Running Out

Running Out

I don’t like crowds… of people, that is. I take my rovers into tens of thousands of wildebeest, sometimes hundreds of thousands. My cars are often the only ones in view.

It’s selfish and egotistical, perhaps pridefully arrogant. We handful of guides with the skills and experience to find the calving fields represent an extremely small group of tourists. It’s hard to get there, not without risk since there’s no roads or tracks and sometimes, in fact, we don’t find them.

Rather, what the mass of tourists usually sees was truthfully documented in last night’s PBS premiere of this season’s ‘Nature,’ Running with the Beest.
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Ma Lives Matter

Ma Lives Matter

The “unlawful and forced eviction” of up to 70,000 Maasai in northeast Tanzania has turned bloody violent. According to Canada’s Globe & Mail an initial tear-gas episode in early June has escalated into outright warfare resulting in deaths and injuries.

“Shocking in its scale and brutality” this tragic situation is hardly new: Maasai have been driven from their pastures almost continually since their ancestors fled the Nubians in the 4th century BC. This complex story is one of the lectures I give on safari atop the Serengeti ‘Singing Rock’ that overlooks what was once the paradise of the Maasai before they ceded it to the government a half century ago.

The current conflict has its contemporary roots in a relocation of about 4,000 Maasai from northeast Tanzania in the 1960s right before Independence. A generation later in 1992 Maasai leaders formally accepted the government annexation of about 1600 sq. miles of their prime pastures which until then had remained an unresolved ownership issue with the British colonial government.

It remains uncertain whether the Maasai elders who ceded this huge area (the entire “Loliondo” district) understood exactly what they were doing or whether there was a lot of sugar spilled into the chai.

The area borders Kenya’s famous’ Maasai Mara to the north and Tanzania’s famous Serengeti to the west. These truly spectacular quintessential rolling grassland savannahs are perfect for cattle grazing, the traditional lifeway of Maasai.

Following the 1992 “treaty” the Tanzanian government quickly formalized smaller portions of that 1600 sq. miles as hunting reserves for Arab royalty. They had regularly hunted the area during their own insufferable summers ever since first being invited down by the British long, long ago for who knows what nefarious reasons.

After sectioning out hunting reserves for the Arabs who to this day claim they were given the whole of Loliondo by the British, the government declared the remainder “Wildlife Management Areas” (WMAs).

WMAs were and remain (intentionally?) so confusing that everybody and their brother ran up to this beautiful, game rich area to plant their own kind of stake. Including a group I was involved with for seven years.

In the early 2000s I had an interest in a company that had a remote wilderness camp close to where the Arabs were hunting. The mostly Jordanian militias that constantly harassed us claimed we were infringing on their area, but our WMA certificate had clearly delineated boundaries professionally surveyed for our 50,000 acres. Nevertheless, anyone coming into our “private reserve” would get a little beep on their cell phone, “Welcome to the Emirates!”

Ours was not the only non-hunting camp in the Loliondo area. By my last count in 2008 there were six. No one was ever able, however, to get a written document from either the Arabs or the Tanzanian government that would substantiate their claims to the entire Loliondo area.

I never got inside the Arab’s perimeter despite several attempts. Those who did reported “a little city” with an airport that routinely accepted the most modern private jet aircraft as well as C47’s that would disgorge limos and Range Rovers.

Maasai development was soaring by the end of the last century. Casual stock herding became true cattle ranching. In 1992 the price of a Maasai cow was around $70. Today it approaches $2000, a testament to Maasai’s rapid development and professional use of modern animal husbandry.

So more and more Maasai are choosing to “stay on the farm,” turning the tide that began in the 1980s when every promising young Maasai fled to the city. There are more and more cattle, more and more homesteads and guess what, no more land.

Disputes grew more violent after we left the area in 2008. Serious “wars” with Tanzania security forces occurred in 2009, 2013 and 2019.

I began blogging about this controversy in 2009. I ended that first blog by saying, “My take is that this is not going to get better, soon.”

