|Masai Mara: Stepping into the light||
Few visitors to Kenya have more experience in the Masai Mara than the writer Brian Jackman. As his first book on the reserve, The Marsh Lions, written with Jonathan Scott, is about to be re-released on the 30th anniversary of the original, we thought it was a good time for him to write an extensive two-part feature on the Masai Mara of today, tomorrow and yesterday. Photography by Angela Scott.
Out in the acacia woodlands of
Naboisho the old order is changing. Here, on the edge of the Masai Mara, the
Enesikiria lion pride is about to trigger one of those regular and bloody
revolutions that reverberate through lion society. Between them its three
territorial pride males – Saitoti, his brother Sadala and the veteran Saruni –
have produced six feisty sons, all of whom are all fast approaching the time
when they will be ejected from the pride. And when that happens, provided this
fearsome band of brothers stay together, they will become an unstoppable
coalition, able to terrorise all the neighbouring prides for miles around.
Naboisho is one of a handful of
private wildlife conservancies that have sprung up on the adjoining Masai
rangelands in recent years. Initiated by the Maasai themselves, it came into
being as a result of the dramatic changes that have rocked the Mara since my
first visit three decades ago, and is a partnership forged between 500
landowners and a handful of eco-tourism investors. Today, with a core area of
over 200 square kilometres, it is helping to preserve a crucial part of the
wildlife corridors upon which the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem and its world famous
wildebeest migration depend.
Traditionally the Maasai have always
lived in relative harmony with wildlife. In many ways they have been as much a
part of the ecology of the Mara as the wild herbivores themselves, and since
they did not cultivate the plains they felt no hostility to the game that
shares their rangelands.
Today the winds of climate change
threaten to blow away the Maasai’s pastoral lifestyle, and the entire Mara
ecosystem is itself at risk due to encroaching human activities. Since
privatisation of the land, large areas have been fenced off for commercial
cultivation. While many Maasai still cling to their old ways, others are moving
out of their dung-plastered huts into tin-roofed houses and enthusiastically
embracing first-world technology. Nowadays it is no longer surprising to see a
red-robed moran with a spear in one hand and a mobile phone in the other.
The changes in local land tenure
have severely restricted the mobility of wildlife in the so-called dispersal
zone outside the reserve, where wildlife moves in the dry season, and the Mara
is estimated to have lost well over half of most species in the past 25 years.
Some animal populations have suffered catastrophic collapses, with buffalo
numbers down by 75 per cent, warthogs by 80 per cent and giraffe losses as high
as 95 per cent. Most disturbing of all, lion numbers inside the national
reserve have fallen by almost a third in the past 20 years, reflecting a trend
that is taking place right across Africa; and these figures could have been a
lot worse without the presence of the adjoining Serengeti lion population.
At the same time, the Mara is under
growing pressure as new safari camps spring up year after year, adding to the
tourist vehicles criss-crossing the plains. Today there are at least 25
permanent camps and lodges inside the reserve, compared to a mere handful three
In those days the reserve was still
relatively unknown, its existence eclipsed by the fame of the adjoining
Serengeti. But all that changed when Kenya and Tanzania fell out and closed the
border in 1977. Until then, Nairobi had been the main tourist gateway for both
countries. Now, denied direct access to the Serengeti, visitors headed for the
Mara in ever increasing numbers.
What they found was an earthly
paradise that has been described as the greatest slice of wildlife real estate
in Africa – 1672 square kilometres of riparian woodland and rolling savannah,
bounded in the west by the Siria Escarpment, and mapped by innumerable luggas
(seasonal watercourses) whose dense thickets provide shade and shelter for the
Mara’s famous lion prides.
And as if that was not enough, every year, some time in July, the Serengeti zebras would appear, together with migrating wildebeest in numbers beyond counting, to create an unrivalled spectacle as they spread out through this, their dry season refuge until the onset of the short rains towards the end of October.
From Musiara Gate all the way down
to the Serengeti border, only the ruts of old tyre tracks or the hum of a light
aircraft heading for Governors Camp airstrip indicated that the 20th century
had ever come this far.
Even in the early 1980s it was still
possible to witness the migration storming across the Mara River below the
Serena Lodge with scarcely another vehicle in sight.
But in the boom years that followed the 1985 box-office success of Out of Africa, the Mara began to creak at the seams as its popularity grew.
Those like me who knew the Mara in
its age of innocence find it deeply dispiriting to see how the world is closing
in, and nowhere is this truer than at Mara Rianta, where you cross the Mara
River in order to enter the Mara Triangle. Here on the very edge of the reserve
a shantytown has sprung up where Jonathan Scott and I used to search for
leopards 30 years ago.
Luckily, things are different on the
other side of the river. This is where the 110 square miles of the Mara
Triangle became Kenya’s first privately run game reserve when the Mara
Conservancy, a not-for-profits consortium took over from the local county
council. Overnight, after years of neglect, roads were repaired, poachers
cleared out and years of corruption consigned to history.
However, it is important to remember
that the reserve itself makes up no more than a third of the Mara ecosystem.
The rest of it – the area at greatest risk – lies in the dispersal zone.
Here, changing land use combined with a succession of severe droughts was threatening to sweep away the pastoralist lifestyle for ever, and at one time it seemed as if the greater Mara might be also lost forever, its black cotton soils ploughed up, fenced off and sub-divided to oblivion. Then a miracle happened.
In the mid 1990s Jake Grieves-Cook,
a far-sighted safari tour operator with a passion for conservation, persuaded
70 Maasai families to set aside 3200ha of their land exclusively for wildlife.
This was the Ol Kinyei Conservancy – the first community-owned sanctuary to be
established on the rangelands adjoining the national reserve – and demonstrated
how Maasai landowners could earn a decent income from sustainable tourism by
pooling their resources.
