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The Masai Mara has defied gloomy predictions of decline

My article for The Critic:

When I was ten years old, in 1968, my parents took me and two of my sisters on a safari through Kenya and Tanzania. Having lived there when they first married in the 1950s, they wanted us to see the wildlife before it was all gone. Newly independent Kenya, its population booming, would soon have few lions or elephants left. This was not intended as a political criticism, it was just that there was unlikely to be room for such luxuries in a poor nation striving to feed its expanding population.

The first of the game reserves we visited, the Masai Mara, with its abundant big game and beautiful birds, left an indelible impression on my young mind. It helped turn me into a bird watcher and then a biologist. This winter, 53 years later, I returned to the Mara for the first time. To say that my parents’ pessimism was unjustified is to understate the matter — vastly. The grassy plains either side of the Mara river are as rich as ever in zebra, topi, eland, wildebeest, waterbuck, gazelles, impala, giraffe and buffalo.

There are plenty of elephants and — the poaching threat having faded at least for now — they are breeding like rabbits. Rhinos are increasing again and in 2020 not a single one was lost to poachers in all of Kenya.

We watched a herd of more than a hundred hippos splashing about in the river and chasing crocodiles. Lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals, baboons, mongeese, hyraxes, oribi, reedbuck, bushbuck — we saw them all. Every third tree seemed to have an eagle on it, not to mention vultures, harriers, kites and buzzards. Huge flocks of swallows and martins of several different species feasted on the insects disturbed by buffalo or cars. The Garden of Eden, with all its abundance, would have looked like a municipal park by contrast.

I consulted the book we had with us in 1968 — John Williams’s Guide to the Game Reserves of East Africa, which had been published the previous year. Its description of the Mara, and its list of species to be seen there was exactly right even today. This does seem to be at odds with the claims of those who insist that nature is everywhere in terminal decline, or in worsening crisis. Conservation does work. The hard work of those who set up, protect and manage such reserves is betrayed by apocalyptic talk.

The connectedness of ecosystems was another lesson the Mara teaches. This small corner of the vast Serengeti plain alone supports the winter feeding of millions of Eurasian migrant birds, let alone resident African species. If it vanished under the plough or the cow, the effect would be global. Ecologically, the richness of these lands has to be seen to be believed.

But can it last? We saw cattle grazing well inside the reserve, the herders unable to resist the abundant grass after overgrazing their own lands. We heard how a Masai man, however well educated, still counts cattle and goats as the measure of wealth that matters. We flew over the Mau forest, where the Mara river comes from, and saw the thinning of the trees, the spread of cultivated fields and the speckled rashes of goats and cattle among the woods. Kenya’s population is more than five times as large as it was in 1968.

Climate change has affected this region imperceptibly if at all. Among climatologists there is no agreement that there is a discernible trend in rainfall, up or down. According to one wildlife expert I consulted, frequent reports of droughts in parts of Kenya say more about the impact of overgrazing than about rainfall amounts: they are man-made droughts, as he put it.

It’s pressure of people on habitat, not any slight upward trend in temperature, that affects wildlife here, although invasive species also play a part, as they do everywhere. For example, the whistling thorn tree, which builds swollen chambers to house ants that protect the tree against browsing animals, is disappearing, because the big-headed ant from South America is killing off the native ants.

The pandemic has dealt a shock to Kenya’s tourist industry, with two years of lean bookings and frequent cancellations. That means that the delicate balance between wildlife being an asset and being a liability is disturbed. Lions and zebras cannot pay their way if nobody comes to see them. Throughout Africa the pressure to farm the land that is devoted to wildlife is not getting any less.

Wilson Naitoi (left), who acted as our guide for four days, became a good friend. Wilson won Mara Guide of the Year a few years ago and the prize was a trip to see the gorillas in Uganda. With a college diploma and a wicked sense of humour he is as well educated a naturalist as any I have met. But his home has no electricity; he and his wife fetch water from the river each day. The eldest of his five children was, aged 15, in charge of his precious cattle herd while he was away at work.

