NAROK, September 22 – With undulating scenery of steamy blue skies and pyramid-shaped hills, shrubs and bush thickets on which roam a wide variety of animal species, the Maasai Mara game reserve is undoubtedly Kenya’s most famous wildlife conservation area.
The Mara is home to an infinite diversity of wildlife, from lions to buffalos, zebra to elephants; it is a true animal kingdom.
But if unchecked, this beautiful face of Maasai Mara could slowly change to one that is hideous.
Conservationists are now ringing the alarm bell over the number of human habitats that have sprouted around the park entry points of Sekenani gate, Talek and Olelamutia.
“These are villages that have been established right at the park entry and there are concerns about unplanned development in these shanty villages including lack of proper refuse collection,” Mara Conservancy Director Brian Heath, told Capital News.
Another village, Heath points out, is Mara Ranta.
“Although there is no real threat of them extending into the park at present, what we have spreads to the park boundary and in some areas cuts off the free movement of animals between the park and the greater Mara,” he says.
The importance of the greater Mara, he informs, is that it is a dispersal area for wildlife and so if unchecked, the villages and any uncontrolled development outside the park could stop the free flow of the animals here.
The Narok County Council is accused of allotting land permits to these villages. The Mara Ranta, for instance, is located near the Musiara gate. A dirt road cuts through the village. On one side lies a shopping centre characterized by poorly constructed, unplanned shops built of corrugated iron sheets, mud huts and some wooden structures.
“I have conducted business here for about three years, selling food stuff,” says Ibrahim Mohammed, who, like many here, says his shop is rented and is not aware how his landlord acquired the land.
Across the rough road lies the village itself.
“I have lived here for many years. I can’t tell how many because I don’t know how to count not even the year or the month. We just stay here,” informs one elderly man probably in his late 70’s.
“I have lived here from birth; I was circumcised here and now I am an old man with children. So I have been here all my life,” explains another villager. The two elderly men say they inherited the land from their parents.
In another manyatta, we find an elderly woman in her 80’s. She lives with her children and grand children. She speaks in Maasai as one of her daughters translates.
“I have lived here for about 40 years,” she says, explaining that the land was initially a group ranch trust, but has recently been sub-divided to the resident families.
Brian Heath, the Mara Conservancy boss, estimates that close to 20,000 people live in villages adjacent to the Mara National Reserve, which covers an area of 1,510 km ².
Out of this Narok County Council manages 1,000 km² with Transmara County Council managing the remainder.
The alarming developments are mainly taking place on the Narok County Council side. However, in defense, council clerk Maurice Ogolla insists that they have no mandate over any development that falls outside the park boundaries.
The council is also denying subdividing the lands as claimed by the villagers.
“As far as I’m concerned, we have not issued any letters of allotment because there has been a stop order from the government since 1999,” Ogolla states.
The Ewaso Nyiro South Development Authority, with funding from the European Union, is developing a plan for the greater Mara ecosystem.
“This plan has been running in tandem with the management plan for the reserve and we hope that it will address some of these issues on uncontrolled development outside the park,” Heath says.
The conservation plan is expected to be ready in about a year, and although the Transmara County Council effectively managed to relocate people living in a village outside the Oloololo gate five years ago, Heath thinks it may not be possible to relocate the others.
“I think many of the other villages surrounding the Mara are too big and spread too far for relocation to be a viable option. We have to try and make sure that any new development is planned.”
There has also been an outcry over issuance of leases by the Narok County Council to private individuals who are now embarking on building camps and lodges on the property.
Heath says about 15 thirty-year leases have been issued to that effect although the Narok County Council Clerk could neither confirm nor deny.
“There is one camp that is proposed along the Mara River, in an area that could affect the habitat of the endangered black rhino,” Heath states. “There is also concern that every suitable thicket piece of land along the river could potentially be developed which will stop the free flow of animals between the two sides of the park.”
National Environment Management Authority Director General Muusya Mwinzi however says the issue is under probe by the National Environment Tribunal.
He however insists that due process was followed including carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment study.
Other threats at the park relate to environment degradation and damage caused by the huge number of people who visit the reserve annually.