The Dark Side of the Mara

Jono Buffey All Authors, Jono 17 Comments

The Masai Mara is undoubtedly one of the greatest wildlife destinations on the globe and the spectacle of the Wildebeest crossing the Mara River is truly magnificent.

Wild Eye has been running hugely successful safaris here since 2011 and have throughout this time set ourselves the goal of being respected as the best photographic travel company that operates in the area.

It is not only our clients that think this, as can be seen from the feedback we recently received from Sally and Susan.

Dark Side of the Mara

We have also been applauded by the officials that govern the Mara Triangle in the manner we conduct ourselves, particularly in our conservation ethics and how we do not affect the natural behaviour of the animals we view and photograph.

Here is a short mail we received from one of the section rangers of the Mara Triangle.

Dark Side of the Mara

In any professional guiding textbook, it will instruct any aspiring guide that one of the fundamental aspects of responsible guiding is that you should NEVER EVER affect the natural behaviour of an animal.

EVER.

These rules do not apply to everyone that operates in the region, as there are many unscrupulous safari outfits that have a blatant disregard for the environment and the animals. It appears that all they are interested in is ensuring they get as close as possible to the crossings or predator sightings so they can maximise their gratuity at the end of the safari.

Their loutish behaviour stresses the animals to no end.

Dark Side of the Mara

 

The biggest cause for concern is with the Wildebeest. The stress created by the vehicles and people is causing them to use crossing points that they would not ordinarily use as they are dangerous.

This is not due to there being more crocodiles on that particular stretch of the river, but because the entry and exit points are difficult which causes the animals to drown. In their hundreds and on rare occasions, in the their thousands. The Chief Warden of the Mara Triangle related an experience where approximately 9000 animals had perished due to them using an unsuitable crossing point in high river conditions.

Below is an extract from his official November 2012 report:

The wildebeest persist in crossing in the most unsuitable places and about 2,980 died in one crossing. We know of at least 9,000 animals dying whilst crossing the river this year, nearly all of them in two unsuitable crossing points near Purungat. The rangers tried very hard to stop animals from crossing at these points and managed on most occasions – the death toll would undoubtedly have been much higher if they had not done so. Both sites are in croton woodland along the river and not easily accessible to vehicles.  Are the wildebeest avoiding the more traditional crossing points in order to get away from vehicle pressure?”

During our recent Great Migration safaris, many crossings were disrupted by the unscrupulous conduct of irresponsible operators.

On this occasion we saw several thousand wildebeest approaching a particular crossing at pace. We approached the crossing point, and parked our vehicle well away from their exit point – as should be done and is enforced by the rangers in the Mara Triangle. The animals suddenly stopped which was quite unusual. We immediately presumed that there may be a predator lurking in the bushes, something we have witnessed in the past

It was not a predator.

Wild Eye - Dark Side of the Mara

It was an operator that had decided that the entry to the crossing point was a great place to have lunch. WTF??

The Masai Mara is hundreds of thousands of hectares – why on earth would you choose to have your lunch there knowing that it is a regularly used crossing point with herds of Wildebeest building just behind them up the hill?

We have even witnessed crossings where people are out of their vehicles with Wildebeest running around them to get to the river.

This year one of our guests captured images of guests from a nearby lodge, standing on the edge of the river with a lioness in a bush not 10 meters away from them. Not only dangerous, but also disrespectful to the other visitors to the Mara as well as the wildlife we are all there to view.

Here is a small “selection“ of other images captured by the team.

Wild Eye - Dark Side of the Mara

Wild Eye - Dark Side of the Mara

Wild Eye - Dark Side of the Mara

Wild Eye - Dark Side of the Mara

It is not only the Wildebeest that are stressed out by human behaviour.  The predators also are subjected to this idiotic behaviour.

I have personally witnessed a mini van driving off road and ramming into a bush as there was a leopard inside the bush. This all because the driver wanted his guests to see the animal. The leopard, obviously scared witless, charged the vehicle.  Absolutely pathetic behaviour.

Now you are probably wondering where the authorities are to prevent this boorish behaviour.

