Masai Mara National Reserve
The Masai Mara Game Reserve is a large park reserve in South-western Kenya and is effectively the Northern continuation of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Gazetted in 1961 and named after the Maasai people, the traditional inhabitants of the area, and the Mara River, which divides it, the Reserve is famous for its exceptional game population and the annual migration of zebras, Thomson’s gazelles and wildebeest from Serengeti, a migration so immense it is called The Great Migration: one of the most impressive natural events worldwide, it is estimated that more than half a million wildebeest enter the Masaai Mara and are joined by another 100,000 from the Loita Hills East of the reserve. Driving in the midst of these great herds is an unimaginable experience.
Masai Mara’s location and altitude, more than 1,500 m above sea level, yield a climate which is milder and damper than other regions in Kenya. The grassy landscape is maintained by the abundant rains which last here from the beginning of April through to June: in these months the beautiful yellow tinged plains of the Reserve slowly regain their traditional green and corn-like fields transform into Irish-green hills. Night storms are frequent. In the hills and plains, grasslands are scattered with acacia woods and bush. The riverbanks of the Mara and of the multiple tributary streams are bordered by dense riverine forests.
The wildlife is far from confined within the park’s boundaries, and an even larger area, generally referred to as the “dispersal area”, extends North and East of the Game Reserve. Maasai communities live within this area with their stock but a century of close association with wild animals has resulted in an almost symbiotic relationship where wildlife and people live in peace with one another. The nomad pastoral tribe, formerly feared because of its warrior attitude, inhabits these lands from old. When the reserve was inaugurated, in 1961, it was done so as to protect animals in a deserted and wild country, in which wildlife was coming to an end due to massive killings committed by white hunters. The protection of this area, among other factors, favored re-population of the territory by the Maasai who, by virtue of the reserve status, were put in charge of the park’s management through the District Councils. Though land conflicts still occur, the chosen formula for preserving this natural space attempts to render some reward to the Maasai by means of trade with tourists, through campsite management, the sale of handicrafts and visits to villages which provides a permanent income source, albeit scarce and fluctuating, for these people who fight to preserve their traditions against change.
Although July, August and September are the months when the Masai Mara plains are filled with migrating wildebeest and zebra, there is much resident wildlife year round. The long distances separating the country’s main urban centers allows this reserve to maintain a feature which these days has come to be an oddity in African parks: wildlife roams in complete freedom, without fences or other obstacles. Masai Mara is one of the best plain game reserves where you can actually encounter a live Discovery Channel, a haven for viewing a congregation of all sorts of animals within a five-mile radius: a pride of lions can be spotted ready to make a run for a gazelle, a cheetah and its cub taking a nap on a rock, a pair of ostriches walking the open stretches of the savannah or a gazelle giving birth. All members of the“Big Five” can be seen here, although the population of black rhinoceros is severely threatened, with a population of only 37 recorded in 2000. Hippopotami are found in large groups in the Mara and Talek rivers. Cheetahs are also present, although their numbers are threatened, chiefly due to tourist disruption of their daytime hunting. The large Roan antelope and the nocturnal bat-eared fox, rarely present elsewhere in Kenya, can be seen within the reserve borders. The Masai Mara is also a major research centre for the spotted hyena. Additionally, over 450 species of birdlife have been identified in the park, including vultures, marabou storks, secretary birds, hornbills, crowned cranes, ostriches, long-crested eagles, and African pygmy-falcons.