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We need to talk about Kenya

Kenya is an incredible country. But, unless things change, Kenya is heading towards ruining the very thing they are famous for.

We need to talk about Kenya

Quick note: The Masai Mara National Reserve isn’t a national park, but a national reserve. But, to prevent confusion with the private reserves and to compare with other national parks, we will just refer to it as a park.

What it was, ain’t what it is.

Let’s be frank: Kenya is an incredible country. It has long been a favourite destination for travellers looking for a classic African safari, and for good reason. It offers amazing landscapes, unique wildlife encounters and rich, vibrant cultures. That is all without question. But, unless things change, Kenya is heading towards ruining the very thing they are famous for. You can see it all play out in the Masai Mara, easily the most famous and most popular safari location in Kenya. It is also a victim of its own success. In order to get a good idea of the scale of the issue, we need to crunch some numbers.

Number crunching

In 1980 there were around a total of 100,000 visitors per year to the Mara. In August 2018 alone, there were 60,000 visitors. Although there was a dip due to the pandemic, the numbers have since rebounded above this level, and so have the problems.

The issue also lies not so much with the number of visitors but with the density of visitors. In contrast, the Serengeti receives just under twice as many visitors every year, but it is over nine times larger. We have written about its own challenges before. Kruger National Park meanwhile, the most visited national park on the continent, receives almost 1.8 million visitors each year. It can be a very busy park and has its own very real problems. But, at almost 20,000 square kilometres in size (compared to only 1,500 square kilometres) it simply dwarfs the Mara.

This Mara ecosystem is also heaving with hotels and lodges, the vast majority internationally owned. For a national reserve of that limited size, there are over 5,000 beds available to guests. And that’s not including the day trippers. Outside the park are many more lodges, increasing again the amount of beds available to visitors, and the amount of visitors entering the park. When the famed wildebeest migration comes through around August, the park sees huge numbers of international visitors. At any river crossing you can easily see over 50 vehicles jostling for position by the riverbank and in recent times, blocking the exits for the wildebeest. Wildebeest numbers have actually declined massively over the past 20 years, with many not making the trip north. Squeezed out by the surge in activity around the reserve, locals graze their cattle inside the reserve itself, ignoring the rules (to little enforcement) and replacing the wild with the domesticated. These crowds flock around big-name animals, encouraging unnatural behaviours and in many cases, preventing hunts from being successful by their presence.

Marketing Myths

There are a few reasons for this surge in visitors during high seasons. One is the incessant myth that the wildebeest migration is the be-all-and-end-all for Africa, instead of a nice natural occurrence that happens in one place. There is also a massive zebra migration in Botswana and another large wildebeest migration in Zambia. Neither get a sliver as many visitors as the migration in Kenya. The exact same migrating herds also move through Tanzania for the other nine months of the year. Again, nowhere near the numbers. This migration has been sold as an ‘all or nothing’ the premise being if you don’t see this exact thing then your Africa trip is wasted. In reality, although it is amazing to see that many animals together (again, something you can see in many other places) you can also get the same natural feeling of wonder from a large herd of elephants, or ironically enough, even witnessing a vast empty savannah.

This migration myth is a similar marketing myth to that of the ‘Big Five’, as if these five animals are somehow more important than the others. At the end of the day, many people go home feeling as though their trip was a failure because they missed one of them. In reality, despite the fact the list is simply a marketing exercise, there are many other animals worthy of being on that list. A failure isn’t a trip when you miss the leopard, it’s when you miss the point of being there. All this incentive to tick the boxes does is create pressure for the traveller to see these Big Five. This in turn then incentivises the drivers/guides to deliver on those animals (and only those animals). This has real-world effects, and despite off-road driving being illegal in the Mara, it doesn’t stop discount minibus tours from churning through the grass to get their clients good photo opportunities. That then means good Facebook reviews, which means more trips and more minibus churning.

Money before management

Eliminating the urge to join the herds, both in antelope and human form, can help to alleviate some of the pressure. For example, whilst August 2018 had 60,000 visitors, the months of June and October 2018 had half that, and April and May 2018 had half of that again. The surging crowds came and went as the migration did. But why? The animals are the same in these other months. The experience is also arguably better without the crowds everywhere. Using a sliding scale of park fees (set by the Kenyan Government), where the higher demand months attract higher fees, can incentivise travellers to travel in different seasons. The government can also incentivise other parks in the country, with the exact same animals roaming around in them, to reduce the burden on the one park to support the crowds.

And yet, again and again, the government chooses to ignore the problem and simply make some more money.

It’s an old cliche in the African travel industry about East African countries making post-dated changes to their pricing. Tanzania and Kenya have both done it many times. They raise the prices right before the high season, make the change effective a week prior and close their ears to any outcry. Operators can either pass on the charges to their clients (who have already paid in full) or bear the brunt of it. And so, it is without much surprise that in the past two weeks Kenya has decided to raise its park fees, again, effective immediately, again. Not only that, but they have changed the rules three times in the three weeks prior.