The largest number of physical fights — not as deadly perhaps but much more acrimonious and self-destructive — have actually been between Kenyan and Tanzanian Maasai ranchers.

Originally, of course, there was no border splitting the Maasai into three countries (Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania). When the rain in the south was better, the Kenyan Maasai moved their cattle into Tanzania. And vice versa. So many more ranchers much better educated and lawyered up with many, many better cows are all fighting for the same number of blades of grass that grew here when the Maasai first arrived nearly 300 years ago.

In 2018 Tanzanian Maasai prevailed in the totally powerless East African Court of Justice which affirmed their historic rights to grazing throughout the area. This has sustained an increasingly articulate and powerful movement led by several courageous, young and very professional Maasai lawyers.

I think that Covid explains much of the current battle. No one came to Tanzania for nearly two years. Maasai in this area just naturally started grazing all over the place, including into the Serengeti National Park and the Arab hunting areas.

Covid’s over, the sheiks complained. Sheiks are rich and powerful. Maasai ranchers are not.

The piles of faulty treaties, questionable agreements and coerced submissions to informal modern use of deeply historical use, all compounded by an inept government that mistakenly tried to manage the area with incomprehensible regulations has just piled mess upon mess.

Untangling it is impossible. It’s time that the Tanzanian government emulate Canada with its First Nation policy or America with its modern Athabascan Alaskan policy and recognize the historical first principle of Maasai ownership of the lands and send the Arabs back in a heat wave.

Is that likely?

Haiwezakani sana…

Far Out

Far Out

I was supposed to be in Paris with my wife celebrating our 50th anniversary. I’m in Dublin where I’ll be writing more about this interesting, unexpected journey due to Covid in later days. But today I just gotta write about Marriott!

Marriott is pleased as puddin pie that it’s opening a luxury camp in Kenya’s Mara. “The location and surrounding landscape will … create harmony with the natural world … drawing inspiration from the elements: earth, wind, fire and water.” Not sure about the fire.
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OnSafari: Klein’s Valley

OnSafari: Klein’s Valley

Those damned kids! They ruined dinner once again!

Mama looked at us unabashedly. It was really getting dark, around 7:15 p.m. in the Klein’s Valley that borders Kenya’s Mara to the north and the Serengeti to the west. The sun had blinked out at 6:30p and twilight doesn’t really exist in the equator, but the high stringy cumulus making the moon and Venus blur threw what light the far away sun touched them with back down to the ground. A sort of unexpected twilight.
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Maasai Movement

Maasai Movement

The revolutionary fervor seeping from Hong Kong to Argentina to Mexico has infected Kenya’s most important tourist area, the Maasai Mara.

Younger educated and articulate Maasai ranchers are protesting the contracts that their elder clansmen signed with safari companies that ridiculously are supposed to continue through 2025. Unlike Hong Kong where of thousands of people are flooding into the streets, the Maasai are flooding the tourists areas of the Mara with thousands of cows.

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OnSafari: Lucy’s Future

OnSafari: Lucy’s Future

kenya and lucyWe had a Maasai guide for our final days in Kenya. There are about 500 guides in Kenya’s best game park, the Maasai Mara. Only three are women: “our” Lucy was one.

Two days after national elections, results have yet to be announced but the country looks increasingly like it will accept the outcome peacefully. Lucy won’t be the only beneficiary of peace. In 8 of Kenya’s 47 counties (comparable to our states) provisional results give governorships to women.

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OnSafari: River Crossing

OnSafari: River Crossing

rivercrossingBPWe were among 30 cars on one side of the Mara river – there were another 30 on the opposite side.

I don’t like crowds in the wilderness, and I avoid them pretty successfully. But this is an exception. If you want to see one of the most dramatic still truly wild components of the world’s last great animal migration, you’re going to be part of a crowd.

True, there are plenty of river crossings on the great migration route that don’t draw crowds, and I’ve enjoyed them. But the classic and most dramatic crossings are in the Mara, and there are only a couple dozen favorite crossing spots.

