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Post-pandemic aggressive tourism is killing big cats on safari tours

It isn't curiosity (at least not on the part of Kenya's apex predators) that's killing the proverbial cat. Local guides, eager to please visitors, are putting endangered animals at risk.

The video surfaced online around October. Filmed from a distance, it shows an antelope grazing on the African plain. Suddenly, two cheetahs race toward it and the antelope takes off, running toward the camera. But the cats are too fast. They converge on it and bring it down. They begin to feed.

Almost at that exact moment, a second drama unfolds: The safari vehicles that have been parked in the background begin to move. One dark-coloured 4x4 hits the gas and begins driving closer to the animals. Then, vehicle after vehicle is on the move  green, brown white, in various states of repair.

You can hear the voices of the guides within yelling at one another. Some start to honk their horns. The vehicles form a circle, jockeying for position as their passengers hold up cellphones to record the cheetahs and their meal.

A woman’s voice can be heard in the background. “Are they stupid?” she asks.

The video was filmed in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, home to many of the Big Five animals (lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhinoceroses) that safari participants tick off their lists. The identity of the video’s creator remains unknown, as does the date it was shot.

It was originally shared by a Twitter account using the name @DrumChronicles and has been viewed more than 175,000 times since it appeared.

Guides and conservationists who have seen it said the video underscored a problem many of them have observed since the Kenyan government began lifting most pandemic-related travel restrictions: Safari vehicles packed with smartphone-wielding tourists led by guides who are willing to get too close to the animals.

Overcrowding at popular safari spots was a serious issue before the pandemic, but as tourists have returned to Kenya, the problem has come back with alarming speed and “appears to be heightened by pent-up travel demand”, said Judy Kepher-Gonadirector of the Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, an organisation based in Kenya that has called for stricter monitoring in the reserve.

“Sadly, what is seen in this video is the rule and not the exception in Masai Mara reserve,” she said.

(Photo: iStock/lu_2006)

In February, a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying tourists got so close to a family of cheetahs, the vehicle nearly ran over one of the cubs.

The problem, which conservationists describe as “aggressive tourism” preceded the pandemic, but it appears to have gotten worse, with guests hungry for Instagram moments and tour companies trying to make up for the losses they suffered when the world shut down.

“Personally, I won’t go into the Mara Reserve ever again in season because of this,” said Michael Lorentz, a safari guide based in Cape Town, South Africa, who leads tours in Kenya. “It actually upsets me so much, and it upsets my guests to see how badly animals are being treated.”


The human desire to get close to animals, however dangerous, is innate, said Professor Philip Tedeschi, the founder of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, who frequently visits Kenya with his students.

“It’s part of our DNA to pay special attention to living systems,” he said.

And it can lead us to put a premium on being far too close to animals  “literally being able to look over the shoulder of the animal as it kills its prey”  while forgetting that animals are sentient beings, whose behaviour is altered by our presence, he said.

The consequences for animals can be devastating, Prof Tedeschi said.

In Kenya, cheetahs  the fastest of the big cats, but also among the most timid  can easily be scared off a hard-won kill, even if they have gone days without eating. Vehicles that get too close can reveal a cheetah’s position to prey or other predators, adding another challenge for animals that are struggling to find food because of drought and habitat loss.

Large numbers of vehicles and tourists in the roughly 580-square-mile Masai Mara are also threatening the annual journey of mammals known as the Great Migration, when more than 1 million wildebeests, along with zebras and gazelles, move through the reserve in July and August, the peak travel months for Kenya.

The Great Migration was already being threatened by other types of human behaviour, including urban development, new settlements and fencing for farms.

Large numbers of vehicles and tourists in the Masai Mara are threatening the annual journey of over 1 million wildebeests, zebras and gazelles known as the Great Migration. (Photo: iStock/1001slide)

Tourists clamouring for front-row seats are adding pressure on the animals, who could respond by travelling in smaller numbers or deviating from their established routes to avoid the crush of vehicles and tourists, said Benson Gitau, a Kenyan guide.


