Heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo

Heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo

Great circus barkers are so accomplished that they spur the tiger through the blazing ring so effortlessly it creates joy from daring. That was Ari Grammaticus.

In this case, the cheetah on the roofhatch. Ari Grammaticus died last month. His memorial service is tomorrow in Nairobi. With him goes the personal daredevil thrill that was the keystone to many early safaris to Africa.

Ari was the son of a Greek railroader who found himself in Kenya in the spring of safari travel. Film had become cheap and powerful. Air fares were cheap and numerous and Americans in particular began to travel like they never had before. And the British colony of Kenya was newly independent, reshuffling the deck of privilege and business opportunities in ways few could have imagined.

Often you never know if some successful person had a good time or not. Ari had a good time. His smile was infectious. He wasn’t a front guard but he was a big man for his time, and certainly matched any Maasai that he encountered. For some reason that became his connection, Maasailand.

Repeatedly and regularly, Ari traveled to Maasailand until he secured management of a piece of Maasailand that I doubt anyone at the time could truly value. It was on the Mara River about 20 miles north of the Tanzanian border and about 25 miles northwest from at the time the only road into this new non-hunting game reserve called the Maasai Mara.

That was in the early 70s, a year or so before my own first safari. The first place my wife, sister and brother-in-law camped was in this reserve off that main road near a place that remains the focal point for the Mara, Keekorok.

Today the Mara is Kenya’s most important game reserve, whether you measure animal viewing, game management, ease of flying in and out of (there are more than 15 flights daily from Nairobi), range of accommodations or tourist revenue streams.

But not then. The only reason we stopped there was because it was on our journey into the great Serengeti, which we did the next day at first light. The Serengeti and Mara share the political border between Kenya and Tanzania. Then, as now, you can’t really tell where one country ends and the other begins.

But today and since 1979, tourists can no longer cross that border. Until 1979, the Mara was hardly anything but a way station to get to the Serengeti. Today it’s the end of the line for Kenyan tourists, and what a fine end it is!

Ari created Governors’ Camp. (Plural today; very singular back then!) To begin with it was a brilliant name, encapsulating the colonial era with abandon. (Today it would be politically incorrect. Today’s camps all carry local names for area clans or African animal names or local geographical features like rivers and hills.)

But what Ari did was build a tourist camp that recreated the admittedly bold comforts that colonials eked out of the surrounding poverty. There was no need for an apology, then, it was the way things were. Africa was being developed, and if you wanted visitors to come see, they needed a toilet. Animals second.

And so they came. His first camp was Governors’ Camp, today referred to as Main Camp. I remember the old days at this camp before the border closed. It was luxurious by anyone’s presumption of what camping would be in those days: actual toilets (although not exactly quick flushers), hot-bucket showers, and a bed on a frame!

One of the greatest treats I as a young guide had in those days was scaring people to death about camping in Africa! Intentionally, we told them very little, or told them about our own personal camping adventures which certainly no travel insurance would have dared cover. And when they got to the camp and saw the privacy and comfort, we had customers for life!

Governors’ modernized with the times, of course, but it never went over the top, like so many did. Even today there are still pressurized gas lamps as your tent’s main source of light. The beautifully wood paneled bathroom is completely functional with modern plumbing all around and amenities of soap and shower gel and all that stuff.

And Ari modernized, too. He built several more camps nearby, including the more contemporary and luxurious Il Moran. He assumed management of a beautiful lake manor house about half way back to Nairobi, and he built a retreat on Lake Victoria.

And his last great achievement was partnering with a several local organizations and the African Wildlife Foundation to build and manage Sabyinyo Lodge in Rwanda for mountain gorilla viewing. There is absolutely no question that this is the finest property anywhere in gorilla land.

We non-Greeks have this pervading notion that Greeks are first and foremost family men. Ari’s sons now take over for him, and his grandchildren were by his side when he died. Once his friend or his customer or his employee, plan on a lifetime.

Time and again he employed one of the finest camp builders in Africa, even though time and again the builder fell off the wagon while building the roof. I was a certain critic of some of his aging driver/guides, particularly when they starting losing their sight, and of some of his cooks who I felt boiled food too long, but Ari was steadfast. Many claimed he was pinned down by the peculiar and nepotistic politics of Kenya, and that may be. But it all fit a better image:

Heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo
.

The Swahili proverb is one of loyalty and constancy. What you see isn’t as important as what you feel. The first time I arrived the little tree barrier into Governor’s Camp, some smiling guard saluted me like I was the King of England. Since then there have been hundreds of thousands of guests that followed me. And yet today, you’ll be saluted.

But times have changed. What Ari did can’t be redone. The world has modernized too much. Travelers no longer go anywhere without insurance, cell phones and extra medication. You can’t fool them anymore with a flush toilet.

Unless, of course, granddaughter Amy decides to develop Taurus-Littrow.

To Kill or Not To Ele

To Kill or Not To Ele

Have you ever heard about that little kitty that was taken far, far away and dropped in a forest but found its way back home? What about an elephant?

Last week the Kenya Wildlife Service completed the first of several phases of relocating 200 jumbos as much as 100 miles from where they were picked up. The controversial and very expensive project is one more attempt to “save” elephants by removing them from angry farmers, school children and people walking to church.

Well, we won’t know for a while. But … a couple don’t like their new diggs very well.

Two were killed in Kisii, a heavily populated city in exactly opposite direction from where they were relocated, and although they were “dispatched” by villagers before wildlife officials could identify them with certainty, there’s every indication they were from the relocated bunch.

Those ele would have walked about 50 miles through (human) enemy territory northwest having just been brought 50 miles southwest to the idyllic and peaceful human unpopulated Maasai Mara in the relocation effort. And frankly, whether they were from the relocated bunch or not, their journey from the nearest open reserve (the Mara) shows how capable they are of navigating human population centers.

And at the end of their journey you don’t hear cute little mews at your backdoor.

Pole pole I’m coming round to thinking ele must be culled. I’m not there yet, and I still viscerally resent the mostly southern African theory of “carrying capacity” and that anything that doesn’t meet the model should be eliminated.

(Not just ele, by the way, but Jacaranda trees, certain flies and spots on windows.)

But the situation in East Africa is growing intolerable, and intolerably expensive. KWS has moved the first 50 tuskers at an expense of about $3,000 per elephant.

That’s huge, especially by African standards.

All sorts of things are being desperately tried now to control this human/elephant conflict, from pepper spray, to scare crows, to moats and bullhorns.

The most effective way is already being used in southern Africa (where they don’t need it as much, because they kill their excess!). The seel-reenforced concrete spike barriers employed in Botswana around its national parks tourist camps work well. The problem is they are extremely expensive, too. Each roughly 4′ x 4′ block costs around $10.

That’s the cost in South Africa. First there would have to be a factory built to produce them in East Africa, or the additional cost of importing them to East Africa.