Allow me to explain.

The Masai Mara is split into 2 regions. The Western side of the river is known as the Mara Triangle, which is controlled by the Mara Conservancy. Their rangers are all extremely visual and extremely committed to the effective conservation of their area. They do not hesitate to issue significant fines to people that break the park rules. At all the crossings that I have been fortunate to witness, there has always been a ranger present. They ensure that no vehicles block the exit / entry points – you have to park your vehicles well away from them, no one is allowed out of your vehicles or even to sit on the roof, and you are not allowed to go off road. They also only allow 5 vehicles at a time at any predator sighting and in some areas you are not permitted to follow the animal off road. All of this is done to protect the environment, minimise stress on the animals and create an all-round pleasant wildlife experience for guests.

The other side of the river, the Masai Mara, is controlled by the Narok County Council.  The same rules do not apply. I have rarely seen a ranger vehicle at a crossing point, hence the unruly behavior of operators. There are also no limits in regards to vehicles at a predator sighting.

A few weeks back, Gerry and his guests were at a cheetah sighting; a female with 5 cubs. The sighting was quite a way off road, so our guides stood by on the road waiting to see if she would move her cubs closer to the road. In this instance there was a ranger present and was allowing the opportunity to get closer.

For a 3000 KES fee! Per vehicle!!

No receipt, nothing.  Flat out bribe!

We obviously declined their “offer”!

I could go on and on…

Will this post change things?

Probably not.

Well then, what are my intentions?

Primarily to educate people.  There are many people that read this post that may visit the Mara in the future and I have no doubt that it is as much the responsibility of the guests to ensure that rules are obeyed, as the operator themselves.

There are also several photographic outfitters from around the world that offer safaris to the Mara so I feel that it is important that we somehow connect, unite and assist in eradicating this utterly irresponsible behaviour.

We have a responsibility in Conserving the Mara – a combined voice will always be more effective than a single one.

Wild Eye’s standpoint on this is very clear.

We will not tolerate our guides breaking the rules,  and we insist on them portraying a responsible conservation ethic.

Should this not be the case, and if proven, we will not hesitate to take immediate action against them.

After reading this you maybe asking yourself – do I really want to visit the Mara?

Absolutely.

Wild Eye - Dark Side of the Mara

But do it with a responsible operator with a proven track record.

The experience will most definitely be worth it!

Jono Buffey

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Jono’ Links:

Comments 17

  1. Simon

    Well written, Jono! My experience with the WildEye guides was tremendous…..they prove it IS possible to obey the rules, operate professionally and still deliver a truly memorable and first rate experience for a guest. Kudos to you and your team.

    1. Jono Buffey

      Hi Simon ,

      Many thanks for your reply and positive affirmation on the manner in which we conduct ourselves whilst operating in the region .

      I will most certainly pass on your compliments to the rest of the team !

  2. Ryan Beeton

    Well written. I was in the Mara Triangle in September and was blown away by how the guides disrupt crossings – after waiting hours on end to witness one, a guide would ruin it for hundreds of visitors by rushing in too close and blocking the animals off. Fig Tree Crossing was particularly bad this year with no Ranger presence in the Masai Mara Reserve side- the guys would cut the animals off to get close and disrupt the crossing. On two occasions zebras were cut off leaving the ones that made it come back to the ones who didn’t cross. Rather bizarre!!!

    I saw 5 of your vehicles at the sightings and all your guides were respectful of the animals and the visitors around them. Keep up the great work.

    1. Jono Buffey

      Hi Ryan .

      Many thanks for your feedback and really great to hear that our guides displayed great conduct during the sighting you mentioned .

      What amazes me is that the operators that create havoc on the ” other side ” are not only the mini vans normally transporting day visitors . I have also witnessed ” highly respected ” lodges behaving in a manner that effects the movement of the animals . They really should know better .

      It is still a magnificent destination despite the irritations that occur .

      Regards
      Jono

  3. Peter

    Social media has become a powerful tool to fight the ignorant behavior you describe. As photographers we are often in good positions to document this awful behavior, sometimes lucky enough that the operators name or vehicle is clearly in focus, so that it can be shared with the authorities, the offending operators and potential clients via social media It may not have an immediate effect on their business, but over time it may help weed out the troublemakers.

