The Curse of Masai Mara

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.

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2 Responses to The Curse of Masai Mara

  1. Hillary – Thanks for sharing your experience. Yes, there are parts of Masai Mara that is crowded, and this is the same in the Kruger if not worse. I believe your experience are limited to one time visit to the Masai Mara ( ), and staying in the mass tourist area of Talek river which is notorious for having “low cost tourists lodges/camps” and drive in clients in minivans from Nairobi.

    In the real estate market, it is all about “Location, Location Location”, and it is the same in the Masai Mara and in any area. Parts of NY, London, LA are prime low density high yield residents and part of the are over crowded. I would recommend you visit the Musiara conservancy, Mara North and other greater Mara Conservancies which specializes in low impact tourism, and your experiences and reporting would have been the opposite. This is because the lodge/camps charges at these location are premium, and attract high yield paying guests. The motto is rather to have 1 guest paying 20 persons cost than having 20 guests on its conservancy thus a creating the experience that you had.

    Your statement on 5000 guests and 1200 vehicles PER DAY in the high season is factually incorrect. Technically, the park cannot hold such numbers of vehicles and nor are there enough occupancy rooming for 5000 guests in the Masai Mara. You should be referring to the 5000 to monthly visit rather than a daily visit which is known by industry leaders.

    Factually, if you review the ticket sales in USD for August 2010, there were $195645 in USD ticket sales reported by Mara Conservancy. USD ticket sales is what tourist pay to visit Masai Mara. If you average that $60 (ticket cost), that would translate to 3260 visitors to the Mara in the month of August 2010 – not daily but monthly. You can review the 2010 August USD ticket sales report at

    Please do visit the other parts of the Masai Mara, and not limited your experience to a single one in the wrong part of the reserve.


    Altaf Visram
    Sales & Reservations Director

    AfricanMecca Safaris, Tours & Beach Vacations


    Twitter Contact: @AfricanTravel

  2. Hillary Rosner says:

    Thanks for your comment, and for setting the record straight about the 5000 visitors number. I certainly hope to return to the Mara. And I did, as I wrote, travel to a less-populated part of the park–which was spectacular.