What has changed this time however is the greediness of it. Rather than change park fees in only the high season to incentivise travel in lower seasons, it has raised prices across all seasons. Kenya’s park fees were arguably too low before, but this is a drastic change. The high season fee in the Mara alone has gone up over 250%. Low-season prices have gone up anywhere from 20% to 100%, depending on the park.

For a typical traveller on a 7-day safari in Kenya, this increase alone is over AUD$600 per person.

A great example of this cash grab is Nairobi National Park where the famed Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, long a rescuer of animals across Kenya, sits just inside the border of the park. For years visitors to this charity had their park fees waived. Not any more. Not only will every visitor be charged USD$45 to enter the park for an hour, on top of the Sheldrick visitors fee, but in 2024 that park fee will double to USD$100 per entry, per person. All for a one-hour visit.

As a side note, The Explorer Society is covering all changes in fees for our clients booked to travel. These issues shouldn’t be your issue.

High yield tourism

There is an argument to be made for the conservation benefits of chasing high-end tourism. Botswana and Rwanda have done it effectively. Less visitors, same (or higher) tourism income. Ideally, you also keep it low for nationals of the country you visit, so that you don’t price them out of their own backyard. Locals deserve to visit their wonders as well. As an example, over 80% of the Kruger National Park visitors are South African. There are counter arguments to be made for keeping travel equitable, and open to all. That is also a very fair argument and part of the complex nature of the issue. But this latest move by Kenya isn’t close to that. Everyone gets whacked, from tourists to locals alike, irrespective of when they go. This is squeezing the most cash you can from an asset, and the real cost comes at the animals' expense.

A way around

There is a way around this doom and gloom however, and that is to instead visit the land that they once thought worthless.

At The Explorer Society, the majority of our trips are tailored to each traveller. However, in addition to our tailor-made trips, in East Africa we also offer some small group guided tours with local operators. With these tour options, we don’t control the itinerary. They are operated by the local operators, all of which we have vetted and know well. As a default, these small group tours largely visit the Mara, as small group tours do for Kruger in South Africa. The tours themselves are run by accredited guides with strict guidelines on park behaviours, and visiting in lower seasons is encouraged.

However, when it comes to tailor-made itineraries, we have complete control over the planning arrangements. In Kruger, we send our travellers to the reserves adjoining the park, instead of the park itself. The Mara also has their own reserves. In our tailor-made itineraries in Kenya, all of our travellers head to the reserves in the Mara.

In many cases, this land was previously ignored because of the damage done to it by overgrazing and the lack of suitability for safaris. But, with years of focused attention and careful management, the landscape here has thrived and provided a haven for the wildlife in a way the park hasn’t. In fact, as the park swelled with people the reserves have acted as a salvation for the animals, providing wild areas for them to live in without disturbance.

The combined Mara reserves effectively double the space available to the animals. They actually make up an additional 1,450 square kilometres of wild land, owned by over 14,500 Maasai landowners. This is then leased to 39 varying tourism partners and is independently managed from there. Instead of paying increasing park fees, you pay concession fees, which then generate an income for over 100,000 people in these areas and go back into conservation.

The benefits of visiting here are obvious. Visitor numbers are controlled all year around and limited, and instead of 5,000 beds and the day trippers you have a target density of only 2 people per 700 acres. And, being private land, only people staying in the conservancy can drive in the conservancy, meaning your game drives are much quieter. In fact, a maximum of 5 vehicles are allowed per sighting, a figure that is only really reached in rare sightings. You can drive off-road here on special occasions, as the impact is managed and negligible. You can drive at night here to track rare and nocturnal animals. You can also walk here, or go fly camping. More importantly, you can visit the local communities, with which the lodges have a direct partnership, ensuring your money doesn’t fly offshore when you do.

There are only two ‘negatives’ to choosing the conservancies over the Mara reserve. One is that you can’t see the river crossings from within the conservancies, which as we’ve established, is not, a bad thing. Secondly is that the conservancies are further from the hot air balloon launch sites that launch from the Mara, which makes the drives, for guests wanting to do it, a bit longer.

But that’s it. Ask us and we’d trade a longer drive for a balloon ride one day for a quieter drive every other day.

The Mara region is a wonderful part of the world. But, it has its problems, and recent decisions take us no closer to a brighter future. It’s a complicated issue, one hampered by years of neglect, corruption and the after-effects of colonialism. But to ignore it, or worse contribute to its decline, is not an option for us. Your visit to the region, one you will never forget, will make an impact. The choice for you is what sort of impact you want it to make.

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Why travel with us?

Travel isn’t what is used to be. It used to be undertaken with a sense of adventure and discovery. As the world shrunk, so did our imaginations and over time, manufactured experiences, sponsored travel lists and mass tourism have slowly extinguished that magic. Amazing destinations, catering to the crowds, have become overwhelmed shadows of their former selves.

And so, we established The Explorer Society to be a travel company for like‑minded travellers. It’s for those who travel for the destination and the incredible experiences to be found within, not just for the bragging rights. We are passionate about avoiding the crowds and providing real and revelatory experiences.

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