At the village of Sekenani, two hundred vehicles usually pass the entrance of the Maasai Mara Natural Park, today there are four. Buses usually drive to and from this village. “Many generations of wildlife have grown up in tourist vans,” said James Sindiyo, head of the 270 game keepers at Kenai Maasai Mara Game Park. “The lion cubs apparently miss the people and lie on the lookout for a tourist van along the main road.” To prevent the beasts from getting used to people, let the management of the reserve drive a few cars around every day.
Corona has killed tourism in Kenya, the hotels in and around the park are empty. That means a huge financial slump. The African Union estimated the loss for all of Africa last week at nearly $ 55 billion (nearly $ 50 billion). “We are talking about almost 10 percent of Africa’s GDP here,” AU Commissioner Amani Abou-Zeid said at an online press conference. “There are 24 million Africans working in the travel and tourism industry.”
Kenya received two million tourists and travelers last year. The loss of their entrance fees poses a challenge for the Kenya Wildlife Service, the government organization responsible for nature conservation, to keep the wildlife parks open. Management, rangers and equipment are paid with the income. In total, 17 percent of Kenyan territory has been set up as a nature park. Sindovo: “Wildlife is our national heritage. Kenyans may now wonder what justification is yet to reserve such large areas for wildlife. ” After all, they could also live on that land, do agriculture or let herds of cattle graze.
The blades of grass against the windshield of the off-road vehicle obscure the view of dangerous channels and swampy swamps. Saruni Kasoe guide knows the direction but not the way. It has disappeared in the months when there is almost no traffic in the area because of the lockdown.
Suddenly there are seven hungry cheetahs in front of us, their bulging bellies almost touching the ground. In the Maasai Mara, these animals benefit most from the corona crisis, according to Sarinu: “Without tourists, it is much easier for them to hunt. Do you see how calm they are? On an ordinary day in the park, dozens of vans zigzagged across the plains, which had long surrounded and chased the cheetahs ”.
Cheetahs (or cheetahs) lead a delicate life in busy wildlife parks. Unlike lions, they usually hunt at sunrise and sunset, although the animals in this park are regularly cut by visitors who are aware of those times. “Before Corona, they even preferred looking for prey at noon when the tourists had lunch in their hotels. Now the animal world is reclaiming its territory. The cheetah is regaining its freedom, ”says Saruni. The game guards call five cheetahs in this group – brothers – ‘the Five Musketeers’. An hour later we come across a group of 22 lazy lions, the Lions of the Black Rock. Our arrival leaves them untouched.
It should remain that way, says Saruni. When the animals start to hide, “the Maasai Mara loses its appeal to tourists.” “Long ago, lions and elephants walked away from people, since mass tourism began, the bush is no longer as it used to be.”
And whether people came. The meticulously managed Maasai Mara, where beasts are counted and named, attracts nearly three hundred thousand tourists every year – without a corona crisis.
They will not be able to overlook the wildebeest. One of the best-known natural phenomena takes place in the southwestern nature reserve, when around two million wildebeest pour in long strings from the adjacent Serengeti in Tanzania around this time. They graze the plains, the males fight over the females. On their trek they have to cross the Mara River, a spectacle for which sometimes five hundred tourists await. “They prefer to cross with only a few thousand at a time,” says game guard Sindiyo, “but the tourist vans chase them and then they splash en masse in the river, feast the crocodiles and take some spectacular photos to the tourists.”
Without vacationers, the park returns to a likeness of its original state. With all 275 hotels and tented camps (there is room for 6,000 guests per night), elephants hating people’s noises enter the dining rooms. The monkeys, who like to steal food, just stay away. Sindiyo has seen a slight increase in poaching in recent weeks. “It is not about the large poaching by syndicates of ivory and rhinoceros horn, but about hungry Maasai from the area who skin a gazelle or hippo. It often concerns students whose schools are closed. The tourists present kept poachers away. For example, tourists were a burden for wildlife and a blessing in disguise. ”
The link between wildlife protection and tourism, and thus income for local residents, worked as long as visitors flocked. It is precisely in this nature park that the members of the Maasai people, the landowners, benefited from large-scale wildlife areas around the park. The park itself is 1,500 square kilometers – wild animals also roam the much larger surrounding areas. Saruni guide takes me to Maasai elderly people who talk with sane faces about the impact of corona.
“I am too old to lie,” begins old man Nkuyata Njapit. “It was only a quarter of a century ago that I first saw white people. That made me aware that I lived at a wildlife park. ” In the past, little was left hanging on the bow for the Maasai. Nowadays they receive rent from the tent camps and ten euros for every overnight tourist. “How should we pay our loans to the bank now,” complain the landlords of these protected areas. Last week, the government decided to phase out the lockdown. Many wildlife parks have halved access for Kenyans; from July 15 you can fly domestic again. But this will not make up for the backlog of income so quickly.
Nobody in Sekenani wears the masks required in Kenya. No corona contamination has yet been detected around the Maasai Mara. “Yet we suffer more than anyone else in Kenya from the effects of corona,” said Nkuyata Njapit. “Desperate young people come to ask me what to do. We have so few answers. Tourists from all over the world came here. Where have they gone? ”
The pandemic painfully shows how the Maasai have become dependent on tourism. The introduction of mass tourism in the 1990s turned their archaic world on its head. Saruni remembers how he made money dancing as a child. “We danced for a tip in our beads. Women sang nonsense songs, not our songs with moral lessons. Sometimes visitors got on their knees before an alleged chieftain and offered a gift. ”
The village of Sekenani grew around the so-called ‘cultural bomas’ at the entrance of the park. Young people built stone houses there, went to school and many sold their livestock. It is now very quiet. There are no jewelry-selling women, no commercial sex workers to please the van drivers. Thus, the recently started modern world is fading again. “And yet, there is no turning back for us Maasai. We can’t live without tourists anymore ”, the elderly sigh.
With the tourists staying away, Saruni has fallen back on herding his cows in the park. “The days are long,” he says gloomily. “Shall I tell you one more story? When God created everyone in the world, he found some spare parts in his big box. With that He put the wildebeest together ”.
Also read: Natural parks are struggling because of corona
A version of this article also appeared in the NRC Handelsblad of 9 July 2020
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next dated July 9, 2020