Wild Game Herds of Serengeti: Wonder or Worry?
MAASAI MARA, Kenya -- More than a million snorting wildebeest may not need the plug, but a media endorsement of their annual migration is raising fears of a tourist stampede to the Maasai Mara game reserve.
A panel of experts for ABC News' "Good Morning America" and the newspaper USA Today in November chose the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania -- with its thunderous herds of wildebeest and zebras -- as the seventh "New Wonder" of the world.
"It transplants you to a time when humans were secondary on Earth," panellist and author Bruce Feiler was quoted as saying in USA Today.
The award offers a welcome boost to tourism for East Africa, but in Kenya's Mara -- the animals' destination in July and August -- conservationists and some camp owners fear it may aggravate overcrowding and overzealous development.
"It is already overcrowded during the peak season," Aris Grammaticas, founder of the reserve's 34-year-old Governor's Camp of luxury tents, told Reuters on a riverbank, as gigantic hippos sunned themselves.
"You will find 120 cars waiting (by the riverbank) for the wildebeest to cross," he said. "The guests come back and ask, 'Why are there so many cars? It's not a town!'"
Mara's expanse of savannah grassland with some of Africa's best game viewing is a big earner for the growing Kenyan economy. It attracts the most visitors in Kenya, which in turn is the most-visited country in the region.
The park covers 1,500 sq km (580 sq miles) and is a wildlife reserve held in trust by the government for the indigenous Maasai tribe, a nomadic cattle-herding community.
The Mara's capacity of about 8,000 beds are all booked months in advance of the three-month migration. To meet demand, some tour operators put up temporary tents which are pulled down after the migration ends.
The reserve's tourist accommodation is in nine properties, with another 40 in the surrounding area in the hands of Maasai families, Grammaticas said.
By comparison, neighbouring Tanzania's 5,700 sq km Serengeti Park -- the actual recipient of the U.S. award and where the migration begins -- hosts only nine lodges and camps.
Experts say the government-administered Mara reserve alone cannot support all the animals and the annual migration, and needs the surrounding land to sustain them.
Until recently held jointly by the Maasai, that surrounding land has now been carved up by the government and issued to thousands of Maasai families with individual title deeds.
Some who received land bordering the park have grouped together, setting up their own wildlife reserves and hiring qualified staff to run them.
Others have sold or leased land to investors to put up safari camps or lodges, drawing complaints from environmentalists and owners of established lodges.
Many Maasai say they will do what they like with their land, arguing they have gained little so far from the multimillion dollar tourism industry thriving on their ancestral lands.
"The local people are not benefiting at all, we are being exploited. The revenue collected is not being pumped back," said Peter Sapalan, a Maasai employed by Governor's Camp.
"If there is no plan for everyone to benefit as a group, then why can't everybody benefit on their own?"
CONSERVATION, NOT CONGESTION
Many involved agree the Maasai should profit from the park -- said to have the highest concentration of lions in Kenya -- but they want the government to limit new developments outside it.
"We need to allow the landowners the chance to participate in tourism and at the same time regulate it properly," said Jake Grieves-Cook, chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board.
The Mara could cope with new developments, he added, but these should be small and widely spaced.
"There are vast areas of the Mara where there is nobody, then there are other areas where there are far too many," he said. "It is a question of having a management plan."
The ministry of tourism would like to increase bed capacity but has temporarily halted any further developments until an expansion plan is in place.
"Unless we have proper legal restrictions following a quick, proper assessment, I am not exaggerating, this part of the wonder will not happen for much longer," Grammaticas said.
Mara game warden Samson Lenjirr said the government should lease or buy back the land from the Maasai so it can control development properly and protect the park's fragile ecosystem.
"At the moment everyone is complaining about congestion, but no one is talking about conservation," he added.