Human Interest

Covid keeps tourists away from Kenya’s annual wildebeest migration

By Patricia Martínez

Maasai Mara, Kenya, Aug 17 (efe-epa).- Far away from the horror of the coronavirus pandemic, one and a half million wildebeest gather on the banks of Kenya’s Mara River, poised for the annual leap of faith toward pastures new.

One of the greatest spectacles in the natural world, the annual migration of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in southern Kenya normally serves as a popular tourist attraction.

This year, under the spectre of the pandemic, few tourists were present to witness the phenomenon.

Thousands of wildebeest huff and grunt as they nervously watch the strong current of fresh water that crosses the golden plains of the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Their fear is palpable but all it takes is one trendsetter to jump into the void. Then, driven by instinct, the rest follow, kicking up dust as they leap frantically down the banks of the river and scramble up the other side.

“Migration started even before tourism and this movement is massive, attracting attention from the people all around the world,” Sammy Ndambuki, who has been a tour guide for 15 years, tells Efe.

“Today we are very few people coming to see wildebeests because of flight cancellations and curfews and strict measures which have been put by the respected government authorities,” he continues.

He acknowledges with a hint of regret that he has lived off domestic tourism since the coronavirus first broke out in Kenya in mid-March.

According to the government, the East African country has already lost $752 million due to the collapse of the foreign tourism sector, a pillar of the economy that sustains the livelihoods of some two million Kenyans, among them many from the Maasai ethnic group.

The post-pandemic Maasai Mara is all but silent, the faint roar of a few dozen Land Rovers damped by the immense expanse of the reserve, which has an area of some 1,510 square kilometers.

The wildebeests’ migratory path across the river claims several victims. Some of the animals slip and fall prey to the Nile crocodile lurking beneath the water. However, the majority make it across unscathed.

The annual spectacle is hardwired into the genes of the wildebeest, which roam the plains in huge herds.

Vultures circle in the sky above, watching on with excitement ahead of a potential feast. Big cats, too, will turn up to scavenge the corpses of the unlucky few.

Once the stampede is over, a calm descends on the river. Only a few bereaved mothers run wild searching for their offspring. Half a dozen bodies can be spotted floating in the current.

“It is raw, dirty, thrilling, tragic, joyous. A chaotic pandemonium,” Jeff Gachihi, a Kenyan lawyer who came to the Mara to watch the migration and take advantage of the lack of foreign tourists, tells Efe.

“The last time I was here I was 17,” he adds.

Despite a small surge in domestic tourism since early July, many doubt that this less affluent market can replace the safari tours commonly associated with the region.

These safaris, which normally run between July and October, are worth thousands of dollars and attract tourists from as far away as the United States, the United Kingdom and China, among other countries.

The majority who were able to book trips to the Mara for the migration this year are from Kenya’s expatriate community. Far away from the reserve, in the impoverished Nairobi slums of Kibera or Mathare, there is a very different reality.

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