Twenty Years of African Safaris
First published March 2013
It has been twenty years since I first visited Kenya in 1993. I have returned many times to as well as other African countries since. This time I found myself in the middle of the presidential elections and was in Nairobi while demonstrations from the various parties were going on. The elections went peacefully this time although the final outcome is in the courts. In my opinion, things in the country have improved economically and declined environmentally.
Prior to this trip, I was there last at which time there was lots of new highways being constructed or repaired. This year I benefited from this improvements except for the road past Narok to the Masai Mara Park; is still a dirt road full potholes and dusty. The capital Nairobi is booming with new buildings accompanied by huge traffic jams. The renovations to the airport and the construction around it are massive. The interior of the country is not improving as fast; as a result, there is a large migration to the capital by those seeking to improve their quality of life.
In 1993 the Masai people were still barefoot and some were wearing the skins of animals as clothing. Now, they wear shoes mostly made of old tires, the traditional Scottish red pattern cloaks, have watches and cell phones. Pickup trucks and motorcycles are common in the villages. It is interesting that Kenya leapfrogged into the cell phone age bypassing the wired phones. The cell towers are all over the place and in the parks, camouflaged as trees. So when a Masai see lions approaching his cows, he just makes a cell phone call to ask for help.
Traveling towards the Mara, extensive fields cultivated with wheat extends to the boundaries of the Masai Mara Reserve are seen, and more land is plowed for cultivation. Unfortunately these fields need irrigation and the water comes from the Mara River, whose levels now are very low compared to what I recall from earlier years. It is not only the irrigation that is caused the dwindling of water levels in the river but also the deforestation that has taken place in the headwaters of the river as well. The lakes such as Nakuru and Naivasha, are also affected by decreasing water levels and higher levels of pollution. I remember visiting Lake Nakuru back in 2004, when the lake was pink from the large numbers of flamingos; they were not seen during this year or last when I visited.
The parks are under stress due to population growth competing with the forests and animals for firewood and meat. Wayside stands along the roads are selling charcoal made mostly from acacia trees for cooking. Even inside the parks one can see a whole acacia tree that has been cut down; the closer to the boundaries, the more. And then the poachers are cutting down the elephant populations for their ivory as well as the few rhinos despite the efforts of the Kenyan Wildlife Service.
Regardless of these pressures, the wildlife inside the parks has become habituated to the tourists and are easily observed and photographed. I recall back in my early safari years, that the animals will see you coming and will run and hide.
As to what the future will bring? The economic improvements will continue to accelerate as well as the population standard of living. The environment will be stressed and in particularly the wildlife. In my opinion, unless immediate action is taken to protect the national parks and forested areas, in particular the Masai Mara, the greatest nature spectacle on earth (the herds’ migration in East Africa) will cease within two decades (my opinion). When it comes to people survival or the environment, the former usually wins but with a hidden cost to pay later.