Frontier Travel

Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem: In conversation with pro guide Squack Evans

By | Friday, 2nd December, 2022

Between hosting the Financial Times’s David Pilling in the Republic of Congo and arriving in the Mara in Kenya a few days ago, I had the pleasure of catching up by email with pro guide Squack Evans, a legend in the field and a thoroughly decent man to boot.

Given our shared love for the Mara and Squack’s extraordinary knowledge and experience, we concentrated all our thoughts on the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, exploring what makes it so unique; Squack’s own first impressions; the difference between a park, reserve, and buffer zones; the pattern of the migration and how it’s changed over the decades; threats to the ecosystem; and what kinds of conservation-based tourism really work.

Let’s jump in, but before we do, I would suggest making yourself a cup of tea and yourself comfortable. It is wonderfully long, totally absorbing, and will require sustenance along the way.

Squack, you’ve worked as a guide and safari provider across the continent. When did you first begin to visit and work in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem? Can you remember what it was like – and how you felt – first visiting it? 

My first trip as a guide to the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem was in 2001, set up in a luxury mobile camp just outside the Maasai Mara National Reserve. I recall being blown away by the wildlife, and, by virtue of the area we were in, saw very little in the way of other vehicles.

Being employed as a guide and camp manager in both northern Kenya and southern Tanzania at that point, I didn’t return to the ecosystem for a few years. When the northern Serengeti first reopened to the public in 2004, it was, to start with, a rare but very special stop on the safaris I was leading. The sense of wilderness, the wildlife incredible, the landscapes – all extraordinary. There were very few camps operating in the extreme northern areas of Serengeti, and we had freedoms then that are not possible today: you could drive all day without seeing another vehicle, and more often than not have a wildebeest river-crossing to yourself.

As time has gone on, the area became naturally more mainstream, with new camps, improved airstrip facilities and access, and a burgeoning number of visitors. Nothing will beat the rawness and solitude we had in those few early years just after the area reopened. It made my heart sing!

Depending on the time of year and on which parts of the ecosystem you’re in, you get a different wildlife experience. Why is this?

The wildebeest migration is based on a huge number of animals whose water and fodder requirements are massive. In order to support this population, they have to be constantly on the move. The migration is dynamic and moves in response to rainfall and the resulting grass and surface water. As a very rough breakdown of the pattern of movement and behaviour, let’s try the following:

pull of the short grass plains

The migration from around December through to March and April takes place in the southern Serengeti on the short grass plains. The mineral-rich volcanic soil that has been deposited for thousands of years from the volcanic activities of the Ngorongoro highlands produces very nutritious grass when the rains fall, which also fills seasonal streams, waterholes and low-lying areas with surface water as the heavy clay soil becomes saturated.

Synchronised Calving

In February and March, somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 wildebeest calves are born, all within a few weeks of each other out on the open plains. This phenomenon of synchronised calving is an anti-predator strategy, since predators cannot possibly consume such a huge number of calves all dropped at once – it’s impossible for them to keep up. This time of year sees the classic “endless plains” of short green grass with immense herds spread out for miles and miles, and offers fantastic opportunities to see cheetahs hunting out on the plains.

Rutting season

By May, as things start to dry up, the herds begin to move northward, along the perennial water courses that flow north-west toward Seronera Valley in the centre of Serengeti National Park and the Western Corridor, a wing of the park that juts out toward Lake Victoria. At this time they are in the rutting season, the frenetic energy of the bulls seeking out and trying to keep females in their staked-out patch a sharp contrast to the more sedate and slower moving herds grazing the short grass plains merely a month before. Camping in the Western Corridor at this time of year can be a noisy experience if the herds are in and around camp!

Toward the end of June, they continue northward as things continue to dry out, although in recent years some of the herds have remained in the western corridor plains with localised movements. July would see the northern Serengeti plains filling up with wildebeest and spilling over the border into the Maasai Mara.

The Crossing

July will usually see the beginning of the ‘crossing season’, when the herds, in response to changing grazing conditions, will cross the Mara River. This is what most people will think of when you talk about the migration: herds of wildebeests leaping into the river and hungry crocodiles preying on them. A crossing can be a brutal event, as casualties can be high with broken limbs and mass drownings taking out a far higher number of animals than what the crocodiles are capable of. However, the excess casualties effectively return huge amounts of nutrients into the river system.