Unlike so many animals, wildebeest are very finicky eaters. All they will consumer is grass. Grass comes after rain. The wilde’s instinct forces them to “follow the rains,” which generally recede over the course of the year in a northwesterly direction onto Lake Victoria.

Before reaching the Mara, the great herds have crossed at least two and sometimes four or five other great rivers as they move north.

The Mara is the last and furthest northern river before the herds are turned back by developed farm fields, towns and villages. Here they cluster and start moving backwards and forwards across the river seemingly without purpose. The instinct to move is too great, and if the movement is a rebound, so be it.

This has been the case for at least the last half century. Before that they may have continued all the way to the Lake before turning around. The boundary is not natural in the wild sense, of course, and it results in the mass confusion, exceptional drama and photogenic scenes that have become the trademark of the great migration.

A bit further south the herds’ decisions to move back and forth across rivers is governed much more by actual rain. Particularly now with climate change, the intense micro-climates may mean a healthy rainfall a few miles to the north, or a drought, a few miles to the south.

I’ve often watched the herds move north out of Tanzania to Kenya right on schedule in June, but then return months early in August because of early, heavy rains in northern Tanzania.

Keep in mind that a wildlife documentary is simply an edited version of what the Miller Family saw this morning in person. I remember encountering a BBC/Nova film crew once shooting a river crossing here in the Mara, and there were at least 20 vehicles just in their team.
wildcomingBP
We were watching a newborn zebra being defended by its mom against a hyaena when we spotted massive clouds of dust several miles away above the river.

Our camp driver, of course, knew exactly what “favorite crossing place” was near the dust and we headed for it posthaste. Wilde will jump 20 feet into the river and then try (usually unsuccessfully) to scale the other side of a 20-foot canyon, but they prefer easier entries and exits, often dry river washes merging with the great Mara. There aren’t many, and everyone knows them.

To reach this crossing place, we had to drive through the herds, and that in itself was fabulous. I estimated between 3500-4500 in this particular group. They were racing in multiple files and converging on a plateau just above the crossing point.

We slowed down among their incessant blarting mixed with the anxious barking of the zebra. Clearly this group was getting psyched up to cross!

By the time we got to the crossing point most of the prime spaces were already taken by other cars. But our driver knew the river so well that we went down river all of a few hundred meters where it turned and found a beautiful viewing area right there.

Across the river were four giant crocs, pulled out onto the sun with bellies already bulging with previous crossings.

So then, like everyone, else, we just waited.

After about an hour, all of a sudden, we were surrounded by wilde! They came so fast the dust came after them! This wasn’t the crossing place, this was our secret viewing area, and it was very rocky and steep at the river’s edge.

Then almost as quickly, they moved away back into the riverine forest. For some reason, they weren’t going down the “favorite crossing place.”

After about another half hour some cars began to leave. We thought we would, too, but just as the engine turned on we could see upriver that the first of the group had reached the river’s edge at the end of the wash.

At first they didn’t seem to do anything but grow in numbers and drink the water. After about five minutes, though, the pressure of the racing wilde behind them forced them to start the swim across.

They walked until the depth of the river forced them to swim, and wilde do this by successive leaping. Water was splashing all of the place. I watched a croc leap out and grab the side of one wilde. It was soon mayhem. Six or seven abreast were swimming across, many getting drowned by others behind them, some actually swimming back across the river!

A half hour later it was all over. A very small group of about 25 wilde for some reason remained on the wash and didn’t cross, but the bulk had move onto the other side and were congregating on the plains and starting to graze.

We found a nice place much further down the river to set up our wonderful breakfast, but the river runs fast here, and numerous “floaters” or dead wildebeest passed by us.