Tourism is critical to many African economies. By 2030, travel to the continent is projected to generate more than US$260 billion (S$346 billion) annually. In Kenya, before the pandemic, tourism accounted for nearly 10 per cent of the gross domestic product, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.

In 2019, more than 2 million people visited Kenya, a number that was expected to grow by more than 7 per cent in 2020, the tourism ministry said.

But then the pandemic hit, forcing hotels and restaurants to close and more than 80 per cent of companies in the country’s tourism sector to lay off workers. And those who did not lose their jobs often had to cope with pay cuts of up to 70 per cent, the ministry said.

During the height of the pandemic, many guides lost their jobs and had to use their vehicles as taxis or to deliver groceries, said Gitau, the Kenyan guide, who works in the Loisaba Conservancy, a 57,000-acre wildlife reserve north of Nairobi.

(Photo: iStock/guenterguni)

Visitors have returned steadily, although in smaller numbers. By the spring of 2022, international tourist arrivals in Africa had more than doubled compared with 2021.

In October, Najib Balala, then Kenya’s tourism secretary, projected 1.4 million to 1.5 million visitors to the country by the end of 2022, compared with 870,000 in 2021.

But as the country welcomed back visitors, leaders began rethinking how to manage tourism in its reserves and parks.

In May, Balala’s office released a 130-page report that called for a “new tourism strategy”. Among its proposals: Increasing prices for the Masai Mara in July and August (it currently costs up to US$80 for non-resident adults to visit the park) and restricting development of new lodging in the country’s national parks to 30 beds.

There are dozens of camps and lodges in the reserve and the protected areas that neighbour it, according to Masai Mara Travel, a tour company in Kenya. Some camps and lodges in the reserve have up to 200 beds, Gitau said.

But conservationists and guides on the ground say few, if any, of the measures proposed by the ministry have been enacted.

(Photo: iStock/mantaphoto)

The Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, which came under new leadership in October, did not respond to repeated messages for comment. The Kenya Wildlife Service, a state corporation charged with managing and conserving the country’s wildlife, declined to comment.

Zebra Plains, one of the tour operators whose vehicles can be seen in the video, did not respond to requests for comment. The video was posted in November on Zebra Plains’ Facebook page by a user complaining about the drivers’ conduct.

“Whilst our photographic guests usually have off road permits that does not excuse driving between other vehicles and the sighting,” the company responded in the comments. “This will be taken up with the guides concerned.”

With the Masai Mara increasingly under pressure from tourists, conservationists have been pushing for the “conservancy” model, in which private parcels of land owned by local communities, such as the Masai, are leased to tour companies.

They agree to hire community members as guides, camp managers, kitchen staff and housekeepers and to follow rules that include caps on the number of lodges and camps and limits on the number of tourist vehicles. The largest camp in Loisaba Conservancy, for example, fits 20 to 30 tourists, Gitau said.

(Photo: iStock/FORGEM)

Since 2013, when the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association was established, about 350,000 acres of wilderness bordering the Masai Mara reserve have come under this type of private-public partnership.

Research shows wildlife fares better where tourism is more controlled. For example, female cheetahs in the Masai Mara reserve raised far fewer cubs than cheetahs in the conservancies, according to a 2018 report in the scientific journal Ecology And Evolution.

At the same time, a healthy tourism industry is critical to conservation efforts in a region of the world with some of the most endangered species, including black rhinos.

Tourism offers local communities an incentive to protect wildlife, and with few other industries offering well-paying jobs, many Kenyans depend on tourism as a lifeline out of poverty.

The goal should be to improve enforcement and monitoring in the Masai Mara reserve, not to discourage travel, Kepher-Gona said.

To that end, visitors have tremendous power, she said. They can make sure tour companies have guides licensed by the Kenya Professional Safari Guide Association and ask tour companies for their codes of ethics and if the guides keep their distance from animals to avoid disturbing them.

Gitau said that as a rule, a trained guide will come no closer than 20m to 30m to a hunt. “When you arrive there, you have to switch off your engine, keep quiet and enjoy the scene,” he said.

By Maria Cramer and Costas Christ © 2023 The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Source: New York Times/bk