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.