The great migration is like one little muscle in Mother Earth. It’s a reflection of the ecological heritage that makes our planet so awesome. Until we free ourselves completely of our biological roots, we need to truly experience the power of our organic world so that we can concede that we’re only one piece in an infinite universe of life, beholden to the great migration as the wildebeest are to the rains.
MillerHaynieBP

OnSafari: Maasai Mara

OnSafari: Maasai Mara

leopardMaraBPWe’re in the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s best game park and the top of the great Ngorongoro/Serengeti/Mara ecosystem.

She had killed a wildebeest yearling this morning without much effort. Large files of the great migration are coming through the salient. We saw three groups of about 400 wilde and another of about 1000 that was running in single file.

We even watched a small group of several hundred try to cross the Mara River. Only one did! But the others’ reluctance was understandable. The river is already littered with dead wildebeest among very fat, giant crocs.

So the young female leopard that probably weighs around 120 pounds max had pulled the 220 pound yearling into the crux of a tree about 6-8 feet off the ground. That’s not very high for a leopard who can easily lift 350 pounds 20 feet into a tree.

But she was with an older daughter and I wonder if maybe she was teaching her how to lift the kill. In any case, they made haste with their feast, eating more than half of it in a single setting. That, too, is unusual for a leopard which may take a week to finish off its kill.

The urgency was in part because there were so many vehicles trying to watch them. The Mara gets a bum rap sometimes regarding too many vehicles, and for the vast majority of our game drive we were alone or just with our other vehicle in the Miller family safari.

But a leopard is prize stuff. So all the vehicles in the neighborhood came to see them, and that meant when we arrived there were another 7 vehicles. Once we got our fleeting pictures, I insisted we move on, as even more vehicles were arriving.

I felt she was understandably nervous. The would move together out of the deep bush to one side, then the vehicles would move to that side, and they would move to the other.

It was a fantastic first game drive for us!

We followed the river for the migrating wilde, encountered great herds of buffalo, saw elephant and a bunch of other stuff. The Mara is one of the most beautiful parks in my estimation. As the afternoon light cut across the prairie stopped distantly here and there by a single struggling acacia tree, there was a sense of wild peace you just find nowhere else.

Tomorrow we’re going out for most of the day. Stay tuned!

OnSafari: Mara & Maasai

OnSafari: Mara & Maasai

JimMaasaiOur three days of game viewing in the Maasai Mara proved this is the most exciting place to experience extraordinary drama in Kenya.

Hippo Feast
Hippo Feast

Many of the best wildernesses of East Africa are inextricably linked to the Maasai people. The three days of exciting game viewing in Kenya’s Maasai Mara impressed me especially for the simple fact that local Maasai have allowed this wild and wooly place to continue to exist.

Our nights at Governor’s Camp were not peaceful. Screaming baboon, howling hyaena, fighting elephant, roaring lion and grunting leopard even woke me, and some of my clients were actually concerned their first night or two.

As throughout all of northern Tanzania and very southern Kenya, there are too many elephant, and too many means more fights among them, day and night. We suffered two mock charges, one by a collared male that had been relocated after harassing residents of Nairobi.

The salient just outside Governor’s Camp is peppered with lion. We had the remarkable fortune to watch a three-day saga that began when a dead hippo “popped.”

Nothing kills or really wants to eat hippo. It’s too big, too fat and the hide, too thick. But a giant one of probably 3000 pounds or more died on the banks of the Mara River just outside Governor’s probably a few weeks before we arrived.

It ripens and then pops. It did so when we arrived, and we watched several giant crocs open “tunnels” into the fermenting beast.

Lynn & Bill Vogt
Lynn & Bill Vogt

They didn’t get much to eat before one of the local lion prides displaced them and began gorging on the meat deep below the hide and fat that was finally available.

That drew hyaena and the hyaena drew birds and for the next two days we watched an endless drama of dozens of lions feasting and fighting and fending off literally 30 hyaena, not to mention the 14-foot crocs at river’s edge.

When the lions could just not stuff down another morsel, most of them went away, but as lion prides are want to do, one remained behind stuffed to the trimmings to “guard” the kill. She managed this for almost a day before submitting to her own need to sleep off the gluttony.