To surround the northern top cap of the Maasai Mara (the southern border sits on the Serengeti) you’d need more than a half million blocks and that doesn’t even take care of the many river boundaries where they wouldn’t work, the labor to do it, they maintenance and the possible environmental fallout of also impeding other wildlife.

And then, of course as the southern Africans would point out, what happens when the density of elephant is compressed to a level that starts to destroy the Mara ecosystem?

You see. The reason the ele are leaving their splendid protected reserves, is because there are too many of them already.

So any successful barrier or relocation effort could end up being counter-productive.

I won’t continue to the conclusion.

Marvel of the Mara

Marvel of the Mara

I took this picture yesterday in the Mara. Nine other vehicles were watching with us.
Twenty-seven lion, five cheetah, a rhino, 4 kills (not take-downs), a serval, two leopard (one with a recent kill) and a hyaena kill of a wildebeest. In three days in the Mara. And lots of vehicles. Is this a zoo?

No, of course it isn’t. It is Kenya’s best game park, the Maasai Mara. So we ended our safari with incredible game viewing, and it was expected. But am I showing my clients the wilds of Africa?

The Mara proper is hardly a tenth the size of the Serengeti, sits right on top of it, and is the northernmost venue for the great migration. It has almost 4 times as much accommodation as the Serengeti, despite its much smaller size. So, yes, it can seem busy if crowded compared to the Serengeti.

Ellen Sirlin watching hyaena kill.
But it is busy precisely because the game viewing is always so exceptionally good. The quantitative exponent of game viewing in the Mara is rarely duplicated elsewhere. The dozen or so hyaena around the lion we saw, the 100 vultures plus assorted jackals and storks, was typical of my experiences in the Mara every time I go, and 3 to 4 times the number of animals and birds that would normally be seen on a Serengeti kill. Why?

For two intertwining reasons.

First, the Mara is the wettest part of the Serengeti/Ngrongoro/Mara ecosystem. And wet means more food at every level, and that means more predators and ultimate cleanupers.

Roger Sirlin watching lion eat.

Second, more animals means more visitors and the Mara is probably the most congested game park in East Africa. Lion brush aside your vehicle, vultures clip your canvas rooftop when landing, hippos block the road into your camp and crocodile lay eggs a few feet under your tent.

And rarely are you the only one snapping photos. I try very hard and do often succeed, but if you want to see the rhino, or the cheetah take-down, you’ll be sharing the experience often with 10-20 other vehicles.

Sue MacDonald watching a rhino.
All this visitor activity means that the animals are much more tolerant of people and vehicles than anywhere else I’ve ever been in Africa. Animal tolerance of vehicles surprises all visitors almost everywhere, but the indifference of Mara animals to visitors is almost beyond belief.

But here’s the rub. Remove the visitors, the vehicles, the people, and I think it fair to argue very little of anything else would change.

So are we really experiencing truly wild and natural behaviors?

Yes. For the Mara. It’s as natural as garlic mustard taking over Yosemite or chronic wasting diseases menacing recreational hunting in Wisconsin. What I’m saying is that in the Mara it is a real balance of life as it exists there, today.

It is certainly not the way it was a generation or more ago. And it is certainly not the way it is in most other reserves in East Africa.

Even in the Serengeti, which shares a border with the Mara and several rivers, animals grow more suspicious of human visitors and their vehicles. But even so, these “wilder” behaviors in other East African reserves are far tamer than they were in Africa 50 years ago.

Then, African wildernesses weren’t as protected. People competed with animals for the same turf, and people are more clever. Animals were afraid of people, people would just as likely kill as preserve anything wild, and so wild things were harder to observe, less obvious.

David & Lynn Heiman, Roger & Ellen Sirlin.
In other words, if you want to make wild animals accessible to the casual visitor, a dynamic will begin that will make the animals less suspicious of visitors, and that will bring in more visitors, and that will make the animals even tamer and tamer. I can’t see any way to stop this.

So the complaint I have about this marvel in the Mara is the growing number of other visitors. And as a visitor, you have to decide if you want to see it all, rather easily and quickly, or prefer as I think I do the less congested wilderness.

This dynamic – the marvel of the Mara – has happened only in my life time. It’s something that I feel has been achieved at the loss of “wildness” which is still easily experienced in places like The Selous or the Serengeti.

But nostalgia may have gotten the better of me. Visitors may not seek wildness any more than they seek the remarkable beauty of a lioness cleaning her cubs, or tiny baby warthog racing after mom. And for all those wonderful experiences and so much more, the Mara is the place!

No Drought News is Not

No Drought News is Not

It’s raining in the Mara; it should be: That’s not news. It’s not raining in northern Kenya; it shouldn’t be: That’s news. Go figure.

In between truly cataclysmic reports of America’s political constipation last week, many news sources were reporting on the “calamitous” drought in “East Africa.” One concerned consumer emailed me:

“My husband and I are scheduled to go on safari to [East Africa] in 3 weeks and are very concerned since hearing stories of devastation and the death of wildlife due to the drought. We are insured for the trip. Do you recommend we cancel and visit another time when conditions are improved? We have spent an awful lot of money and don’t want to spend 2 weeks in a dustbowl viewing dead and dying animals.”

My office explained it was raining in the Mara. The excellent Governor’s Camp there reported 85.5 mm of rain in June (3.37 inches), a little less than normal, but nothing to write home about.

There are three important issues here.

First, “East Africa” is a big place. When you include all of Somalia, as NPR did in its weekend reporting, the area is nearly the size of half the continental U.S.

There’s a drought in America. There are devastating tornadoes in America. Floods are killing people in America. Wild fires are forcing people out of their homes in America.

Dare you visit the Blues Festival in Brattleboro, Vermont?

Columbia University’s excellent climate reporting website shows the actual precipitation over the last twelve months. (To get the “loop” actually looping, you may have to click on “Precip Loop” in the left-hand blue panel.)

When corroborated with many other similar data sources, what we know is that overall “East Africa” has a pretty normal rain pattern for this year. Somalia and northern Kenya less than “normal” and much of the prime game viewing areas of Kenya and Tanzania normal or just slightly below.

That’s the first issue’s facts. I know in today in America facts seems to matter less and less, but I can’t seem to drop the habit of referring to them.

Second. Climate change is deeply effecting all the tropical regions of the world, including East Africa, more quickly and more extremely than in much of the world including America. This is because of the highly complex way that weather works at the equator. Even when you look up from the equator at the sky, clouds rarely move at all, the confluence of multiple jet streams and mixed up “corioloses” is one of the most complicated swirling and twirling air patterns on earth.

In a nutshell the result has been to make dry drier, and wet wetter. It’s the reason we do have “drought conditions” in northern Kenya almost constantly, interrupted by a season of devastating floods.

Three. And probably most important. The human catastrophe occurring in Somalia, northern Kenya and Ethiopia is hardly new. And the fact that it’s being reported as news is a sorry indication that we don’t care as much as we should.

Do you remember “Live Aid”? That was nearly 30 years ago. Things haven’t changed much since. Admittedly, dry is drier, and there are more people to feed, so famine is more likely and will now occur more often.