The crossing phenomenon is not a once-per-season event, since the herds are constantly moving and shifting and crossing back and forth across the river. They are following recent rainfall from storm cells that originate over Lake Victoria and then burst out over the northern Serengeti. It is this ‘dry season rainfall’ that fuels the migration, giving fresh grass growth that supports this huge number of ungulates.

Crossings usually begin when the wildebeests arrive in the area from late June and go on sometimes through October and into early November on the Serengeti side before they begin to head south again. Crossings can be small, with a few hundred animals or they can be huge, with tens of thousands and go on for an hour or more.

And round it goes again

Usually by mid-October. the herds have emptied out of the Mara, and, by the end of October, they are emptying out of the northern Serengeti, and heading through the central woodlands on a beeline back to the short grass plains in the south, only to begin the entire process all over again. 

For those of us who don’t work in the industry, it’s hard to work out the difference between a ‘park’ and a ‘reserve’, let alone ‘buffer zones’. The Mara-Serengeti ecosystem is home to all three types, and all are in one form or another tourist destinations. How does it all come together?

Even for those in the industry, this can be a difficult one to decipher! Let’s break it up into manageable chunks:

 The Fortified core

The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is about 30,000 kmin extent. At its core is the Serengeti National Park, making up about half of the total area, and the Maasai Mara National Reserve. These are, in theory, the unassailable heart of the ecosystem, sometimes referred to as a fortress conservation zone. With strict controls over developments within their boundaries and no permanent human habitation or consumptive use of any resources within it, land use is limited to wildlife tourism activities.

Serengeti National Park is under the management of the parastatal body called TANAPA  –  Tanzania National Parks. The Masaai Mara National Park is managed and run by the local county government rather than central government and by the Kenya Wildlife Service. It’s split between two counties and as such east of the Mara River is managed by the Narok County Government and west of the river by the Trans-Mara County Government, who have handed management to a private company that has done wonders to control poaching and regulate the tourism industry – to the point that the rules are enforced and respect for the wildlife and landscape is maintained. A portion of revenue generated is reinvested into patrols and road and infrastructure maintenance within the reserve and the rest goes to the county government.

BUFFERING THE CORE

Surrounding the fortress, we have various other classifications of protected areas consisting of a so-called ‘buffer zone’, which forms a softer boundary between the parks and human populations and unregulated activities that take place outside the protected areas. There are some hard boundaries, predominantly on the western sides of the ecosystem and some parties have suggested a hard border in these areas in the form of a fence to reduce human-wildlife conflict and incursions into the core fortress.

The protected areas fall into various categories and under various management authorities, which in itself is an issue as each management body operates independently and often in isolation from each other, with different aims, different interests, and different mandates. There is no overall governing body that oversees decisions made across the ecosystem landscape. There are some advisory bodies trying to amalgamate and unify the various parties’ strategies and management practices, and hopefully, some sense will prevail in this.

Tanzania’s buffer
In Tanzania, we have a mix of buffer zone types: ‘game reserves’, ‘game controlled areas’, ‘wildlife management areas’, and a ‘conservation area’.

Maswa, Grumeti, and Ikorongo game reserves allow wildlife tourism and licensed hunting enterprises under controlled and allocated quotas within their boundaries, but still no permanent human habitation. These game reserves are allocated on a tender process to interested parties usually on a five-year cycle, although if enough investment is made into the area and the country, this time period can be longer. The game reserves are controlled by the central government via the Wildlife Division and the company or organisation that wins the tender is able to manage the area under the division’s rules.

Meanwhile, the Loliondo Game Controlled Area on the north-eastern side of Serengeti National Park allows settlement, cultivation (including large-scale mechanised agriculture), pastoralism, and wildlife tourism and licensed hunting. Licensed hunting again falls under the auspices of the Wildlife Division. The concession holder, local government and the community all variously govern tourism and other activities, including settlements. Unfortunately, Loliondo has a number of overlapping and contradicting laws and as such, there is contention between interested parties that has resulted in some major issues between the government, the community, the concession holder, and other investors.

Fly camping with Nomad Tanzania

Fly camping with Nomad Tanzania

We then have a couple of Wildlife Management Areas in the form of Ikona and Makao. These are again managed by the Wildlife Division on the wildlife and consumptive-use front, and then by the local community and the local government.

