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Rush to view Kenya's wildebeest migration

Monday July 6 2009

From the vast Serengeti plains to the champagne-coloured hills of the Maasai Mara, every year millions of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles roam, pushing ever forward in a clockwise rotation and encountering friend and foe along the way. Photo/ REUTERS

From the vast Serengeti plains to the champagne-coloured hills of the Maasai Mara, every year millions of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles roam, pushing ever forward in a clockwise rotation and encountering friend and foe along the way. Photo/ REUTERS 

By DAVE OPIYO

The wildebeest migration season is here once again, and the number of visitors is set to increase as the spectacle unfolds.

The first crossing of wildebeests across the Mara River, according to Mr Brian Heath of the Mara Conservancy, was witnessed on Monday, signalling the beginning of the event many people now categorise as a wonder of the world.

“In a few days, we shall witness the crossing in full swing,” Mr Heath told the Nation by telephone.

But concerns are being raised that the continued destruction of the Mau water catchment area will have a disastrous effect on the marvel that has put Kenya on the world tourism map.

Kenya Wildlife Service corporate communications manager Paul Udoto said the destruction of the forests would indeed have severe effects on the migration soon.

Statistics show that more than one million wildebeests are usually on the move during the event that occurs between June and October.

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The wildebeest migrate between the Serengeti and Mara Savannah in Tanzania and Kenya respectively, in search of pasture and water.

“The increased felling of trees along the Mau escarpment is likely to interfere with the natural flow of water that passes through the Mara,” Mr Udoto said. “This means that, when it rains, floods will raise water levels in the Mara River beyond what the animals can cross.”

According to a posting on the Mara Conservancy website, at least 4,000 wildebeests drowned by October last year as they were unable to cross the Mara River.

Added Mr Udoto: “And when the rains fail, due to cutting trees, the drought will be catastrophic. Animals will lack water and die, interfering with the migration.”

Despite these concerns, industry members are rolling out ambitious plans to woo tourists to view the phenomenon.

Media companies

Media companies are trooping into the Maasai Mara — which is arguably one of the new seven wonders of the world — to film the spectacle. Publicity generated by the documentaries will drive up the number of tourists visiting the Mara.

“The BBC has already set up their equipment ready to shoot one of their shows — the Big Cat diary — on the migration,” said Mr James Sindiyo of the Narok county council. “We were getting 40 per cent visits to the Mara, but it has since increased to 70 per cent.”

Statistics released by the Kenya Tourist Board (KTB) indicate that the number of tourists visiting Kenya in 2008 took a dip during the year by 40.2 per cent to stand at 1.1 million compared to the previous year’s slightly over two million.

This was largely blamed on the post-election violence and fluctuations in exchange rates.

Mr Sindiyo said there was already an overwhelmed demand, with calls people all over the world inquiring about the spectacle. Officials from KTB said they had launched an aggressive campaign to market “Wildlife Safari” — one of the country’s best brands so far.

The board’s public relations and corporate affairs manager Ahmed Salim said an aggressive media campaign, both locally and internationally, was on.

“Wildlife Safari’s climax is the wildebeest migration. This is a remarkable attraction that makes Kenya one of the best destinations in the world,” Mr Salim said.

He added: “We have publicised the event through our website magicalkenya.com, which has linkages with tour operators who book in tourists.”

Although he could not say how many tourists they had projected to visit as a result of the campaign, Mr Salim said their own experiences indicated that the visitors normally extended their stay to sample other diversified products across the country.