For a long list of reasons, Maasai Mara is the best animal reserve in Kenya. Set at nearly 2000m above sea level, the reserve is a great wedge of undulating grassland in the remote, sparsely inhabited southwest of the country, right up against the Tanzanian border and, indeed, an extension of the even bigger Serengeti plains in Tanzania. This is a land of short grass and croton bushes (Mara means “spotted”, after the yellow crotons dotted on the plains), where the wind plays with the thick, green mantle after the rains and, nine months later, whips up dust devils from the baked surface. Maasai Mara’s climate is relatively predictable, with ample rain, and the new grass supports an annual wildebeest migration of half a million animals from the dry plains of Tanzania.
At any time of year, the Mara has abundant wildlife. Whether you’re watching the migration, a pride of lions hunting, a herd of elephants grazing in the marsh, or hyenas squabbling with vultures over the carcass of a buffalo, you are conscious all the time of being in a realm apart. To travel through the reserve in August or September, while the wildebeest are in possession, feels like being caught up in the momentum of a historic event. There are few places on earth where animals hold such dazzling sway.
With its plentiful vegetation and wildlife, the reserve’s ecosystem might at first appear resilient to the effect of huge numbers of tourists. However, the Mara is the most visited wildlife area in Kenya, and the balance between increasing tourist numbers and wildlife can’t be maintained indefinitely. Off-road driving kills the protective cover of vegetation and can create dust bowls that spread like sores through the effects of natural wind and water erosion and become muddy quagmires in the rains.
Human population increase is also a threat: the animal numbers in the Mara are still huge by comparison with most other parts of Africa, but the enormous herds of every species – not just wildebeest – that were here after independence are gone, as Kenya’s population has quadrupled. With the land subdivided and sold off, the old ecosystem, in which the Maasai and their herds mingled with the wildlife, is beyond being challenged: local people no longer tolerate lions and hyenas near their homes, or buffalo where their children are walking to school, or elephants raiding their corn. The answer, in an imperfect world, is wildlife conservancies for the wildlife and ranching and settlement areas for people.