Photo taken on Aug. 30, 2021 shows wildebeest in the Masai Mara National Reserve in southwest Kenya. (Photo: Xinhua)
Photo shows brown grassland in the Masai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya, August 30, 2021. (Photo: Xinhua)
The sight of brown grasslands that greets visitors to the well-known Masai Mara game reserve in southwestern Kenya confirms the growing consensus that dry spells have demanded the pristine sanctuary for iconic wildlife.
Often regarded as Kenya’s jewel due to its lush vegetation, idyllic setting and the presence of iconic land mammals such as elephants and rhinos, the mara is slowly losing its luster due to climate change.
Thanks to the low rainfall this year, the Mara’s normally tall green grass has withered, exposing the soil to harsh elements while driving a huge population of herbivores to the brink of starvation.
Additionally, water levels in the Mara River have plummeted to historic lows as delayed and suppressed rainfall became the norm in Kenya this year, with experts blaming global warming for the change.
The great wildebeest migration from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Mara has suffered some disruption due to the harsh weather conditions.
Dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world,” the great wildebeest migration culminating in their spectacular leap to cross the Mara River has seen hiccups recently that worries Kenyan officials and conservationists.
Najib Balala, the cabinet secretary at the Department of Tourism and Wildlife, admitted that the effects of climate change, such as delayed rainfall, have changed the calendar for the great wildebeest migration.
“We can clearly see that there is more rain in Tanzania now than in Kenya. The wildebeest are now stuck in Tanzania because of climate change. The same scenario happened 20 years ago,” Balala said in a recent interview with Xinhua.
He clarified that wildebeest migration from the Serengeti to the Mara often took place from mid-July to October, adding that if it rains abundantly, they can arrive in Kenya from mid-June.
Kenya has taken advantage of the great wildebeest migration to increase the country’s visibility as a prime destination for international tourists keen to sample its rich wildlife heritage, Balala said, noting that wildebeest migration in mid-2020 after months of downturn brought vitality to the tourism sector, when travelers moved to the Masai Mara Game Reserve to spot the iconic herbivores.
Kenya’s wildlife scientists said this year’s edition of the great wildebeest migration has been significantly delayed as weather conditions in the country are drier than usual.
Patrick Omondi, director of the Wildlife Research and Training Institute, said that droughts caused by climate change have affected migration schedules and herd sizes in both Kenya and Tanzania.
He said that the seasonal movement of herbivores from the Serengeti to the Mara is driven by the search for food and water in addition to an ideal breeding environment.
“They usually migrate out of the Serengeti in around May immediately after the long rainy season in Kenya, when the willows in the Mara are in bloom,” said Omondi. “But with the absence of rain for most of the year, we saw very few wildebeest migrate to the Mara. Their migration cannot be guaranteed in the case of dry weather and a lack of pasture on the Kenyan side.”
Nancy Githaiga, Kenya country director for the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), said an estimated 1.2 million wildebeest migrate often from the Serengeti to the Mara, adding that the event is key to tourism recovery in Kenya.
Githaiga said climate change and habitat depletion have altered herbivore migratory dynamics.
Her opinion was shared by Shadrack Ngene, director of Wildlife Population and Habitat Dynamics at the Wildlife Research and Training Institute, who said this year’s wildebeest migration has been dampened due to a prolonged dry spell around the Mara ecosystem.
According to Ngene, the possibility of massive migration of wildebeest herds from the Serengeti to the Mara seems remote as enough rainfall that could allow pastures to flourish bypasses the ecosystem that spans the border between Kenya and Tanzania.
He said the future outlook for the Mara ecosystem looks bleak without robust climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, to the detriment of wildebeest migration and the Kenyan tourism sector.
Kenya’s vast southwestern plains, where the Mara is located, have suffered from harsh climatic conditions since the beginning of the year, affecting livestock, subsistence farming and conservation.
Bernard Chanzu, deputy director of the Department of Metrological Services, said the Mara ecosystem experienced weak rains from March to May and dry cold weather from June to August, causing vegetation to wither.
“The drought situation that has been reported in the southwest sector, including the Mara, is expected to escalate, leading to a lack of pasture that could exacerbate human-wildlife conflicts,” Chanzu said.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta declared the drought a national disaster last week, which is affecting an estimated 1.2 million people in arid and semi-arid areas.
Samson Lenjirr, WWF Kenya’s Sub Landscape Coordinator, Mau Mara Loita, admitted that competition for pastures and water amid climate-induced droughts has fueled clashes between wildlife and nomads in the Mara ecosystem.
“Yes, it is true that we have had several incidents of conflict with human wildlife due to climate change as wildlife invades human settlements and farms in search of pasture and water,” Lenjirr said. “In the last month we had two incidents of human-wildlife conflicts. But those incidents have now decreased compared to previous years.”
He added that strategic interventions such as encouraging nomadic communities to appreciate the value of wildlife, securing migration corridors and building predator-proof homes have been put in place in the Mara ecosystem to reduce human-wildlife clashes.