IT’S a phenomenon that has had the world agog for decades. The annual migration of the wildebeest is dubbed “the greatest migration”, and listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the modern world.
Every year from June onwards, more than a million wildebeest – derived from the Afrikaan word for “wild beast” or “wild cattle” – romp their way from Tanzania’s Serengeti into Kenya’s Mara in their constant search for grass to graze and water to drink.
It’s the time for plenty for the big cats and the vultures – and good tidings for both Kenya and Tanzania when tourist numbers peak. In Kenya the annual revenue generated from the Maasai Mara National Reserve is estimated at $43 million while in Tanzania the northern safari circuit alone, the main attraction of which is the Serengeti-Mara wildebeest migration, generated an estimated $550 million in 2008.
By August, the wildebeest have reached their northern extreme on the periphery of the world famous Masai Mara national reserve, and then track back across the Mara along a different path where there’s still palatable grass to the Serengeti.
This year, to see the spectacular migration, there’s a whole family from Canada – three generations – checked in at the luxury Fairmont Mara Safari Club in the Mara.
Bob Plecas is a retired deputy minister from Canada and his wife Pauline Rafferty the former CEO of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria British Columbia. “We visited here the first time in 2008 and decided to bring our family here,” tells Rafferty. “It was such a magical experience for us.”
In 2013, the couple visited again – this time to see the “great” migration – they use the word. “We then decided that this was the time to come with the family.” Despite the travel advisories, they came again - all 22 of them.
“I was bringing my family here and l had to be sure about their safety. I spent a lot of time reading travel advisories issued by the USA, Canada and the UK. There is no overall travel advisory – they specify the region which is not advisable to travel to like the coast near Somalia. But the trouble is that not many people read past the first paragraph…” says Plecas.
The problem is these travel advisories may not be the only obstacle for the tourists who flock to see the wildebeest migration every year. A bigger, and very real, concern is that the wildebeest migration may not happen in the not-so-distant future.
Large scale animal migrations such as this one were once common around the world but they disappeared either due to hunting or human population encroachment. A clear example of this, documented by Robert Ogutu, is the migration of vast herds of zebra and Thomson’s gazelle between the Lake Nakuru-Elementaita region and Lake Baringo, Kenya, which “disappeared in the early part of the 20th century due to over-hunting, habitat loss and other human disturbances.”
Unfortunately there are now reports that suggest that this could happen to this iconic migration. Currently many wildebeest populations are said to be in drastic decline across the region - the herd reached a near-historic peak of 1.5 million a decade ago and is now down to 1.2 million. The migration itself is also being heavily affected by the loss of migratory corridors as human populations increase, roads are constructed (such as the proposed Serengeti Highway), agriculture expands and fences start to go up.
The impact this will have on the countries’ economies will be devastating as will the impact on the ecosystem. Migrations allow animals access to breeding grounds - enhancing their genetic diversity and health and provide food to predator populations which rely on them.
Fortunately there is some hope. Efforts are now being made to secure wildlife dispersal areas through the use of community conservancies. In Kenya, the Maasai Mara Conservancies Association has now established eight conservancies, with a total acreage of 88,099 hectares. Through engaging with local communities, these conservancies provide a safe-haven for wildlife and secure migratory corridors but since the migration goes across borders there needs to be a more comprehensive regional approach. Therefore the challenges will ultimately remain with the governments to produce favourable policies that will continue to protect one of the greatest natural wonders in the world.