I’m very much a city fellow, but I was recently asked to join a small group that has been engaging with Narok County government officials to find ways of improving how the Masai Mara reserve is managed. Topping the list of challenges that need to be handled are the over-development of camps and lodges, the lack of discipline among driver-guides and the massive encroachment by cattle, which together have led many to predict the eventual demise of this extraordinary national asset.
It was not always this way. Indeed until Tanzania closed its border with Kenya in 1977, the Mara was little more than a stopover for tourists on their way back to Nairobi from the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Not only was the Mara far less well known internationally, but until the 1960s and early 1970s wildebeest weren’t even chomping on its grass.
What we now know as the great migration of well over a million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras was held in check by frequent outbreaks of the viral disease rinderpest, which had spread from cattle to wild animals such as wildebeest and buffalo. And it was only when a programme to inoculate cattle was established around the Serengeti in the 1950s and early 1960s that rinderpest disappeared from the wild herds.
As a result, wildebeest numbers skyrocketed from 250,000 to their current level, and it was this dramatic increase that made the Mara vital to the migration, as a place where the animals could find food and permanent water during the dry season. The Mara at that time becomes the world’s premier destination for game viewing, as a result of which up to 400,000 tourists visit it each year to see the migration.
It was not only the wildebeest population that exploded in the Mara. Tented camps and lodges spread across its pristine landscape, and despite numerous attempts to create a management plan that would protect the environment and regulate tourism at sustainable levels none was properly implemented. The big challenge was political will, without which it would always be impossible for such efforts to succeed.
So when Narok Governor Samson Ole Tunai and his team hosted a Masai Mara stakeholders’ meeting in Nairobi in September 2014, it offered hope that there was now a real desire by the County government to restore the Mara’s reputation. For this to happen there would have to be dialogue between the County government and all the other players on the scene, and happily the last few weeks have seen an impressive gathering together of good people, a coalition of the willing, to indulge in the needed brainstorming.
I’ve been very impressed by those participating, who have included stakeholders from the Masai community and the wildlife conservancies surrounding the reserve, folk from the tourism industry and the media, from NGOs such as the East African Wildlife Society, and also others from the diplomatic community, all willing to contribute their energy.
Much of what is needed to transform the Narok Governor’s vision for the Mara was addressed in the 2008-2018 Masai Mara Management Plan that was rejected by the Narok County Council at that time. Now the plan is to be revised and updated to fit the current situation – and it should happen rather quickly. The Governor announced recently that it will be worked on as a matter of urgency, including progressing its necessary ratification through the County Assembly. Attention is already being diverted to preparing for the 2017 elections, so if the plan does not get finalised now it will become increasingly difficult to focus on the hard choices necessary to sort out the Mara and its future.
The African Wildlife Foundation and the Conservation Development Centre, both of whom had supported the writing of the 2007 management plan, are prepared to become engaged once more, but at the centre is the leadership of the Narok County government. For the plan to work it must be embedded in Narok’s five-year County Integrated Development Plan and its annual County plan as well. The need for the plan is already identified as a key determinant of the county’s future success, but now we see the encouraging prospect that it will actually provide a robust basis for implementing what is needed to see the Mara rebound. The good news is that the Governor and his County Executives are determined to drive the process, tracking and managing comprehensive implementation.
The Governor made his announcement about the updating of the plan at a recent meeting in the Mara which was also attended by British High Commissioner Dr Christian Turner. The Governor made the welcome announcement that a revised management plan will be unveiled in three months’ time. It will, he confirmed, embrace the concerns voiced by stakeholders, spelling out the key priorities – not least how the Masai community will benefit more from the tourism revenues gathered.
High Commissioner Turner had driven down for the meeting in reaction to alarm over the repercussions of British travel advisories on non-essential travel to various parts of the country following the acts of terrorism that have left tourism in the country at an all-time low. In his statement he reminded us that though the UK travel advisory is still in place in parts of the county, the Masai Mara is not among them.
It’s always reassuring to see Kenyans and others of goodwill gather together and engage constructively with their government counterparts to confront common national and local challenges. Let no one imagine it will be easy to overcome the vested interests that have so far prevented the Mara from both conserving the wildlife and the environment and attracting high quality tourists in a sustainable way. But now is a unique opportunity to support this initiative to serve the worthy cause of a viable Mara reserve that Kenyans and visitors from around the world, along with their future generations, can continue to enjoy.