A video of guards chasing away wildebeests at a tourist camp in Kenya on September 8 went viral on social media. The video led to an outcry from national government officials and a call to disband the camp. But local actors on the ground told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that the event was a one-off, and was quickly politicised.

The footage shows the Mara Ngenche safari camp, located in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwest Kenya. The camp is located along the annual migration route for wildebeests. On the day the video was filmed, a herd of thousands of wildebeests tried to cross the river into the camp premises. Guards responded by forcing the herd away.

The video shows the wildebeests being chased back towards the raging river. The filmer zooms, panning to show several human figures forcing the moving mass of wildebeests through the trees and towards the water. “This is horrible,” a woman can be heard saying in the background. 
This video, taken by a tourist in mid-August, of wildebeests being turned back by guards at a safari camp recently attracted national attention in Kenya.

Although the video of the wildebeest crossing dates back more than a month, it only drew national attention recently. On September 8, Najib Balala, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism & Wildlife, took to Twitter to condemn the guards’ actions. He declared that the camp should be shut down and proposed establishing a plan to protect wildlife migratory corridors.

Najib Balala, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism & Wildlife in Kenya shared the video of the migration, calling for the camp to be removed. Balala said he was working with Narok County Governor Samuel Tunai.

Maasai Mara, situated on the border with Tanzania, contains about 1,500 square kilometres of savannah plains. The wildlife reserve is a conservation zone and a popular safari destination for international tourists. It is famous for the “Great Migration,” an annual phenomenon where over two million wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, and other animals migrate north into the Mara from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The migration depends on rainfall patterns, but usually lasts from July to September. Animals must traverse the Mara River, which divides the two sides of the Maasai Mara Reserve.
 
 “The camp was occupied by guests including families with children.”

Jane Wanjiru is a coordinator for Maasai Mara Travel, a tour group that operates in the wilderness reserve.  
This migration takes place once every year, with the animals relying on their primal gut instincts, following the changing rainfall patterns across the vast Serengeti-Maasai Mara ecosystem in search of fresh green pasture.

The points at which the wildebeest may decide to cross the river vary every year, and there are multiple river crossings taking place in the Maasai Mara at any given moment during the migration season. It just so happens that some wildebeest herds attempted to cross close to the camp. This camp  [Mara Ngenche ] has actually been at the present site for over 10 years and there does not appear to have been a major previous incident with wildebeest crossing at this point.   

After the national outrage, Mara Ngenche camp received a phone call from the cabinet secretary’s office ordering them to disband the camp, according to Nagib Popat, Executive Director of Atua Enkop Africa, which operates the camp. Popat released a statement following the social media backlash.

“Mara Ngenche’s location is not a traditional crossing point, and in the past decade, we have never witnessed an instance like this. On the day of the video, our camp was full of guests, including young children. Our staff reacted to the situation to save human lives while protecting animal lives….We have been, and continue to be, fully supportive of and cooperative with any investigation.”

“It was merely bad luck that this happened.”

Charles (name has been changed) has worked in the tourism industry for more than 15 years, including constructing tourist camps and consulting for conservation groups in Maasai Mara. He saw the video when it was first released in mid-August.
The video was circulated amongst few people in the tourism industry and that is when I saw it. Initial feedback was the same, “Why is a camp in the way?”

But [local] understanding of the migration for most people is extremely limited. It is only this year, in the absence of international tourists, that locals visited the Mara [Maasai Mara is one of the most popular safari destinations in Africa for international tourists].

It was merely bad luck that this [wildebeest incident] happened. Along the Mara river there are over 15 camps, some going back 20 years. All these have been approved by the Mara authorities, government and environmental agencies.
The wildebeests crossed from an area several hundred metres away from the camp, like they have done for the last 10 years. What happened, however, is that when they crossed, the sound of vehicle engines and tourists witnessing the crossing spooked the animals.They are very sensitive and jumpy, and they immediately started heading back to the camp in a panic.

This year, the amount of wildebeests that came into Kenya were in the millions. Kenya received extremely heavy rains late last year and early this year [heavy rains filled the Mara river created an abundance of lush grass in Kenya, causing higher numbers of wildebeests to migrate this summer]. So from July on, Maasai Mara was filled with huge herds of millions of wildebeest, similar to scenes of several years ago.

“The Mara is used for political mileage at the expense of the wildlife.”

Although the wildebeest encounter at the Mara Ngenche tourist camp appeared to be a singular and unexpected incident, some national government officials hope to use it as political leverage, according to Charles.
There are too many camps outside the reserve creating the [migration] issue. The human settlement outside the reserve and cattle being grazed in the reserve (which isn't allowed) are disturbing the wildlife.

The Mara is getting very political. In Kenya there are a lot of vested interests. Most of these camps and lodges are usually owned by local or international investors together with either local politicians, local leaders, and local landowners. Most of these bigger, well-known camps pay huge amounts in form of royalties, taxes, rent, community funds, salaries and wages to the local community and national government. 

Any time there are elections, the Mara is used for political mileage at the expense of the wildlife [national elections are not until 2022 but campaigning has already begun]. At the end of the day it's about money. The Mara brings in millions to the country. As the Mara [National Reserve] is not governed by the national government, unlike say Tsavo or other Kenya Wildlife Services mandated parks in Kenya, the Cabinet Secretary and other government players aren't happy that the ‘goose that lays the golden egg' is not under their control. Anything like pollution, overcrowding or vehicles, or camp incidents is fodder for warring sides to use against the other.

The Mara is truly unique and a wonder of the world. If [the land is] managed well and the wildlife left to themselves, the industry can bring billions of dollars to a country that is heavily dependent on tourism.

Article written by Sophie Stuber
politics /  Kenya /  tourism