The Masai Mara Conundrum
Senior editor Norie Quintos has been blogging about her recent family trip to Kenya. Her previous posts in this series
include on traveling with teens, taking care of paperwork, staying healthy, and packing.
From Laikipia, we flew by prop plane (via Nairobi) to the Masai Mara, the fecund savanna immortalized by many a nature documentary. The area supports some of the greatest concentrations of wildlife, including the so-called Big Five (elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion, leopard). Visitors can’t help but have high expectations. Lodges are numerous and run the gamut from basic to luxe. We stayed at the recently overhauled tent suites at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club: lavishly adorned in Africana and boasting typical four-star-hotel accoutrements as bathrobe, slippers, hair dryer, sewing kit, etc. With several wheelchair-accessible rooms, a host of modern conveniences, a highly trained staff, and a prime location overlooking a hippo-filled river, it is one of a few lodges on the Mara suitable for families with very young children and guests with mobility issues.
One problem with the celeb-status of the Mara is that it is in danger of being loved to extinction. The masses of grass-feeding animals attract predators that feed on them, which in turn lures hordes of tourists, many desirous of the type of close encounters seen on Animal Planet and BBC wildlife programs. Drivers and guides feel the pressure to deliver on unrealistic expectations, putting unsustainable forces on the fragile ecosystem. While off-road driving is not permitted within the Masai Mara reserve, many areas just outside are deeply rutted and pocked. In some cases, the old tracks have become impassable and parallel ones begun.
The big cats that tourists want to see are often hounded and surrounded. We arrived on the scene of a leopard in mid-hunt, entirely encircled by some 10 vehicles. Every time the leopard moved, the gaggle of jeeps moved along with it. The leopard’s prey, an African hare, eventually slipped between two vans and scampered away. Do star-stalking paparazzi feel the way I do–glad to have gotten the photo, but nevertheless a little seedy?
The continuing challenge is this: Tourism inspires wildlife protection, but it must be made sustainable.
Confession: I’d been on safari three times before, and up until this point, I hadn’t really seen anything new. I wouldn’t say I was blasé, but my kicks were mostly coming from watching my sons experience Kenya.
That is, until I saw part of the Great Migration, the cyclic movement of millions of animals from the depleted fields of the Serengeti to the rich grasses of the Masai Mara. One moment the wildebeest and zebras were serenely munching on the grass on one side of the Mara River. The next moment–seized by some collective switch of the brain–thousands made a mad dash to the other side. Twenty minutes later, as inexplicably as it began, it stopped. It stopped me, too. This near spiritual experience was proof of Something, no? The Almighty, Nature’s majesty, the Circle of Life? The kids weren’t equally moved; though they thought it was “cool.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Photos of vehicles, migration by Norie Quintos
Photo of leopard by Michael Danyliw
Next time, Norie brings the kids to a school she helped build during her college days. She is updating the magazine’s safari planner and welcomes your tips and experiences.