The hyaena pounced on the remaining carcass screaming and laughing and seriously fighting with one another. Vultures grabbed bits of meat and fat out of the air that were being flung from this giant holiday meal from hyaena completely inside the carcass!

That, my friends, was only one of dozens of exciting experiences this amazing reserve afforded us all. Quite far from Governor’s at Double Crossing we watched three lions stage a hunt of warthog from start to finish, leaving their 4 four-month old cubs sitting in a line about 5 feet from our cars.

We saw the most amazing assemblage of animals: topi, hartebeest, wildebeest, giraffe, waterbuck, eland, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle and probably others I’ve forgotten, strung across the unbelievably beautiful rolling hills of the Mara.

We watched the giant martial eagle attack guinea fowl. We saw two male impala sadly stuck together at their horn after a vicious fight. We watched hundreds of buffalo stampede through the waving tan oat grass, white egrets flung about them like fluff exploding from a pillow. We saw a mammoth hippo start to attack a Landrover.

And we watched amazing bird events, including maybe a thousand Abdim storks take off for their return journey to Europe easily circling up six or seven thousand feet in all but a few seconds.

It’s breathtaking being in The Mara. Always has been and always will… if the Maasai say so. Because all around the Mara are Maasai farms and businesses. We saw them. We followed a wild black rhino out of the park onto their land.

Running a farm or a small shop or teaching in school with too many elephants outside and lions threatening your livestock isn’t easy. Tourism and its benefits manages a fragile balance with this tolerance.

Let’s hope it continues.

Vizuka Mara

Vizuka Mara

maraghostsOne of Africa’s most iconic prides of lions were poisoned last week in the Maasai Mara, and it’s now time to implement Richard Leakey’s dream to consolidate all Kenyan wilderness under a single federal government agency.

Eight of the magnificent “Marsh Pride” were poisoned by Maasai herders, according to officials who have arrested two men.

Animal poisoning in The Mara is not new, but this killing is receiving unusual attention since this is the pride featured in the BBC documentary, “Big Cats.” The pride has resided for my entire 40 years of guiding outside Governor’s Camp near the Mara River.

Many Maasai believe that protecting the Mara for wildlife/tourism is an unfair usurping of their traditional pastures. This conflict grows at the margin of seasons (which is now) when new rains sprout nutrient grasses.

The problem is not endemic to The Mara or Kenya but exists throughout all the rapidly developing lands of Africa. Ironically, the problem may be exacerbated by Kenya’s faster and broader development compared to many other African countries.

The situation unique to The Mara, though, is extraordinary. It’s a mess: an entanglement of personalities, politics and corruption the likes of which belong in a TV sitcom.

First of all, there really isn’t “A Mara.” Elsewhere in the continent there is “A Serengeti” or “A Sabi Sands” surrounding “A Kruger.”

“The Mara,” instead, is a collection of government and private reserves each separately managed and funded. The map looks like a gerrymandered set of 10 districts in my dysfunctional state of Illinois.
greatermaraconservancy
“The Mara” is not a Kenyan national park: the main responsibilities for it rest with the county of Narok in which the wilderness is located. This is an freakish historical legacy of the local Maasai unwilling to share power or land.

Richard Leakey tried to change this decades ago when he was the country’s wildlife czar. He failed miserably, succumbing at the time to a very powerful Maasai politician, Ntimama.

Ntimama is today a very old mzee out of favor with the younger, more progressive regime in Nairobi. But it was only a few months ago that the old man resurrected the land issue of which the Mara is front and center.

The rectangular portion which borders Tanzania to the south is the “government” county reserve, but even that is divided into three administrative sections. The area to the north of the county land is made up of nine private conservancies, more than doubling government land.

It was the development of these northern private areas in the last 25-35 years that contributed so substantially to the increase of animal populations including the great migration.

(A similar situation exists with private reserves like the Sabi Sands which surround South Africa’s Kruger National Park.)

