Oblivious to the fear established by the covid-19, to the denial of travel, of the embrace, of the large congregations, one and a half million wildebeest cross the Mara River, in southwestern Kenya, like every season, in search of better pastures. A unique show on the planet in a year depleted of tourists.
Panting, thousands of these animals nervously contemplate the generous stream of fresh water that furrows the golden plains of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and it will be enough for just one of them to jump into the void – start fear, let itself be overcome by the age-old instinct to find food — for the rest to follow in a frenzied dance of leaps and puffs of dust.
“From the south of Serengeti – in Tanzania – heading north towards the Maasai Mara, the wildebeest come in search of better pastures, leaving behind a dry land where they have few sources of water”, explains Sammy Ndambuki, a tour guide for 15 years. years and who confesses never having seen a Great Migration “as empty” as this 2020.
“Other years there were more cars than animals!”, This father of two children expresses in a hyperbolic way, “however, this year we have thousands and thousands of wildebeest and very few people”, recognizes with some regret who, for the first time, He lives from the domestic traveler since the coronavirus broke out in Kenya on March 12.
Since then, this East African country has already lost – according to government estimates – 752 million dollars (about 667 million euros) because of the collapse of the tourism sector; on whose strength the well-being of more than two million Kenyans depended, thousands of them from the Maasai ethnic group.
Kenyanize the Mara
The post-pandemic Maasai Mara is quieter. The soft roar of fifty convertible Land Rovers dies down in the immensity of its 1,510 square kilometers, as they await the imminent water stampede of thousands of wildebeest on both banks of the Mara River.
And then the dance begins. These bearded mammals dive loudly into the water: the minority slip, lose contact with their young, moo in pain, or perish between the fangs of some Nile crocodile; the noisy majority advance – in an innate choreography marked by genetics – moved by the animal desire to reach land.
The billion-dollar loss of income from the tourism sector also poses a risk to the very existence of the Mara
At the top, dozens of vultures observe this event with joy, eager for the subsequent feast that they will have to share with the big cats. When calm is reborn minutes later, only mothers who have lost their young — confused, dispossessed, alienated — run wildly from one side to the other. Half a dozen severed bodies remain stranded in the stream, now clouded with a fetid smell of death.
“It is dirty, exciting, tragic, magnificent. A chaotic pandemonium”, describes to EFE the Kenyan Jeff Gachihi, a 31-year-old lawyer who decided this August to take advantage of the absence of international tourists and return to the Mara. “The last time I was here I was 17 years old,” he adds, aware of the paradox that he might not have done so if the pandemic had not paralyzed the world.
However, despite the increase in local tourists since the beginning of July, many doubt that this market low cost (low cost) can supply the safaris – of thousands of euros and about 10 days of duration – hired between July and October by American, Chinese and British travelers, among others.
“Let’s face it. Local tourism? How many people are salaried? We talk about local visitors when people can’t even buy bread,” said Salim Ahmed Omar, founder of the Nairobi-based Kenyan tour agency Safari Exposure.
In the Mara, leaning out of their luxurious 4×4, the majority of travelers are still white, expatriates from the cooperation sector or from international organizations such as the UN. Far from there, in the Nairobite suburbs of Kibera or Mathare, the reality is different.
Domestic workers laid off, workers unemployed, hotels and small businesses closed. Ordinary people on the street selling a handful of bananas, smoked sausages, board games; anything that can allow them to put something in their mouth.
The billion-dollar loss of income from the tourism sector also poses a risk to the very existence of the Mara, bordered by some 15 private conservation areas in which more than 100,000 people benefit as tenants, tour guides or rangers. A symbiosis now threatened by the shortage of visitors.
“The Maasai may, in fact, be forced to choose whether or not to keep the Great Migration alive, one of the few remaining on the planet,” warns Doreen Robinson, head of wildlife for the UN Program for the Environment (UNEP).
“The areas designated as national parks – administered by the Government – are not enough for these large groups of animals to migrate and thrive, but if private conservation is no longer economically or socially viable, their owners could decide to give their land other uses. “, continues the expert.
Ndambuki knows this very well. As a guide, he used to end his safaris with a visit to a Maasai village where tourists could participate in the jump of the “moran” (warriors), buy costume jewelery and reddish Maasai fabrics (shukas). Today, this essential source of income has almost disappeared.
“Local people make their living from tourism and livestock. They sell necklaces and bracelets to visitors and they also earn some money if they pass through their villages, but now they are suffering,” Ndambuki laments. “They have no money left to send the children to school or buy anything else other than the milk and meat they already have.”
Despite the increase in local tourists, many doubt that this low-cost market can supply the safaris hired by foreign travelers.
Against this backdrop of growing desolation, voices like Robinson warn that it is now more important than ever to bet on sustainable tourism and ensure that its benefits fall on populations that “care for wildlife and support the load of living near predators and elephants that can harm them and damage their crops. “
“You can live together, the Maasai do it,” Ndambuki affirms emphatically when describing how this community grazes without problems alongside wildebeest and zebra. And he adds: “Future generations will also want to witness the Great Migration, and for that alone we have to take care of the animals, respect them, give them their space.”
“Without them, there is no us”, meditates who, each year, observes as if it were the first time this explosion of nature in which more than a million wildebeest, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras, remember the human being — insignificant, masked — whose ancestral dance is still alive.