Gnus rumble from Northern Tanzania
The Wildlife Migration Drama Festival Season 2020 is set to premiere next month without an audience for the first time since the Masai Mara Game Reserve was opened in 1958.
Thousands of tourists from around the world will for the first time this year —since 1958 when Masai Mara Game Reserve was established— not witness the Wildebeest Migration from Serengeti to the sanctuary because of the coronavirus pandemic.
About two million wildebeests, expected to cross into the Mara from June, are now on the northern part of Serengeti plains, moving towards Mara crossing points.
The arrival of the herd heralds the annual tourism peak season, which ends in early October.
Unfortunately, the Coviod-19 pandemic has forced hotels to close. This has seen international and local passenger flights cancelled.
Europe, Kenya’s traditional source market has been hard hit by the virus, forcing would-be guests to the world famous reserve to stay indoors to check its spread.
Tourists from China who come second in arrivals after Europe are also expected to stay away, dealing a severe blow to hoteliers who, during the peak seasons, rake billions of shillings in profits.
“It will be the first time since Mara was set aside as a tourist attraction that lodges and tented camps will be empty,” Joseph Sindiyo, the park’s senior warden, told TravelWise.
Most employees of hotels in and around the reserve were sent on compulsory, unpaid leave pending the resumption of business, after the government suspended international passenger flights, now in the third month.
“We were paid for the days we worked for March. Since then, salaries were stopped,” says a front office employee of Keekorok Lodge.
The lockdown has also affected hot air balloon rides and businesses that deal with products tourists are always interested in, such as Masai cultural visits in villages and handiworks.
According to Governor Samuel Tunai Narok county government, which entirely depends on revenue from tourism, will in the current fiscal year fall short of Sh3 billion because of the pandemic.
Patrick Wanjohi, managing director at Into Africa Eco Travel Ltd says it will take more than two years after the pandemic is contained globally for the tourism sector to resume to normal.
‘The disease has changed lifestyles of many people. It will take long, probably more than two years for the industry to be where it was and may be another decade to be out of the woods,” he says.
Lily Waddington, the proprietor of UK Magical Safaris, says Covid-19 has inflicted irreparable damage to the international travel sector, adding that most people might now prefer watching wild game from television channels with wide outreach like National Geographic than going out for safaris.
The pandemic and the outbreak of Ebola before, she adds has also affected gorilla viewing in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“Investments in travel and in hotels will drop as more people will be watching the wild from their television sets. Few in this business will survive the turn of events,” she says.
She spoke as the population of the cat family is reportedly increasing in the Mara now that tourists are not encroaching on their habitats and breeding gorges.
John Kisemei, the liason officer of Masai Mara Conservancies Association says when full time tourism activities resume, guests will be watching the cats in action not far from their hotels.
“The lockdown has led to the increased numbers of lions, cheetahs and leopards.
Their numbers were falling because of mass tourism and human-wildlife conflict,” says Kisemei.
Meanwhile, the absence of game drives is putting safety of some species of wildlife in the country in serious jeopardy because parks and game reserves are too big to be adequately policed by rangers.
Felix Migoya, a private tour guide who has invested heavily on a customised Toyota Land Cruiser in readiness for the 2020 tourist season, says because of inactivity, tourist attractions are at threat from poachers because of minimum activities within the game reserves.
Most cases of poaching have in the past been brought to the attention of authorities by tour operators while on game viewing expeditions.
“We are always the first to spot carcasses. Now that there are no visitors, rangers cannot track the animals,” says Hosea Serem, an official of the national Tour Guides and Drivers Association.
Dickson Ritan, the head of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Central Conservation area, says all parks under his jurisdiction including the premier Lake Nakuru National Park are safe, adding that patrols have been intensified to protect wildlife.
“Wild animals in the parks and other sanctuaries are safe. We have stepped up surveillance,” said Ritan.
The on-going rain has resulted in flooding in the Mara, Amboseli, and Lakes Nakuru and Naivasha national parks, destroying some tourist facilities.
In Lake Naivasha, hundreds of hippopotamuses are out of the lake, fuelling conflict between them and locals as they compete with cattle for pasture.