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November 21, 2018

The massacre of wildebeests in the Mara

At risk: Had the wildebeests been allowed to cross at their usual point, only a few would have died.
At risk: Had the wildebeests been allowed to cross at their usual point, only a few would have died.

I could not have closed the year on a worse tone.

The wildebeest migration came to an end in a grand style, but it was not anything to write home, or even smile about.

As yours truly has pointed out before in this column, the wildebeests migration has been overemphasised in promoting the Maasai Mara during the high season. And it has had a great impact. The number of visitors during the high season has increased tremendously. Good for the hotels and good for the tour operators. A lot of money was earned by the players in the hotel industry, who double the average cost of staying in the Mara during such times. But what has that done to the migrating animals?

I was in the Mara during the last week of migration as the wildebeests retreated to the Serengeti plains. This year, the Mara river was not overly flooded since there was not much rain towards the end of September and beginning of November. So most of the gnus were able to cross without much effort.

But as the fame of the Mara and the crossing spread all over the world and all sorts of visitors streamed to the Mara and headed straight for the river, the gnus are finding it very difficult to continue doing what they have done for years. They have designed some very popular crossing points where both banks are well slanted for easy descent and ascent. On the conservancy side of the Mara, the rangers have even put up a sign board warning clients and the drivers not to come out of their vehicles or sit on the roofs. This is to discourage any small disturbance to a group of wildebeests who chose to cross from this particular spots.

But due to the sheer number of visitors who have come from far and wide and paid a lot of money to see this eighth wonder of the new world, the authorities cannot cope with the rowdy tourists and overworked drivers. This is especially on the Narok side of the divide. About 90 per cent of the lodges and camps are on this side, hence it carries the bulk of the traffic to the Mara. The rangers are simply out-numbered and sometimes they can only watch in resignation as rules are bent at will.

I noticed at one time over 50 vehicles lining up at the exact point where a large group of wildebeests were preparing to cross. After trying several times to persuade the drivers of the group to move and allow the animals to plan their path in peace, I also gave up. The drivers were willing to move, but each time they made to start their vehicles, the mostly Chinese clients would shout at them to stop, or they miss their tips. I would understand the dilemma of the drivers. These Chinese want to see the country in five days. They may have come from Tsavo, Amboseli, Nakuru, and now they are in Mara for a day and they must see the crossing come what may. And so they stuck their guns and stayed put at the crossing point.

It is the wildebeests that moved away. But since they also had to cross under any circumstances, they entered into a thick bush, where there were no vehicles. Here, they found the peace they were looking for. They gathered in their hundreds. It only needed one to start the crossing, and the whole group of say 20,000, would be on the other side in about 40 minutes. The problem was on the opposite bank. Although they had chosen a place devoid of any vehicle from either side, the exit path was very narrow and would be unable to carry the same numbers as they streamed into the river.

The result was catastrophic, to say the least. I, together with a ranger from the conservancy side, stood in disbelief at the inlet bank, as the wildebeests died one by one from drowning. They crammed on the side, trying their best to fit into a narrow path made by hippos coming out of the river. Some were tramping on the back of others, pushing them back into the river. Those who had a chance swam back, but the majority were hell bent to make it onto the other side, or die trying. They did die, in plenty. I counted 970 gnus in a span of 30 minutes! The worst feeling was that, we had caused the mass murders. Had the wildebeests been allowed to cross at their traditional points, only a few would have died from the crocodiles. Contribute a solution for this if you love nature.

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