of about 2, 000 wildebeests and zebras crossed the Sand River Gate crossing point into the park. Another group of about 10, 000 is expected next week.

Apart from the carnivorous that will be feasting on the migrating animals, local community, hoteliers, curio dealers and other people who depend on tourism are happy.

They are hoping to make money from tourists who have started trooping in to watch the migration from various crossing points along the Mara River.

Every year around this time, Murumpi ole Soit, 53, an elder of a cultural village at Sekenani area where tourists frequent to have a glimpse of how the local Maasai live, is a happy man because of the benefits he is going to reap from the wildebeest migration.

 “It is a time when our lives turn for the better. We use the money to pay school fees and for our daily needs,” says a man who whenever arrivals are good, he collects about Sh200, 000 every day on behalf of his group.

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Hundreds of wildebeest on their way from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania heading to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya. (Picture Courtesy)

A tour of the reserve, he says is never complete until a visitor visits the manyattas, leaving behind money in entry fees and after buying the community handiwork including the bead work.

Naneu Mpeti, 28, a single mother of four, sells her bead work at Musiara Gate to educate her children, one in form two and another in class five.

She however says the Narok County government has over the years been unable to account for revenue from tourism.

“We know if the county government was serious about accountability the glaring poverty in the Mara where it rakes billions of shillings annually from tourisms activities, could have been a thing of the past,” she says.

Jacob Maitai, a curio dealer along the Narok-Sekenani Gate road and who has been lecturing tourists in the evenings in Osero Camp within the Siana Conservancy is sad because earnings have dwindled.

He blames the sad development on the number of few tourists buying his merchandise because the number of wildebeests and zebras that have been migrating along the Loita plains are shrinking.

“Tour drivers who used to stop on the way to the park and even when departing have stopped dropping their guests in my shop and others along the road because the migration is losing its spark due to dwindling number of the animals,” he says.

Human encroachment and change of land use along the migratory corridors has been singled out for the problem.

The situation is being aggravated by the fact that group ranches bordering the park that used to be wildlife dispersal areas are being sub divided for individual ownership.

According to conservationists, more than 30, 000 of 200, 000 wildebeests that used to move from the plains to the reserve annually 20 years ago have disappeared because of human encroachment into their dispersal areas and effects of climate change.

The Kenya Conservancies Association CEO Dickson Kaelo says studies have indicated that the number would continue to drop as human population in areas bordering the park continue to grow.

“The Maasai Mara Reserve has lost about 30, 000 resident wildebeests that used to move from Loita plains to the park when their counterparts in Serengeti National Park migrate to Kenya to kick off the annual tourism peak season because of encroachment,” he says.

 

Kaelo adds that human population in the Mara is growing at eight per cent annually, adding that some species of wild animals have disappeared because of encroachment into their habitats.

Fencing of wildlife migratory and dispersal corridors for livestock keeping, grazing and settlement, he said had confined wildlife in few places, making it difficult for them to graze and deny them privacy for breeding.

“Since the sub division of eight group ranches that border the park for individual ownership started more than 15 years ago, animals have been confined in small portions of land, mainly in hills, making feeding and breeding a problem,” he says.

He said formation of conservancies will stem encroachment because members would benefit directly from tourism activities therefore appreciate the need of co-existing with wild animals.

“Formation of conservancies is the way to go now to save Maasai Mara from becoming a village instead of a wildlife sanctuary,” said Kaelo.

David Sopia, the chairman, Masai Mara Conservancies Association says lack of the larger Mara Management Plan is to blame for encroachment and mushrooming of unplanned tourists facilities inside and outside the park.

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Tour operators protesting the bad state of the Narok-Sekenani Gate. They complained they are being forced to incur huge operational costs. They said journey that used to take one and half hours to cover years ago now takes two to three.

“Lack of the plan is to blame for the conservation problems now facing the reserve,” he says and adds that the association is formulating a management plan for conservation areas.

If approved, he adds it would be difficult for investors to build facilities within the conservancies without environmental impact assessment being carried out by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema).

 

Kevin Gichangi, the Word Wide Fund (WWF) Mara River Basin manager says destruction of Mau forest that is the catchment area of the Mara-Serengeti among other climatic effects in the world is slowly changing the wildlife migration patterns and survival.

“Studies we have carried out in a period of over 25 years have shown that due to weather changes brought about by environmental destruction, certain species of wild animals that used to roam freely in the Mara have either disappeared or about to do so,” he said.

Gichangi said because of catchment destruction, the annual migration is threatened because of the receding water levels in the Mara River.

“When it is cold or hot Mara changes to the detriment of most wildlife species,” he observes.

Nick Murero, the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem Coordinator for Lake Victoria Basin and who is also the chairman of Narok Wildlife and Environment Forum says because of the effects of the climate change, if measures are not taken to reserve the trend, Maasai Mara would cease to exist in the next 25 years.

“Because of the effects of climate change and the unchecked human activities and also the runaway poaching, Mara will not be there in a quarter of a century. It will be a blow to livelihoods,” he says.

The population of wild dogs among other wildlife that cherish privacy, he says have gone down, adding that wild dogs are few in the whole of over 4, 000 sq km reserve.

Collins Omondi, the Kenya Wildlife Service Narok Senior Warden says the effects of human-wildlife conflict because of encroachment onto wildlife territories have led to the disappearance of some wild animals.

“People have settled along wildlife corridors and habitats, making it difficult for their survival,” he says and calls for planning of the reserve.

 

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