MAASAI MARA – One of nature's most spectacular sights, East Africa's great wildebeest migration, went largely unwatched this year as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are felt as far as the continent's wilderness.
Travel restrictions kept tourists away for the annual wildlife migration in Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve and only a handful of guides and park wardens were there to watch thousands of wildebeest antelopes make their famous trek in search of new grazing pastures.
Tour guide Milton Siloma has worked in the world-famous reserve on Kenya's southern border for 30 years and said he's never seen it so quiet.
“We are alone,” he said. “We are supposed to have thousands and thousands of tourists around watching this phenomenon.”
Although the absence of tourists makes little difference to the giant herd of wildebeest moving between Kenya and neighboring Tanzania, it's a serious problem for the park, the local government and the surrounding community.
Without tourists there is no income from park entry fees, scenic hot air balloon rides — a specialty of the park — and tourist lodges.
“COVID(-19) has really affected so many operations for us here in the reserve in the sense that the revenue, the funds, that the county government was collecting from Maasai Mara National Reserve has gone to zero,” said chief warden James Sindiyo.
The effect for the people who live on the edge of the park and who rely on tourism is also significant. Kadele Kasare, one of the local Maasai people, said they depend on the money they earn from visitors.
“The biggest problem is food," he said. "We are not getting enough food and at times when there is no money from the tourists, we sell our cows, livestock. But now even the market has been closed. So, we are facing a lot of difficulties.”
That has also started to harm the park. Chief warden Sindiyo said some hungry community members have begun to illegally hunt animals in the park for meat and there have been a number of arrests.
"They kill just because they are desperate to get meat,” Sindiyo said.
The wardens fear a larger problem could be on the horizon — poachers trying to take advantage of the situation by targeting the Maasai Mara's elephants or endangered rhinos.