    1. Jono Buffey

      Hi Peter ,

      Many thanks for your comments . Social media is a powerful tool and it is important that lodges / operators are exposed for their despicable behaviour .

      I had the experience this year of a lodge that is situated on the banks of the river . During a crossing that was taking place in front of the lodge , i witnessed their guests running towards the river screaming and shouting . They all stood on the banks , in brightly coloured clothing which caused the animals to stop crossing .

      i snapped an image and my colleague posted it on one of the social media pages . I followed this up with some pretty derogatory comments . They immediately contacted our office in Johannesburg and requested that we move the post as they were prepared to communicate and make suggestions of how they could ensure that their guests and staff would not create a detrimental effect on the animals . Based on this we duly removed the post expecting to engage in some positive actions .
      As soon as it was removed they suddenly became extremely arrogant , accusing us of unfounded misdemeanours , castigating me for the comments i made and generally adopting a couldn’t care less attitude .
      In my opinion , this is the main reason why there is no progress in sorting this problem out . they are only interested in short term financial gains and have no respect for the ongoing conservation of the Mara . Sad but true .

      Jono .

  4. Ben Bressler

    My name is Ben Bressler and I am the founder of Natural Habitat Adventures. The message of conservation in your blog post is exceedingly important and it is one that holds deep meaning for me as a professional in the nature travel industry. We are in this business because we have a passion for wild things and wild places and it is our goal to protect them. I would presume this is the case with your company founders as well? I am disturbed, however, by your photograph of one of our safari trucks alongside an accusation that we were parked blocking an important wildlife corridor. If this was the case–and the image does not indicate anything of the sort–it is imperative that the management of our company is made aware so we can take action to ensure it does not happen in the future. According to your post, this occurred this past migration season, yet rather than let us know of the issue so we could take care of it (if it actually did happen), it seems that you took an image of our vehicle and added a story to make an unsubstantiated claim against a competitor. Our industry is made up (mostly) of friendly competitors, people who all share a common passion. Yet it seems to me that since the only action you took when you apparently witnessed this ethical infraction was to publically criticize us rather than take steps to inform our management, I can only conclude that your goals are simply to unfairly slander well-meaning competitors, not to protect our environment and its inhabitants. Please contact me if you’d like to discuss this situation as mature individuals who care deeply about our planet.

  5. Jono Buffey

    Hi Ben ,

    I will be in contact via mail with my comments and the events that led me to post this article .

    I am not questioning the ethics of yourself or your organisation , but i have no doubt that you will understand my point once you have read my mail .

    Unfortunately , i witnessed another situation during August created by a ” competitor ” that i shared . They also contacted me in regard to discussing the incident and how we could work together , how they could improve their conduct etc etc etc .

    I removed the post and they then suddenly became very arrogant and were not prepared to engage in any further discussions .

    I trust that our further discussion will be more constructive .

    Regards
    Jono .

  6. Cindy

    Ben Bressler, it seems to me the only way to stop this type of behaviour is to “publically criticize” the offenders. You already know “the rules”. Obviously they aren’t being followed. No one wants to admit their people are doing it but they are.

    Too bad it’s not easy to document because it’s a subtle (but definite) reaction from the animals. It’s hard to document in photos that you have been sitting, observing animals near the river to see a crossing for 4 hours and then a driver/guide allows behaviour that causes the animals to be afraid. Pictures won’t capture that.

    Bad behaviour can be seen every day in the Mara.

    Here’s an easy one. How many drivers/guides allow the cheetahs to jump on the vehicle? I know that’s against “the rules” and yet it happens a lot. I was never so happy as when I saw a cheetah on a vehicle defecate in the open hatch. I will say in July 2014 I did see drivers/guides driving off to keep the cheetahs from jumping up. Not all but some.

    Thanks Jono Buffey for being the “bad guy” and making this info public knowledge.