The idea caught on fast, and other,
bigger wildlife conservancies followed in quick succession, including Olare
Orok, Naboisho and Mara North, whose 20,000ha include Leopard Gorge, the scene
of numerous encounters in the Big Cat Diary. The results have been hugely
encouraging, with tourist numbers strictly controlled and wildlife – including
lions – on the increase again. In fact Naboisho’s lion population currently
stands at 70 – one of the highest densities anywhere – and the Mara-Naboisho
Lion Project (www.mnlp.org) is working hard to reduce the numbers of lions
being killed in retaliation for livestock losses on the surrounding rangelands.
Equally encouraging are the numbers
of safari guides now being recruited from the local Maasai population. Today,
Kenya’s best known guide is a Jackson ole Looseyia – whose friend and mentor
Ron Beaton was responsible for setting up the Koiyaki Guiding School seven
years ago in the Olare Orok Conservancy. Koiyaki is Kenya’s only community
guiding school and has been responsible for producing most of the professional
guides employed at Rekero, Kicheche and other top-notch camps in the greater
Looking back over the years we have
known the Marsh Lions it is also impossible to ignore the physical changes that
have overtaken their wild kingdom. Aerial photographs, and the personal
observations of old-time game wardens and safari guides, bear witness to the
manner in which the very fabric of the reserve has undergone a major
transformation from bush to grassland.
Bush fires, elephants and the trampling of seedlings by the migrating wildebeest herds have all have played their part in causing the woodlands to shrink. In earlier times the Maasai shunned the Mara because its thorny acacia thickets were a haven for the tsetse flies that brought disease to their precious cattle.
But years of regular burning have
helped to open up the bush, displacing the flies and encouraging more grass to
grow. Even tour vehicles have played a part by breaking down the croton
thickets in their constant search for lions.
At the same time, following the
ivory trade ban in 1989, elephant numbers multiplied, knocking down yet more
trees as a consequence, and systematically stripping out any seedlings they
found on the savannah.
These changes have also affected the
territories of the Mara’s lion prides, for which the importance of suitable
habitat is crucial.
This is borne out by data collected
by Dr Craig Packer, an American scientist at the Serengeti Research Project in
Tanzania, whose studies suggest that competition for prime territory is the
main reason why lions live in prides. In lion society, it seems, ownership of
the choicest habitat means far more than hunting in groups or protecting the
That is why a pride’s territory is
passed from one generation of lionesses to the next and why they will literally
fight tooth and claw to hang on to it – a task way beyond the power of a single
lioness who will always struggle to raise cubs on her own without the support
of pride companions and a permanent place of refuge.
Packer’s research also revealed how
river confluences and seasonal water sources are particularly sought-after,
which explains why the Marsh Lions have always clung so fiercely to Musiara
Marsh and Bila Shaka Lugga. These vital landscape features provide everything
they need: not only plentiful shade and water but also perfect ambush sites and
safe nursery thickets in which to hide their cubs.
How sad that just when we are
beginning to understand lions more fully they are in big trouble. Lions,
squeezed for space by a soaring human population, condemned as stock-raiders and shot by trophy hunters, are on the
In the entire continent there may be
no more than 25,000 left, of which nearly half are found in just six locations
– four in Tanzania and one each in Kruger National Park and the Okavango Delta.
The general consensus is that human
development and conflict with pastoralists are the main causes for the lion’s
decline, but in some places a dramatic reduction in the amount of prey is also
playing its part.
Strangely, the Serengeti is enjoying an all-time high, with around 3000 lions in the park, but across the border in the Mara it is a very different story.
Here, numbers have nose-dived by 30
per cent since 1992 to less than 200 adults.
Drivers and guides have also noted
smaller numbers of adult females in prides – particularly among prides on the
edge of the reserve. And there are certainly fewer young nomadic males
wandering through the area because of constant pressure from outside.
Incursions deep into the reserve by large herds of Maasai cattle have become
the norm. They happen mainly at night when tourists are tucked up safely in
their beds, but the eerie twinkling of the herders’ torches can be seen for
miles and the tinkling of cattle bells echoes all too often across the plains.
In the old days the pastoralists’ traditional way of dealing with lions was the spear. Today their weapon of choice is poison, which is far more effective.
In Kenya the substance most commonly
used is carbofuran, a neurotoxin manufactured to protect crops. It is designed
to kill insect pests but deadly enough to finish off a lion. It has no smell or
taste, making it impossible to detect when sprinkled on a livestock carcass,
and will not only kill lions but any other animal that eats it, including
hyenas, leopards and jackals.
In the Mara the use of poison has also had a devastating effect on vultures and other scavenging birds such as tawny eagles and bateleurs, all of whom have suffered catastrophic local declines, as have the long-crested eagles and augur buzzards that used to appear during the rainy season.
Although carbofuran was withdrawn
from all Kenyan stores in 2009 it is still finding its way into the wrong hands
and remains one of the most serious threats facing East Africa’s wildlife
Yet, for all its problems, the Mara
is still Kenya’s finest wildlife showcase. It is Hemingway’s Green Hills of
Africa hoisted 5000ft into the sky together with its woodland glades and
immense sweeps of chest-high oat grass, its endless herds of wandering animals
and nights that echo to the rumble of lions.
There are also plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Leopards, so elusive when the fur trade was active, now pose in broad daylight along the Talek River. Elephants are more plentiful than ever, and even the black rhino has returned from the dead.
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For me it will always be a special place because this is where my lifelong love affair with Africa was born, on the plains where I saw and heard my first lion. Not close enough to feel the air vibrating as I would in years to come, but loud enough for me to be hooked for life.
Pushing the boundaries: the Mara Conservancies
Why choose a conservancy safari?
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