Do you remember “Blackhawk Down”? That was nearly 20 years ago. That’s when Bill Clinton let Somalia implode. It’s never come back together.

The human catastrophe in a part of East Africa is human made, not weather made. True, the desert has been growing literally for millennia from north to south on the continent, and East Africa is near the dividing line moving south. But desertification in Africa is not news, happens at a relatively slow pace and can be adequately dealt with by proper human development.

And fresh, good, potable water has been a growing catastrophe in Africa for decades. This, too, has been known for 20-30 years and there are ways to deal with it.

It is the politics of fear, egocentrism, greed and lack of compassion that has been growing at too fast a pace.

It’s raining in the Mara. You can proceed nicely on your safari.

Widely Wild Wrongly Written Wildebeest Writings

Widely Wild Wrongly Written Wildebeest Writings

I'm no photographer.
But I took this, this year, with my Cannon SureShot.
Widely circulated reports about a crash in Kenya’s Maasai Mara wildlife are (1) premature, (2) likely false and (3) infuriating. PS (4) I’m fed up with western news sources about Africa. Unless it’s another apocalypse, it isn’t published.

Many of you truly concerned wildlife enthusiasts have sent me the link to the bad BBC story claiming that Kenya’s best game reserve is in a tailspin. Thank you, but take a powder and lie-down.

The purported “study” by Joseph Ogutu at the University of Hohenheim is the second study by Ogutu on the Mara. His first purported up to 95% of certain animals had disappeared and was uniformly dismissed by scientists worldwide.

I found it interesting this morning that the branch of the university that Ogutu is supposedly registered with, has an “internet problem.” Linking to the Bioinfomatics Unit of the University of Hohenheim cited in the BBC report generates this message [poorly translated from the German]: “Because of maintenance work the Intranet and some other homepages are not available.”

Hmm.

Mara wildlife has declined, and local wildlife censuses have confirmed this, but nowhere near as catastrophic as suggested in Ogutu’s report. Ogutu told the BBC that Mara wildlife had declined by “two-thirds.”

Nonsense.

Here’s the truth. No one knows in any good scientific way. The Kenya Wildlife Service conducts wildlife censuses that are excellent, but KWS has limited jurisdiction in the Mara which is technically controlled by local county counsels. In fact as I’ve decried loudly before, the Mara’s catastrophic problem is management not an apocalyptic reduction in game.

At one point three separate entities were controlling what we call “the Mara” and they didn’t like one another. So it’s literally impossible to conduct uniform studies over the area. And to make matters worse, historically the data is equally terrible.

Ogutu did the worst possible research as a result. He picked and chose segmented area studies over 15 years, none of which were comprehensive of the area as a whole. Moreover, I’m certain in the weeks ahead real scientists will challenge much of his root data.

Ogutu had decided the Mara was in a tailspin even before he did this study. Last year when the area was just recovering from a three-year drought, he claimed half the animals in the Mara were gone by incorrectly citing a continent-wide study
from the United Nations Environment Programme and London Zoological Society which addressed the whole continent, not just the Mara.

There are good studies, particularly from the Frankfurt Zoological Society, on the biomass of the Serengeti and larger Serengeti/Mara ecosystems. There are also good studies on individual species, like lion and elephant and so forth. And unfortunately, we can only surmise by broad intersections of these individual studies what the situation is, in the Mara.

It’s OK.

It’s very threatened, perhaps more so than at any time before. This is mostly because of (1) weather, also closely because of (2) Kenya’s rapidly developing economy leading to human/wild animal conflicts, and interminably (3) the untenable way the poor reserve is managed.

But don’t write it off, yet. Kenyans are remarkably creative these days.

Ogutu is correct that there has been a significant decline in Mara herbivores, particularly with regards to the wildebeest migration. But this is not directly due to cattle grazing encroachment as he claims. It is because of weather. Two dynamics are at play.

First, the Serengeti just below the Mara has been much wetter than normal (as has the Mara) but while areas just immediately to the north and east have been much drier. Global warming at its best on the equator creates these weird and frighteningly small and distinct weather regions.

So while there were floods in the Mara, in adjacent cattle grazing Koiyaki and Lemuk private reserves, it was bone dry. In times of drought cattle tended by cattle owners over compete with wild game.

Second, because the Serengeti has been wetter than normal, the wildebeest have not needed to move into the Mara (the furthest northern part of their migration) with the same regularity as in the past. Historically the Mara was the wettest part of the Serengeti/Mara ecosystem. That definitely is changing. There will be less and less of the migration traveling into the Mara, now, with global warming.

The wildebeest population has remained constant at around 1.5 million animals for more than ten years. Ditto for the third of a million zebra.

So without intending to minimize the real threats existing in the Mara, let’s not exaggerate them, either. I wish Vanity Fair or the New York Review of Books would do a story. There is no new crisis in the Mara. Visitors today will notice little difference from ten years ago, except maybe with regards to the migration.

Rather there is a continuing decade’s long crisis we definitely need to do something about, which cannot exclude global warming. And there is an ever deepening crisis in the way we learn things.

Oh those Scandalous Wildebeest!

Oh those Scandalous Wildebeest!

Reports in the media that the great wildebeest migration this year has made a wrong turn and surprised ecologists is absurd. There is nothing anomalous about the migration this year.

The East African newspaper reported Monday that “A change in the spectacular wildebeest migration schedule in the great Serengeti-Mara ecosystem has caught ecologists offguard.”

Using reports that seem confined to a luxury private lodge in Tanzania just outside the Serengeti near the Kenyan border, the article went on to say that 150 – 200,000 wildebeest were reported around this lodge in September, “never before seen.”

This was then picked up worldwide. Such reliable on-line sources for Africa as ETN headlined the same day, “Mystery as great wildebeest migration cut short in Maasai Mara Game Reserve.”

Stop! Stop! This is all wrong!

Now none of this current balderdash is as infuriating as the scandalous “Wildebeest Migration Blogpost” – which of this writing, by the way, hasn’t had an entry since June. That completely misleading blog actually comes out of a South African tour company whose principals are never in Tanzania. Figure that one. Practically everything in that blog is dead wrong.

SO beware oh yee of internet searches.

The main article which started all the nonsense Tuesday seemed to have been motivated by a single blog from &Beyond’s Klein’s Camp, a great private camp just east of the Serengeti and south of the Kenyan border. Their blogs have reported numerous wildebeest herds as early as September. But they’ve been going and coming, as is normal in a year of heavy rains.

This has been a year of heavy rains.

Deeper into the Mara, that is further north from Tanzania, many camps like Governor’s reported “best migration season ever” this year, which would normally mean Tanzania saw nothing abnormal at all.

What’s the truth?

The truth is that it has rained so heavily this year, that there is good grass in many places that in normal years there would not be good grass. This means the migration is spread out all over the place.

Tourists – even veterans – tend to report they’ve seen a “great migration” when at best they can see only a tiny fraction of the herds. There are likely 1.5 million wildebeest.