    1. Jono Buffey

      Hi Cindy ,

      Many thanks for your comments . I have been in contact with Ben and provided him with an account of what happened .
      The post has certainly gained some momentum and will be contacting various senior role players with a view of sharing some ideas and hopefully assisting is improving the conditions that prevail there now – both for the animals and tourists . If we cannot coexist , the Mara ecosystem will continue to be under severe threat .
      I do not classify myself as a ” bunny hugger ” , but it infuriates me when people behave is this manner . It displays a serious lack of respect and values .
      Regards
      Jono

  7. Dr. Sabuni Alex

    The photos say a lot.
    However, I am in doubt if someone responsible for the mess will read this and manage this bad habits at the Narok side of the Mara. Maybe a followup e-mail to the Chief Warden will help. I am a Vet Officer In-charge of Narok South & West Sub-counties.

    Good work, and thanks for bringing the issue to our attention.

    1. Jono Buffey

      Hi Alex ,

      Many thanks for your response .

      I have your mail address and will be in contact with you next week to discuss some ideas . i cannot change anything alone , but if we gain the support of authorities , stakeholders and concerned people our combined voices may be heard .

      Thanks again

      Jono .

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  9. Vicente

    I had a bad experience with one of the fantastic rangers of Mara Triangle that you mention, back in 2010: Untrained and unprofessional. They tolerated everything from the local safari drivers in the area (Kichwa Tembo, Bateleur, Mpata and the like), chasing only “private” drivers, as we were: independent visitors with a rented vehicle. They invented a supposed speeding offense and tried to fine us because of this. We had never seen them before and they had never seen us before, we had never over speeded. Just we were the only independent drivers in the area that day. We had to drive away from they (then at really high speed!) back to Mara Serena, and cleared things there in presence of other rangers and reception people. Excellent that there are more rangers there, but please select only honest people and train them properly! They were by the way driving around in the Conservancy vehicle with 2 girls working at Mara Serena. Probably they wanted to “impress” the girls showing how much power they had on foreign visitors… A very unpleasant experience.

    1. Jono Buffey

      Hi Vincente

      Many thanks for your reply . Sorry to hear about your incident with the rangers in the Mara Conservancy . They are obviously not under our jurisdiction so cannot comment further . Suffice to say that we have only had positive experiences with them . Incidentally , we were not operating there in 2010 – our safaris only started in 2012 , so have no comments what happened prior to us operating in the region .
      Jono .

  10. Faith Musembi

    Hi,

    I’m so glad to see this article. I was in the Mara back in June on a videography assignment, and my heart was practically breaking by watching humans breaching the wild animals’ space. Our first day there, a tour van decided that waiting for lions to wake up and come closer to the designated route was taking too long, so they off roaded right the sanctuary where these wild cats were sleeping. This bothered lions, and they immediately moved deeper into the brush.

    The next day we watched The Crossing a little distance from the entrance point (parked next to three Wild Eye tour vans) your vans. We waited patiently for the animals o cross, but as they started crossing, about 10 vans that were A LOt closer started driving at full speed toward the poor animals. Dust was kicke up in the air, and those of us watching from our safe distance were furious and upset for te wildebeest. Half the group made the crossing, but the other half turned back and started sprinting in panic at different edges of the river. They couldn’t find an entrance point so they turned back. Our guide told us that this behavior from the unscrupulous tour guides has become the norm.

    I’d be glad to return to the Mara to film some of these atrocities, for a documentary that can be used to effect change. The culprits may not see the damage they wreak now, but in a few years things might be too late to change. I want to be able to bring my kids and grandkids to enjoy the unspoiled Mara, so somethig has to be done! And I’m willing to be a part of that!

    1. Jono Buffey

      Hi Faith ,

      Many thanks for commenting on the negative experiences you had whilst in the Mara . I think that your thoughts on filming some of the incidents is a good idea . Unfortunately , the name and shame principle is probably the only way that gets peoples attention . It would not have to be done should all the operators obey the rules – but there is a long way to go before that happens . All concerned members of the public and responsible operators need to stand together and , as a combined voice , hopefully it will create some impact and ultimately improve behaviours .
      Jono

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