Traditionally all of these lands were used as pastures for cattle and goats by the Maasai. Had none of the lands been protected, the cattle and goats and Maasai would likely have eaten themselves out of house and home by now, identical to what you see today in so many other parts of Africa where overgrazing ends in societal suicidal.

From the point of view of the people living there, though, that’s not such a bad outcome if what comes next are highways and factories. IBM is still in the throes of a fraction-of-a-billion dollar deal to build a high-tech industrial park in what was once Kenya’s Tsavo wilderness.

I doubt you’ll find too many young Maasai today who will lament herding cattle for pennies a day if the alternative is writing computer code and driving to work in a Benz.

Equally sad, private tourism stakeholders are just as mercenary as the Narok Maasai. There have been periods of vicious competition among businessmen, some foreign nationals, vying for the best spots. In this management mayhem developed the private reserve map we see today, with little scientific or management rational and little or no interaction between the competing areas.

That spells disaster. BBC has the exposure to wander between reserve boundaries unimpeded, and thus the “Marsh Pride” became very special. But I’ve known several young field researchers who would have loved to work in the Mara ecosystem, but who turned to Tanzania instead because the politics and restrictions of working trans-reserve were too difficult.

The private reserves do everything themselves: anti-poaching, rules for wildlife management and intervention (several of the Marsh Pride that were recently poisoned were then treated by vets), fees and marketing. But the land has never been actually transferred from Maasai ownership: it’s leased, and that’s the private reserves greatest flaw:

Maasai owners could only be encouraged to compromise their age-old historical life style as pastoralists if they could be paid enough. For a while, they were. The revenues from tourism throughout the 90s were greater than the revenues from cattle farming.

But with political instability followed by terrorism which effected Kenya so seriously from 2007-2012, tourism revenues fell precipitously. Although safari revenues in neighboring Tanzania have planed or shown a slight increase, this has yet to occur in Kenya.

In their heyday the private reserves became extremely sophisticated, bettering the government reserves in anti-poaching and educational efforts. Like all bureaucracies, though, their appetite for capital grew well beyond the simple lease payments to the Maasai owners. Since 2008 virtually all the private Mara reserves have fallen into arrears.

Stefano Chile, the chairman of the second largest private conservancy, the Mara North Conservancy, wrote to supporters recently that “our ability to pay and cover all these costs is seriously challenged.”

He said the conservancy needs $355,000 to become sustainable, again. The first appeal for donations launched at least a month ago has raised only $13,000.

Cheli is one of the most creative and long-time entrepreneurs in the East African tourism industry, perhaps best known for building Tortilis Camp in Amboseli. But in my estimation this is way beyond his or any other excellent tourism manager’s job.

For one thing were a campaign like this successful it would hardly be the last time private reserve officials came to us hat in hand. Which of the nine reserves would you decide to support? I have a hard enough time juggling contributions to two public radio stations serving my area. If appeals came from nine of them, a distinct impression is created that nobody knows what they’re doing.

Collectively that’s the point, they don’t.

Private wildlife reserves have been a very important part of Africa’s conservation efforts for more than a half century.

But nowhere else in Africa is a collection of hodgepodge private reserves so terribly organized and so terribly suspicious and competitive with each another as in the Mara, and trying to treat them as charities is overwhelmingly impossible.

What will work is the Kenyan government getting serious. The photographer Jonathan Scott reported on his blog two days ago that may be happening.

From my point of view there’s only one answer. The government must take over the whole kitandkaboodal. This will really freak out the private reserve stake holders.

But it’s time they listened to themselves: if wildlife conservation is the goal, then look at Amboseli. Look at the Aberdare. Look at the heroic efforts in Nakuru. Look at all the other wonderful national parks in Kenya.

Frankly, it’s time the Maasai of Narok, and the stakeholders of the private reserves were all sidelined, and that the Kenya Wildlife Service takes the whole thing over.

Richard Leakey’s dream was right then, and it’s right now: The Maasai Mara National Park.