When I sit atop Wild Dog Hill southwest of Ndutu in late March and look around me for 360-degrees over flat plains covered by wildebeest, from a horizon on the west that is probably 60-70 miles from the horizon on the east, we are probably at best seeing a quarter million. This scene only happens in the southern Serengeti from February – April if the rains are normal. Only a teeny-weeny fraction of tourists ever sees this.

The vast majority of tourists see “the migration” as large numbers of wildebeest moving across the plains or jumping over rivers, and these groups probably at most number a few thousands.

Smaller events like these can happen in a thousand different places nearly at the same time! These are usually in the last half of the year, mostly reported from Kenya’s Maasai Mara (because that’s where most of the tourists go). But these types of events can happen almost anywhere year-round depending upon the rains.

Wildebeest don’t have schedules. Unlike monarch butterflies or Wilson’s warblers, they aren’t triggered into migration because of changing daylight or diminishing temperatures. Unlike caribou or polar bears, they aren’t triggered into migration because of ice. They move to wherever they can get a good meal, whenever they can get a good meal.

It’s just that over centuries the rainfall has been more or less regular. (That, by the way, may be changing with climate change, but not enough yet to alter long-term statistics.) Normally, heavy rains fall on the southern Serengeti during the first half of the year, and heavy rains fall in the Mara (northern Serengeti) during the last half of the year.

So, normally, they move south to north around mid-year for the rain produced grass, and then return north to south at end-year for the rain produced grass.

This year there was a lot more rain than normal everywhere, and it ended later and began earlier. So wherever they moved they could eat. So they’d eat themselves out of one place, then race over to another. Then it would rain where they just were, so they’d race back. This is not unusual.

The reporter got charged up when he made the mistake of asking Tanzanian scientists what it all meant. In complete deflection of the facts, the Tanzanians basically said it was great … because the “unusual ecological change” meant there were more wildebeest in Tanzania than Kenya, and they just love to stiff their Kenyan counterparts.

For tourists, it was great everywhere! So don’t worry either if you’re a traveler or a lover of animals. Everything’s doing just fine.

At least this year.

The Mara: Tipping or Tentative?

The Mara: Tipping or Tentative?

Oops. There goes the migration!
A recent study in Kenya has sparked enormous confusion over the long-term future of its wildlife, particularly in the Mara. But a couple things do look certain. Don’t stay outside the reserves and don’t privatize national treasures.

I hate reporting a story like this, but it’s been growing in my conscience like mold on the wall. Time to disinfect.

“Scientific studies” in Kenya just don’t carry the weight of well-funded work elsewhere in Africa, particularly in the south.

Just a few months after rains returned to East Africa late last year, the Kenya Wildlife Service mounted an animal survey that began in Amboseli. KWS concluded that as much as 83% of Amboseli’s wildlife had been lost.

Click here to see the survey. Oops. Gone? It’s been removed. But aha! I saved the paper: click here.

All sorts of bigwig organizations participated in that paper, including some that are now criticizing it.

Evidence is growing that the survey was wrong. Not long after the survey suggested that most of Amboseli’s elephant and wildebeest had died, Cynthia Moss’ ATE
group reported that “most” of the elephant were returning, although with fewer juveniles. And only a few weeks ago, one of ATE’s researchers, J. Kioko, reported that “about 1000 wildebeest have arrived in the park.”

Now, this second damming report might be just as flawed.

The report was funded by the Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and was published in the Journal of Zoology and essentially painted a catastrophic situation in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, claiming the reserve was on the brink of collapse.

The Mara Conservancy, one of the two authorities controlling the Maasai Mara, issued a stunning denial. The Conservancy called the report “false.”

The report put much of the blame on the explosion of Maasai homesteads in the “private” reserves that ring the Mara conservancies. Specifically, the report claimed there were only four homesteads in 1950 and that there are now 368. And in what I consider a gross indication of the report’s inaccuracy, it claimed there were 44 huts in 1950 and 2735 in 2003.

Homesteads, maybe, but huts are built and torn down weekly. The 1950 data wasn’t sourced, but had to come from colonial authorities, and native statistics in 1950 have been proved time and again to be grossly inaccurate.

Paula Kahumbu, Executive Director of Richard Leakey’s reputable Wildlife Direct organization, remarked as follows on one of the report’s huge claims of wildlife losses:

“For the life of me I cannot find the 95% decline in giraffe in any of the blocks – the greatest decline that I can find is in block 3 where numbers of giraffe decline from 37 to 12 individuals. That’s only a 67% decline.”

I’m not trained or blessed with enough time on my hands to wade through the competing reports to determine in any scientific fashion which are right and which are wrong.

But that’s not going to stop me from making a few conclusions that might help those of you interested in East Africa’s wildlife, or those who are considering traveling there.

First, why are things so confused? Isn’t science… science?

Yes to the second, but as the first, Kenya’s problem is unique; unique even to Tanzania, its nearest and most similar neighbor. The government of Kenya long ago divested itself of full control over a number of its wildlife reserves, including both Amboseli and the Maasai Mara, arguably the two most important ones.

These great tracks of national treasure were seconded to local authorities (Maasai county councils) who exacerbated the problem by privatizing their operations.

The federal Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) still has some authority in both areas, but the bulk of the authority, including reporting facts on a day-to-day basis, is left in private hands. Even anti-poaching patrols in the Mara are run privately, not by KWS.

And to make a terrible situation intolerable, in the last decade the Mara was divided into two separately operated reserves. One by the Narok County Council, and the other by a sister Maasai community, the Trans Mara County Council.

One of Kenya’s legendary safari guides, Allan Earnshaw, wrote recently for the East African Wild Life Society, “The root of the problem is the fact that whilst the Maasai Mara is called a National Reserve, it is in fact treated and run as a local asset by the two different local authorities.”

(Problem upon problem: I cannot link you to this article, because remarkably EAWLS does not publish anything digitally.)

But Earnshaw is right on. And it gets truly ridiculous, as is the case as I write at this moment, if you wish to visit the entire Mara (which isn’t very big, you could do it in a day), you have to pay two fees: two times $60, to cross the Serena bridge going from one half to the other.

Anti-poaching patrols and scientific study groups are similarly constricted.

Collection of tourists fees, scientific study oversight and anti-poaching are operated by private organizations, separately for the two halves of the Mara, but the building of tourist lodges is a federal decision.

So since 2005, “no fewer than 55 new camps and lodges have been built in the Mara.” In 1997, there were a mere 20 camps and lodges. Today, according to Earnshaw, “there are over 100 and counting – with a bed capacity for 4000 tourists.”

The confusion over the numbers of animals, and the numbers of tourist lodges, is because there is no single authority managing the Mara. Studies and revenue receipts contradict each other. Private companies, competing for business jobs, exaggerate their potential. There is no neutral authority overseeing all this.

This is a Ph.D study of mismanagement at the least. Can’t do that, now. But let me try to glean from this mess three simple conclusions:

The effect on the area’s wildlife by the last drought was not as bad as local “scientific” studies suggested.