Yet I found myself confident that the Mara will survive. Kenya’s birth rate has halved since 1950 to 3.4 children per woman, as infant mortality plummets: it’s a demographic fact that when kids stop dying, parents plan smaller families. And although the country’s total population is still growing fast, its rural population has now been shrinking for 20 years as people move to the cities to find paid work.

The expansion and subdivision of subsistence farms at the expense of wild habitats has at last begun to slow. The temptation for Masai children to leave for urban employment will increasingly eclipse the temptation to stay and expand the family cattle herd. And for those who do stay, tourism will increasingly outbid farming as a career, as it has for Wilson.

The richer a country gets, the more it values wild landscapes and their animals. The statistics prove that economic development is the friend not the enemy of conservation. Kenya has much poverty still, but its economy is growing like a beanstalk: GDP growth has averaged 5.7 per cent in the last five years. More and more of the tourists in the Mara are wealthy Kenyans from the booming economy of Nairobi and the central highlands. The ten or more cars that converged on a cheetah we saw eating a young warthog — an audience it wholly ignored — were mostly full of African tourists.

Yes, there will be an element of artificiality about the relationship between the Masai and the tourists. As a hotel housekeeper our friend Alfred wore a crisply ironed uniform at work; jeans and a T-shirt when I saw him off duty; and full Masai warrior dress for the evening dance ceremony put on once a week for hotel guests. But how does that differ from, say, the Braemar Games?

In the short term, at least, the biggest problem faced by conservationists in this part of Africa is not too few but too many elephants. Conflict between people and elephants is growing as much because of the accelerating population explosion of the latter as the decelerating one of the former. An elephant is a wonder to me; to somebody whose shamba (crop field) it destroys, it is a costly menace.

As a premier game reserve, the Mara is always going to attract tourists. Its productive soil, grassy plains and permanent water mean that it will be a honeypot for game and so for visitors. What about areas with less elegant scenery, thicker bush and fewer animals? Here there is one way to get wildlife to pay its way that Kenya has eschewed and its neighbour Tanzania has not: trophy hunting.

The problem with tourists who shoot with cameras is that only the very best reserves attract them. Tourists who shoot with rifles pay more and spread out more, which means that they can support the conservation of much larger areas. The vast, flat tracts of dry, dense thorn scrub that cover much of Africa will always struggle to attract photographic tourists, but they can support buffalo and lions, which — through the fees generated by western hunters and passed on to local communities — can be more lucrative than goats. It’s just another (and comparatively humane) form of predation, after all.

The British government’s impending ban on the import of hunting trophies is a big mistake. It will inevitably mean some areas of southern Africa reverting from herds of wildlife to herds of cattle and goats. Overgrazing will follow as sure as night follows day, and then the birds will thin out too (though Kenya, which allows no hunting, will be unaffected). It’s a delicate question that applies also to the grouse moors of northern England, where curlews also thrive: are we a spectator or a participant in the ecosystem? Audience or predator with skin in the game? Ideally both: one in some areas, the other in other areas.

A memory I will treasure: one early morning we came upon four young male lions resting by a bush. A herd of nearly 100 elephants with lots of small calves was feeding slowly towards them. Anticipating some kind of clash, Wilson positioned our vehicle so that we could watch what happened. As the two species became aware of each other, the elephants began trumpeting and flapping their ears to scare away the lions. The four brother lions reluctantly decided to slink away.

Our vehicle — with no doors or windows — was in the way and they passed within ten feet of us. Yet to them we were neither prey not predator. They and the elephants never “broke the fourth wall”, as actors say, by looking at us. We were there but we did not affect what happened. After five million years of killing and being killed by lions and elephants, that is a spectacular place for our species to have arrived at.

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Matt Ridley’s latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, is now availablein the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  environment  the critic