I just returned from Masai Mara, one of Africa’s most iconic reserves. Sitting outside my tent on the edge of the Talek river, watching evening creep in and listening to the mingling sounds of daytime birds and nighttime creepy-crawly things, I felt awestruck and blissed-out and kind of devastated, all at the same time. “Dream of Africa,” my Lonely Planet guide book says, “and you dream of the Masai Mara.”
It’s true—up to a point. I’ve tromped through rainforests on three continents, but I’d never seen African wildlife outside of a zoo. Fields of impala and gazelles grazing among wildebeest and warthogs, elephants and zebras and giraffes; a pride of lazing lions; a leopard surveying his terrain from atop a boulder: I did dream of these, I almost can’t believe that I really saw them. But the cheetah sleeping off the hot Kenyan sun beneath a bush? I bet he really wished the safari vans would leave him alone.
My driver saw them from across the savannah—three white vans parked together. He took a hard right off the dirt track and drove straight across the grass, not wanting to miss the chance to show me whatever it was they were looking at. All around us you could see car tracks in the grass—not ruts, yet, but clearly visible tracks. We reached the cluster of vans, with their tops popped just like ours and tourists standing up like prom-night revelers with the limo moonroof open. Fifteen feet away, the cheetah was trying to nap. New vans arrived, the drivers jostling for space so the passengers could glimpse their quarry. Each time an engine stopped or started, the cheetah lifted his head, flicked his ears, and then lay back down determined to get some rest. A British woman in the van next to mine whistled at the animal. “Here, beautiful, just look over here for a moment, you gorgeous thing.”
In my mind I saw a New Yorker-style cartoon, with this cheetah telling his buddy, “I liked it better when they’d just come and shoot us.”
Where once there were distinct dirt tracks through the park, now there are rows of them, sometimes several car lengths wide, all going roughly the same place. Tire tracks cut through the savannah everywhere, and many of them are rutted. Safari guides avoid the ruts and instead drive around them, carving new tracks which will soon become rutted too. On a delicate hillside covered in rocks and low, spindly trees, at least eight vans forged their own paths to reach the snoozing lionesses—which one driver had somehow spotted and then broadcast over the radio. There was no road, nor even any well-worn tracks, nearby, so each van crushed untold acres of plants. Those plants are the foundation of the fragile Mara ecosystem; they’re what feeds the herbivores on which those lions rely. But no one seems to be making that connection.
In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, rules prevent more than two vans at a time from viewing certain animals in close proximity. After a few minutes, the van must give way to someone else. I’m not sure how effective they are at policing this; in Masai Mara, though, there seemed to be no one on watch at all. The only rangers I saw at all were stationed along the Mara river to take tourists on a hippo-watching walk. I watched Maasai graze herds of several hundred cattle within the park (which used to belong to them until the government evicted them to form the reserve); why not, if no one is watching?
It’s the low season in the Mara. In my tent camp, only three of 18 tents were occupied (until the final night, when a dozen Russians descended, downing champagne and rum by the bottle); there were just seven guests around, including me. During an all-day safari, we drove for what seemed like hours, skirting the Tanzania border, without passing more than a handful of cars. Yet you could see them on every road and rise during an evening drive in the park—safari rush hour. During the high season, which runs nearly half the year, 5,000 visitors sometimes crowd the park in a single day; at four people per van, that’s more than 1200 vehicles each day.
I’m used to feeling that mix of euphoria and sadness when I visit places chock full of charismatic megafauna. It’s news to no one that the world’s most spectacular ecosystems are increasingly under threat. But usually the threat is development: rainforests slashed and burned to grow palm oil, river valleys flooded for hydropower. In Masai Mara, the threat is people like me. And all I can think about, now that I’ve returned to the chaos of Nairobi, is how to get back to the Mara.