It was still bad, but probably not worse than in previous droughts. And with time we’ll know this for sure, but even in this short period of time since the rains returned late last year, things look pretty good to me.

Second, game viewing is increasingly depressed outside the parks. If you want to see a lot of game, avoid the private reserves and stay inside the park.

(Necessary semantic clarification: The Maasai Mara is not a private reserve, it is composed of two separate (County Council) government reserves, but it is privately managed. But ringing the Mara as is the case with almost all parks in East Africa, are adjacent or near adjacent private lands with tourist lodges.)

&Beyond’s Klein’s Camp and the Grumeti Reserve camps outside the Serengeti are examples. Saruni, Sasaab, Elephant Watch Camp are others outside Samburu. Treetops and Kikoti outside Tarangire. Literally all the Bush ‘n Beyond camps, and Laikipia camps like Lewa Downs and Loisaba are outside parks.

This doesn’t mean they aren’t fabulous additions to a vacation with their own unique attractions. It just means if you aren’t close enough to a park to at least enter it during a day-trip, your game viewing will be depressed compared to being inside the park.

Third, privatizing management of national treasures like a wildlife park or national Park (as being considered in the U.S.) is nothing less than stupid.

It transforms good, neutral scientific studies into the components of a cost-effective business plan. It prostitutes moral authority with profit. The decline of American zoos, for instance, I place squarely on the fact that the vast majority were privatized in the 1980s and 1990s.

America, take note. Kenya’s greatest national treasure, if it is in peril, is because it was off-lifted into private hands.

Magnificent Mara!

Magnificent Mara!

Mark & Emily watch an amazing number of giraffe in the Mara!
John said it was “like a dream” – the best game drive he’d ever had. And he’s had quite a few in several African countries!

We spent a full day in the Mara, bucking tradition but also avoiding the rain!

There are so many hard myths so difficult to break about safari travel, and one of them is the game viewing routine. The fact of the matter is that there shouldn’t be a routine, because conditions change.

Right now is a cold time in Kenya, and in the Mara a time when every afternoon carries a magnificent thunderstorm. So the idea of going out on a dawn game drive, returning for breakfast and “relaxation” until the afternoon game drive, just doesn’t make sense.

We all slept in a bit, got tea and coffee served to us on our private verandahs overlooking the Mara River as the brilliant sun broke into a cloudless sky, then enjoyed a full breakfast before heading out for a day of game viewing.

We began our game viewing as practically everyone else was returning for breakfast! But with more time available, now, we were able to head down the main road all the way to the Tanzanian border.

After checking on our resident pride and seeing that their bellies were still too big for anything dramatic to occur, we meandered through some of the most lovely country in the Mara at its very southwest corner.

These are plains that in a month or two will be filled with wildebeest, but their beauty right now was breathtaking. Lemon green grasses, many beautiful wild flowers and blooming sausage and acacia trees. We made the requisite turn around the Tanzanian border stake before heading back to the Mara River.

I saw a young lion that looked distressed. We went over to him and he slouched away, I don’t think for fear of the vehicle, but almost as if we had discovered him doing something naughty.

Aha! He must have been told not to come with the hunt. Young males are never allowed to hunt with their mothers, even though the young females are. So sure enough a few hundred yards ahead and we saw three females stalking.

Unfortunately the ground was too wet for us to follow them around a hill, but as I said to the Cronans with me, this was a pride that had obviously had a number of failures up to now or they wouldn’t be hunting in the middle of the day. It was quite possible they had nothing in their sites, but were just sneaking around the hill with hope!

We found a beautiful sausage tree on a tiny hill with a grand view for lunch. About twenty elephant were to our north in a swamp and a huge herd of buffalo to our southwest on a hill.

After lunch we tooled up the Mara River, where the wildlife was thick. I think we past more than a thousand gazelle by the end of the day, and hundreds of topi. On the river we found some incredibly large crocs.

And after returning to the main road, the first thing we saw was a mother cheetah with three older cubs! They were perched on the top of an anthill, the mother surveying the veld, back and forth, back and forth. But the kids seemed disinterested and flopped back down asleep.

Later as we wound by the river, James noticed a gazelle snorting an alarm. Following the sight path from the Tommie all we could see in the tall grass was one buffalo. But patience prevailed, the Tommie kept snorting, and a beautiful male cheetah popped out of the grass. Sorry, buddy!

But perhaps the most astounding thing to me on this game drive came towards the end when we encountered nearly 50 giraffe. Giraffe aren’t social beasts. They do congregate from time to time, but rarely in numbers this large. It was truly magnificent.

So we headed home, it began to thunderstorm really badly, and as we slid back to tea and cakes around 430p we passed a number of poor travelers just coming out for their game drive!

Wing it to the Mara

Wing it to the Mara

Glen's last breakfast at Kitich. Notice the chocolate cake.
Every good safari will have a significant travel day, but we were still able to get in several hours of game viewing in the afternoon.

The drive from the Mathews Mountains back to Nairobi, even with the great new Chinese road, would take about twelve hours according to the camp manager. I never contemplated it. We took a 35-minute charter to Nanyuki, then scheduled service into the Mara. We left camp at 7:15p and we were in the Mara at noon.

The incredible charter from Mathews to Nanyuki was made even more spectacular by our pilot, Rick of TropicAir, who flew a good ten minutes or more at about 50 feet above the Ewaso Nyiro, winding with it through the Northern Frontier.

It was incredibly spectacular as we saw all the animals and villages outside the park. But on the other hand I got an incredible impression of how terrible the March flood was. Whole sections of the river embankment had dropped away, in some places causing lots of little streamlets and pools. Doum palms were down everywhere.

Then we fly high and got magnificent views of Mt. Kenya, which was completely out, before landing at Nanyuki. Time just enough for a coffee before our Safarilink flight whisked us over Lake Nakuru into the Mara.

James and Sammy were waiting for us, having made the 18-hour journey from Saruni in two days. We took a short game drive past lots of topi, waterbuck, impala and gazelle before checking into lovely Olonana Camp.

After lunch the first game drive was a winner. Out hardly an hour when we came upon a very content pride of lion, including Big Daddy and a number of cubs that were playing around. The presence of hyaena and jackal suggested a kill nearby, but their bloated bellies confirmed it!

Wound all over the area near Olololo gate, and especially near its many swamps where there were all sorts of birds, including wooly storks. That unusual stork has only recently been confirmed to breed in the Mara.

All in all, a great first afternoon in the Mara!

Lions going extinct? Or Maasai?

Lions going extinct? Or Maasai?

Maasai cow laced with poison kills entire lion pride.
Richard Leakey’s excellent wildlife consortium, Wildlife Direct, said today that “Kenya’s lions are on the brink of extinction.” Exaggeration or real warning?

Probably both.

The organization’s warning followed an incident in late April where three lions were poisoned in Lemek, a private wildlife conservancy north of Kenya’s famed Maasai Mara game reserve.

