* NAROK, Kenya – When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Kenya’s tourism sector in 2020, Magret Sanaipei Sayaru, 67, mother of five, lost a vital source of income.
Sayaru sells pearls to tourists in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Narok County, and usually July, August and September are good for business.
During these months, more than 1.2 million animals, mostly wildebeest, and zebras cross the crocodile infested Mara River from Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya to Serengeti National Park in Tanzania for grazing.
Called the Great Migration, it is the largest herd movement of animals on the planet, driven solely by natural survival instincts.
The event generally attracts millions of tourists to the two East African countries.
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However, the annual spectacle of the Maasai Mara National Reserve went unnoticed in 2020 as global travel restrictions to tackle the coronavirus prevented tourists from getting there.
“We have suffered a lot because of the pandemic,” Sayaru told Zenger News.
“We had no jobs, no businesses. We didn’t have the money to buy food. We have turned to bushmeat for food and money on the side, even though it is illegal.
However, things are looking up again for Sayaru and many other women who depend on tourism, as the number of tourists visiting the reserve to witness one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World increases.
“I am happy to be able to feed my family again. Tourists flock to the park and my pearl business is booming. We prayed a lot that fortune would turn in our favor.
Local and international tourists have booked full hotels in the Masai Mara National Reserve, forcing hundreds of visitors to camp in tents to glimpse the spectacular migration.
“The number of tourists visiting Kenya has dropped by two-thirds due to the global pandemic, negatively affecting our income,” said the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife. Najib balala Mahali Mzuri luxury camp told reporters on August 6 during a visit to the Masai Mara National Reserve.
The 12-unit tent camp is owned by British businessman Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group.
Travel and tourism contributed $ 4.2 billion to Kenya’s gross domestic product in 2020, a drop of almost 50% from 2019, which stood at $ 8.1 billion.
“Tourism contributes an average of 10% of income each year to the Kenyan economy, but last year, due to the government-imposed lockdown, it contributed much less. Many tourist activities have been closed and even the wildebeest migration has gone unnoticed. But the situation is improving again, stimulated by the migratory spectacle, ”Balala said.
John Dostalek from France was among hundreds of tourists to the Maasai Mara who enjoyed the sights of the wildebeest’s frantic efforts to cross the Mara River while dodging crocodiles and lions on the prowl in the vast savannah.
“Watching the wildebeest migration is an awesome event that reminds you of how beautiful Africa is,” he told Zenger News.
“I’ve always heard how spectacular it is, so I needed to be a witness for myself. I have been here for a week and hope to stay another week to fully enjoy the Masai Mara National Reserve. ”
As a nature and wildlife lover, Dostalek says visiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve to see the large herds of migrating wildebeest has always been on his travel list.
He canceled his trip to the Masai Mara in 2020 due to the global Covid-19 pandemic but has not given up hope of visiting the reserve.
But even though the annual wildebeest migration continues, experts note that the percentage of wildebeest and other migrating wildlife has fallen to 80 percent in recent years.
Paula Kahumbu, a wildlife ecologist and managing director of WildlifeDirect, said human activities and infrastructure development in Africa are hampering wildlife migration, contributing to their decline.
“We need to protect our wildlife and support migration,” she told Zenger News.
“Maintaining an open space for wildlife migration is the key to wildlife multiplication. “
Scientists believe migration is deeply rooted in the DNA of wildebeest, which tells them precisely when to cross borders to seek nutritious green pasture and give birth.
Zebras, believed to have good eyesight and sharp memories that help them use the safest migration routes, accompany and direct the wildebeest to their pastures on either side of the border.
Researchers say wildebeest have an excellent sense of smell which helps them detect their favorite pastures and water while still moving, making their relationship with zebras mutually beneficial against predators.
Masai Mara National Reserve Senior Director Joseph Sindiyo said the contribution of wildlife to the economy is significant and the government should protect them from decline.
“The only reason tourists flock to the Maasai Mara is because of the migration of wildlife,” he told Zenger News.
“We need to protect our game parks for our wildlife and our posterity. “
To this end, since 2004, the government has evicted thousands of encroachments from the Mau Forest, Kenya’s largest water tower whose continued destruction threatens the Mara River, the main source of water for animals in the plains of the Masai Mara.
(Edited by Kipchumba Some and Amrita Das)
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