Wildlife officials arrested the alleged killer, a Maasai herder, who admitted the poisoning and showed wildlife officials the powder he used. He explained that the lion had been killing his cattle.

Lion have been killing Maasai stock for aeons. And in the old days Maasai morani would spear the lion to death and that usually did the trick. Today, pesticides have replaced spears. In this case, pending chemical analysis, wildlife officials believe the poison was carbofuran – widely available in Kenya because it’s used in the cut-flower industry.

Unlike spearing the marauding lion, pesticides laid out for the intruder end up killing the whole pride, and that’s what seems to have happened in this case. In the old days, the speared (usually) male lion traumatized the pride enough that they left the area. Now, there are no lions left to leave.

Killing wildlife in Lemek is a violation of two laws: a federal law against killing lions (that allowed federal officials, the KWS, to become involved) and a business contract with tourist camps in the area.

So the alleged culprit was arrested and arraigned, but later released. Not on bail, but because “a local politician intervened on his behalf,” according to Wildlife Direct.

Don’t get too angry.

Wildlife/human conflicts are on the rise throughout Africa and I don’t believe they are being properly handled. In Kenya a number of initiatives are underway, including KWS programs to educate herders and farmers on the importance of wildlife; in Tanzania more aggressive actions are being funded by organizations like AWF to actually fence portions of farms against intruders as large as elephant.

But as human populations develop and their needs become greater, and particularly during an economic downturn and following a drought, these initiatives can actually exacerbate not solve the problem.

Lemek is an excellent example. This is too far away from the real wilderness of the Maasai Mara, an extension of a “private reserve” because of presumed tourist interests. Many of Africa’s best camps are in private reserves, but I think these private reserves have become too far out.

This is really an area that should be left to stock grazing, and what the Kenyan government and wildlife officials should realize is that trying to expand it for tourism is a bad idea. It should be developed for agriculture.

Lions should not be protected in this area. They should be confined to areas further towards and actually inside the reserve, and if motivated to move out into these areas, they should be picked up or shot by wildlife officials before such messy and uncontrollable acts of poisoning grow widespread.

Protecting them in areas like these just increases the problem.

Mara Muddle

Mara Muddle

If the Mara conservancies don’t get their act together, visitors might be paying $400 in daily fees!

One of the world’s most fabulous wild reserve is really a very small area that’s being cut apart into even smaller pieces that are squabbling with one another.

In a worst case scenario that I just can’t imagine happening anywhere in the universe except in Kenya, a guest at the Mara’s eastern-most lodge, Keekorok, who wanted to spend the day exploring the whole reserve with a picnic lunch traveling as far as Serena Lodge in the west, would incur reserve fees of $400 per person!

Until last week the three main sections of the Mara reserve (Sekanini, the furthest east third; Musiara, the main central part; and the Mara Triangle, the area west of the Mara River), all respected each other’s fee receipts as adequate to entering their own area. This core area of the Mara is only about 590 sq. miles. It really is possible on a single long day’s game drive to go through the entire area, easily going in and out of all three parts.

The visitor never knew they were technically moving from one reserve into another or back, again. And surrounding the Mara are a number of private reserves acting similarly.

But last week the Mara Triangle indicated it may stop accepting Musiara and Sekanini fee receipts. That would mean if you crossed the Mara River, you’d have to pay, again. And oh by the way, the three Mara conservancies now charge the highest of any reserve in Africa: $80 per person per day.

The remaining two portions are now threatening to do the same in retaliation. If this happens and you were a traveler staying at Mara Serena Lodge (in the Triangle), traveling on the new road from Nairobi via Narok, you would have to pay $240 just to get to the lodge! To get to the lodge you have to drive through the other two parts of the sanctuary.

This is getting ridiculous. It was, in fact, ridiculous before now. The very idea that a small wilderness reserve would be cut into separately managed sections is absurd.

Each section charges and accounts for its own fees, of course, but also trains and deploys its own set of rangers, and tries to enforce its own sets of rules and regulations. It’s patently absurd, and the reason it’s this way is because the Maasai politicians always refused to allow the federal Kenyan government to manage the area.

So such important things as wildlife management, wildlife research, visitor management and the like are often different every ten miles as your drive through the reserve. There’s no coherent marketing or planning of any sort. Mara.com, Maasaimara.com and even Masaimara.org are all privately owned websites exploited by local Kenyan business interests!

When Richard Leakey was head of the wonderfully managed Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) he tried to force the Maasai to relinquish control of the reserves to KWS, as numerous other ethnic groups had done to produce such wonderfully managed reserves as Samburu and Tsavo. In response, someone bombed his plane while he was flying and he lost his legs.

So for years and years, the Amboseli and Mara (Maasai reserves) have been administered by their own (incredibly corrupt) county councils. And now, they are fighting among themselves!

Balloon safaris will have a particularly difficult time as the three parts bureaucratically separate. The balloons (of which there are now 16 rising daily in the Mara) pay a “launching and landing fee.” If they bump down in an area other than from which they launched, they’ll be double taxed.

Not to mention the intrepid traveler who is trying to follow the wildebeest migration. Imagine being stopped dead at some signpost and being told to go over there to where the million wildebeest are will cost you another $80!

It gets worse. As the steam of anger boils over, the three fiefdoms are considering a rule that is used to my great consternation in neighboring Tanzania. The “one-time entry rule” means that if you leave one reserve for another, you have to pay again to re-enter the first reserve.

That means wherever you’re lodging and paying the daily $80 per person fee, that if you go out, then come back, you have to pay twice that same day!

THAT MEANS if you transected the Mara on a good long day’s drive, you could theoretically have to pay $400 PER PERSON!

Why oh why is all of this happening?

Money.

Tourism is way down. The government and community institutions controlling these marvelous parcels of wilderness got used to a certain revenue stream that they don’t have, now. And frankly, I don’t think they’ll ever have, again.

But if there’s anything that will totally destroy the little that’s left, it’s this current nonsense going on in the Mara. Please, folks, let’s not discharge our responsibilities with the same acumen as a warthog!

Misery in the Mau

Misery in the Mau

Photo by Joseph Kiheri of Nairobi's Daily Nation
Photo by Joseph Kiheri of Nairobi's Daily Nation

Today a stream of now homeless farmers began leaving Kenya’s Mau Forest for fear they would be killed by security forces.

The Mau Forest story is one of the most heart-wrenching in Africa.  It has parallels to development stories throughout the world, including America’s Dust Bowl of 1930-39, and it is as somber and seemingly irreconcilable as any Grapes of Wrath saga.

But as with all modern phenomenon in Africa, everything is sped up in the time warp of development.  It took a decade or more to discourage then displace the American southern plains farmer in the thirties, and moving at that speed even the American government was able to gear up to provide work through the WPA and useful advice on how to better use the land.

In the end only about a quarter of the southern plains farmers couldn’t make it through.

But in Kenya the drama is all but three years total.  In the end there won’t be one remaining of the 40,000 families who last year were farming the Mau.

And not a cent of the promised government compensation of just under a million shillings per displaced family (about $120,000) has been seen.

And if they aren’t successfully evicted, it is likely that within a decade there won’t be a drop of water for Nairobi.

The Mau Forest is considerably west of the Aberdare and other highland mountain catchments that feed Nairobi’s three reservoirs, but it’s now understood that they are all intricately linked.  The Mau directly feeds the Great Rift lake system of the central province (Naivasha and Nakuru) as well as the Mara River.

These areas provide the irrigation for huge agricultural areas as well as the country’s extremely important flower export business.  Without the Mau’s water, the Rift agriculture would start to die quickly.

And as this became apparent, the agricultural interests would begin long-distance siphoning, or would actually move further east towards the Aberdare which is the water catchment area for more than 7 million people in and around Nairobi.

There isn’t enough water to do all this.

Too many things are happening too quickly in Kenya.  Progress fighting aids and other mortal diseases like malaria have buoyed population growth.  GDP growth averaging twice that of America is creating a middle class that wants better cars and longer showers.

But the land of Kenya is one of the most stressed on earth.  Only 14% of the country is arable; the rest near desert useful only in some sections for stock farming.  It is mineral poor.  And only the few highland areas, like the Mau and Aberdare, catch water for the 40 million people.

The drought of the last three years (breaking now at last) focused into stark relief to Kenyan leaders the looming disaster.  And despite the enormous media attention given to the drought, it was mild when compared with  droughts of the past.

Global warming actually makes the equatorial regions of the world wetter than they would otherwise be.  But the lust for water for development is just too great.

In 1996 after the last more serious drought the then dictator Daniel Moi began handing out choice parcels of the Mau forest, mostly to his fellow Kalenjin tribes people.

Bigwigs were actually given deeds.  Many others were given little “resident cards” and thousands others simply followed their kinsmen from the dry lands of the kalenjin onto this fertile ground.

No one knows for sure how many people ended up first clearing the forests to sell the timber, then farm this critical ecological zone.  The government says 40,000 families, and the average size of a farming family in Kenya is between 6 and 7.  So that could be about a quarter million people.

I’ve seen the beautiful little homesteads in the Mau.  The many log houses are tidy, with little vegetable and flower gardens, and often a cow or two in a tiny fenced area.  There are small fields of corn, millet, potatoes, beans and even wheat in some places.  Any random scene in a farming village in the Mau would likely depict a near idyllic scene for a developing African country.

Schools wre built and the government supplied teachers.  Dispensaries and some of the best small hospitals in Kenya were built here.  A sheep industry developed, and many residents wore heavy sweaters and woolen coats self-made as protection against the highland climate.

A typical Mau Forest farming family looks pretty well off.

It was not a surprise this would happen.  But last year into the 2nd year of the country wide drought, Nairobi water reserves began to be rationed.  Crops failed lower down the forests, even though the Mau and other highland areas were still getting reasonable rainfall.

Sixty Minutes from America produced a television story on the great wildebeest migration, and showed the declining level of the Mara River, and wondered if this were “the end of the migration.”

Actually, it was the start.

The government decided last year the Mau had to be cleared of farmers.  A security contingent swept in, burned homes, released livestock and randomly shot farmers who resisted.

The scandal erupted into huge Parliamentary fights and became – as so much in Kenya does – tribal.  The evictions were halted, but ultimately, they had to be restarted.  More carefully, with more notice, and with a better management of the idiot politicians trying to earn kudos with the controversy, the evictions have started for real.

And they will continue until not a man is left in the Mau.  And only a fence and heavily armed security forces surround the 16,000 sq. miles.

It seems like a pretty small area for a population approaching 40 million.  But that’s Africa, today.  Every little bit counts.

Best Camps in the Mara?

Best Camps in the Mara?

From MotherGoose335@

Q.    We’re planning our safari right now for next summer and we’re going to be ending in the Masai Mara in Kenya.  When I went online to see available places to stay, I was absolutely overwhelmed, there are so many.  Do you have any recommendations?

A.    I know exactly how you feel!  There are around 6400 bed nights in the Maasai Mara and surrounding private reserves, more than 100 different properties and camps.  Before I tell you my favorites, here are some guide lines for deciding.

First, about half of these are actually inside the reserve, with the other half outside in private reserves.  This is very much a southern African model.  Consider the great Kruger National Park in South Africa.  Most of the lodging is actually outside the park in private reserves like Sabi Sands.

But this model doesn’t work as well in Kenya as it does in South Africa.  The game viewing in the Mara is absolutely better inside the reserve than outside.  But it is also much more crowded inside the reserve than outside.  So for better game viewing: inside the reserve.  For a more exclusive or boutique experience: outside the reserve.

The time of year matters.  If you are traveling to the Mara when the wildebeest herds have normally arrived from the Serengeti (late June – October), then your best bet is to stay as far north in the reserve, or as far south outside the reserve, as possible.  (Except for when they just arrive and just leave.)   For the rest of the year (November – May) it really doesn’t matter, as the game viewing throughout the areas is about the same.

Budget is very important.  Right now there are three main budget levels: $200-300 per day per person; $300-400 per day per person; and more than $400 per day per person.  (These are gross averages.  During the lowest seasons, these could be reduced by 50%; during the highest seasons, like the December holidays, they are doubled.  There are discounts available in all sorts of ways at all times of the year, and your final costs will also have to at least include transport and park fees.)

The lowest budget level really restricts you to the larger lodges, and there is often nothing wrong with these other than that they’re larger.  There are a few camps at this level, but none that I would recommend.  So at this first level, I like Mara Sarova Lodge.  Also at this level, I like the Mara Serena Lodge but its location is good only seasonally, from July – October, and the company is very directed to large suppliers rather than individual bookings.

Most of the properties are in the mid range, and of these my recommendation is solidly Governor’s Camp.  Governor’s actually owns and operates a family of camps in the Mara, and it is Main Governor’s that falls in this range.

At the top end I like Sala’s Camp and Olonana Camp.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it gives you a start.  And note one thing: they are all inside the reserve.  For me, game viewing is the most important thing!

Maasai Rebellion?!

Maasai Rebellion?!

A continuing struggle in the private game reserves of the Mara/Serengeti border area has been exacerbated by the drought and economic downturn and may turn violent.

A number of private reserves in the Loliondo area, which lies on the eastern border of the Serengeti and southern border of the Mara, risk growing civil disruption by the local Maasai as well as rapidly increased poaching.

This is a beautiful area that is normally big game rich, although it is quite seasonal. It includes &Beyond’s prestigious Klein’s Camp, as well as a number of less upmarket camps. Until recently it was a model for Community Based Tourism (CBT) projects.

But the Tanzanian government’s decision to forcibly evict thousands of Maasai from the area has provoked several violent encounters between rangers and Maasai. Moreover, the drought which is worse just over the border in Kenya, has motivated thousands more Kenyan Maasai to migrate into the Tanzanian area with their herds. And finally, the economic downturn has led to a serious increase in poaching in the area.

The area is a tinderbox. Maasai are legendary for their personal bravery, but as communities they are not wont to organize. But this time it might be different.

A coalition of 25 prestigious local Tanzanian organizations, including the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) and Lawyers’ Environmental Action Team delivered a letter on August 27 to the Tanzanian government, demanding that the forced evictions stop. Then on September 10 the coalition demanded a number of legislative and policy changes that would begin to remove some of the foreign businesses from the area.

The government’s response was brutal.

The Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Ms Shamsa Mwangunga, released a statement on September 14 slamming the coalition, threatening harsh sanctions against them, and almost as an aside, promising that the government would keep the area safe for tourists.

My take is that this is not going to get better, soon.

* * *

A decade ago Tanzania was in the forefront of CBT development and it was here in Loliondo that the model was working best. There were some truly outstanding individuals, such as Hoopoe Safaris’ Peter Lindstrom, who worked tirelessly not only to protect these wilderness areas from rampant development, but to fashion them into productive businesses for the Maasai who owned the land.

The idea was pretty simple and has been successful all over the world. Rather than farm wheat or grow cattle, camps and lodges would be built that would attract tourists who wanted to experience the natural, wild area.

The benefits to the Maasai ten years ago were substantial. Hoopoe’s small 8-tent camp at Olipiri generated as much as $35,000 annually for the otherwise impoverished local community. In the successful decade that followed a number of village Maasai became Hoopoe employees, were educated in the cities by Hoopoe, then started their own businesses.

In 2004 Conde Nast awarded Hoopoe the prestigious “Best EcoTourism Company in the World” award, in part for their efforts here.

Several other companies also became involved. &Beyond (formerly CCAfrica), and Dorobo Safaris all undertook similar arrangements to Hoopoe’s. Klein’s Camp (&Beyond) became one of the most prestigious camps in Tanzania.

But as I think back to those days, I suppose we should have known things would go awry. To begin with, there was an odd apple in the box: the OBC corporation. This United Emirates’ company was squeezed between the Klein’s and Hoopoe concessions. And guess what, they were hunters.

And not just your ordinary everyday quarter-million dollar tourist hunter. This is a corporation of the royal family of the Emirates. They don’t like commercial flights, so they built an airstrip on the concession that could take jumbo jets. And when they arrived each July and August to decimate the area game, they erected little cities. I remember when I would drive into Hoopoe’s camp, my cell phone would welcome me to “United Arab Emirates CellTel Company.”

Clearly most everything that OBC did was beyond the rules the government had set for CBT programs. Start with air waves and then add air routes. Everyone at the time knew that there was more involved than relationships with the Maasai. Royal money was exchanging hands.

From time to time guests at Klein’s would complain they would see zebra shot. But it was very infrequent and in the main the Arabs did their best to stay under the cover of their air waves. They were also there only two months every year.

But they were also weird bed fellows to the good souls like Hoopoe and Dorobo who were truly trying to build a sustainable Maasai project.

Enter drought and world economic decline.

Poaching has increased everywhere, of course, and serious local battles such as the one that left 30 people dead not far from the tourist camps in Kenya’s Samburu two weeks ago are much more serious right this moment than what is happening in Loliondo. But Loliondo’s history is more convoluted and may take much more than just the predicted rains to recover.

Mara Magic

Mara Magic

Our three days in the Maasai Mara enjoyed incredible game viewing that amazed even me, and proved that the Mara – despite its congestion – is a phenomenal way to end a safari.

Except for the much shorter December holidays, this is the end of the heaviest booked season in the Mara. American families had already left, but our Governor’s Camp was still full with many Europeans and Americans without school-age children.

The veld was crowded compared to our Tanzanian experience. I couldn’t help but thinking of the Gary Larson Far Side cartoon of the “migration” : minibuses in a line jumping into the Mara river!

But I hasten to add that it didn’t seem to matter all that much, especially because our safari had experienced in Ndutu and Tarangire a vast wilderness that at times we had all to ourselves.

There are things magical about the Mara. Its grassland plains are more hilly than further south in the Serengeti, so there is more definition to the landscape under the big, endless skies. The river was up, near normal, (and so radically different from my safaris just 6 weeks ago), and it is beautiful river filled with wildlife and wrapped in thick forests.

And there was no drought. It was dry, probably dryer than normal, but not terribly so. When it’s normal, the Mara is the wettest place on the East African circuit. This is the reason there are so many animals, so densely packed, and one of the reasons that off-road driving is still allowed despite such heavy use. The wetness provides a foundation for relatively quick topographical regeneration that a normally dry Amboseli or seasonal Serengeti lacks.

The highlight of our time here for a few of us was a migration river crossing at what Governor’s staff call “the main crossing point.” It’s not far from camp, down river within view of Serena Lodge on the opposite side.

Gene Antonacci got an incredible series of photographs, including the labored take-down of a full grown wilde, and its near successful struggle to free itself from 3 or 4 crocs that ultimately won the battle. We also watched two easy take-downs of yearlings. It was interesting to note that the yearling take-downs, which happened first, didn’t slow the race across the river at all.

Whenever the line of wilde was interrupted by crocs’ open jaws, they simply jumped over them. The crocs didn’t seem to be very good at the hunt, actually. Several times it seemed that wilde were actually trampling a croc underwater.

The crossing had gone on for about 12-15 minutes when the full grown wilde was taken. Just a few moments later, the crossing stopped as the wilde hesitated then retreated. I can only think it had to do with the vocalization of the full-grown wilde in its struggle to free itself, something that didn’t happen with the quick take-down of the younger ones.

In addition to Gene’s fabulous series, video master Dave Koncal got it all, adding to his remarkable earlier scenes of the lion jumping into the air capturing a vulture, the big tusker that poked its way through crater hippo, the several great elephant encounters in Tarangire, and also in the Mara, the unrequited battle between the marsh lion pride and a large family of buffalo.

That to-and-fro between the lions and the buffalo was great fun to watch! Irritated by a young male lion that dared challenge them, the buffalo charged the lion pride, and the pride retreated. When the buf stopped the assault, the lions turned around and charged them back, and then the buffalo retreated for a short time, before regrouping and recharging the lions! The comic to-and-fro ended when the lion pride ran onto the slightly dry marsh – enough to support them but a sure trap the buffalo understood and had to avoid.

There was so much to the Mara: elephants with really small ones, and warthogs with day-old piglets running all over the place! We saw hyaena that had just robbed an abashed cheetah of its gazelle, and beautiful eland up close. Zoo director, Steve Taylor, estimated that we saw more than 35 lion in our three days, here, and his wife, Sarah, told the group it was the best game viewing she had ever had (on her ten safaris).

Yes, in the season the Mara is crowded. But as you get drawn into these remarkable wildlife encounters that just don’t seem to be effected by the tourists watching, it doesn’t seem to matter at all. So ending here was the icing on the cake of a fabulous safari! (Yes, it was Jeannie Antonacci’s birthday our last night!)