Finally, we have the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which allows local Maasai community settlements, pastoralism and small-scale agricultural practices as well as protecting and conserving wildlife for tourism. This is managed by a parastatal called the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority.

Kenya’s buffer
Back on the Kenyan side, to the north and east of the Maasai Mara National Park are a series of ‘conservancies’.

Previously known as group ranches, these conservancies are owned by the Maasai communities themselves. This land is therefore not governed by any regulatory body and as such any land use is allowed in theory. The conservancy model generally has several tourism partners who pay a lease and access fee to the landowners, which allows them to build a camp or lodge on the land and utilise the area for tourism purposes.

Usually, tourism property numbers as well as visitor numbers are limited in each conservancy. The two parties negotiate how the system will work, with agreements in place regarding rangeland management and livestock grazing programs, exclusion zones for wildlife and caps on livestock numbers, as well as compensation schemes for human-wildlife conflict.

These conservancy models are generally very successful, although in hard times such as during the COVID lockdown or times of drought things can go temporarily awry. Fortunately, relationships in this landscape tend to be long-term and these bumps in the road are ironed out.

A call for joined-up thinking

As you can see, even the vastly simplified version laid out here is quite complicated, and an amalgamated advisory body able to assist with impartial advice and offer an ecosystem-wide management plan would help to ease the many issues that arise from fragmented governance and diverse interests and offer a way forward to make sure that we do not lose this hugely important ecosystem

The ground covered by the migration has changed over the last century. Why is that?

There is little historical information available on the migration prior to the 1930s. Estes, Schaller and others believe that before rinderpest – a viral disease affecting hoofed mammals introduced by infected cattle imported to the continent in the 1880s – that wildebeest numbers were at higher levels than numbers from the beginning of last century, and the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem was more open than it became after rinderpest.

From the records we do have, dating to the 1930s, wildebeest numbers were no more than about 300,000 and were fairly static. At this time the migration didn’t really make it into Kenya at all.  Maps in Serengeti Shall Not Die (1959) – some of the earliest documented work on the migration with aerial surveys – show the migration not crossing into the Mara. These low numbers are now attributed to rinderpest maintaining the wildebeest population at a fraction of what it is today. The herds at that time rarely went further north than the Grumeti River and just north of Seronera.

Serengeti Shall Not Die (1959)

Serengeti Shall Not Die (1959)

It was only as a rinderpest vaccination program for cattle started in the 1950s to bear fruit that the wildebeest population began to grow rapidly in the 1960s. By the late 1970s, it had reached close to today’s numbers of between 1.2 and 1.5 million and began to stabilise. With the increase in numbers, the phenomenon of them pouring into Mara became a regular occurrence starting in late 1970s and certainly from the early 1980s onwards.

The vegetation of the Mara and northern Serengeti has also seen big changes, with the use of fire as a management tool increasing livestock and wildebeest numbers, and human pressures pushing elephant into protected areas has resulted in more of an open grassland mosaic. With the regular burning of swathes of the Serengeti National Park every year, those previously more wooded areas are opening up. The fires also remove the tall dead grass and produce a fresh green flush of grass after a burn, all good news for wildebeest and other short grass grazers, but not necessarily so good for other species. As a consequence, the migration today is probably as big as it ever has been.

While it seems that the effect of grazing and burning is good for wildebeest populations, how sustainable is this relationship between traditional cattle and other livestock farming and the task of protecting wildernesses?

I would say that there is a massive increase in pressure, particularly on the Mara, from livestock. As an example, the area around Musiara has a static herd of between 5,000 and 10,000 cattle right on the border of the Mara, many of which graze illegally inside the reserve at night. The situation all along the boundary of the Mara where there are privately owned smallholdings from there through Talek and on to Sekenani and then south is similar, with huge herds of livestock making nightly incursions deep into the reserve.

What part do conservancy models and tourism do in mitigating or exacerbating the problem?

The use of conservancies is by and large a good start when it comes to wildlife conservation and preservation of habitat. Some are better than others at what they put back and have sensibly negotiated caps on livestock numbers and help institute grazing plans, all of which work well.

An unfortunate reality, however, is the fact that while the conservancy model is great at giving back and empowering local communities, it can also be its own worst enemy: as long as local communities re-invest money earned through lodge and access to wildlife leases and businesses in their traditional way, livestock numbers increase. The more livestock, the less space for wildlife.

Where livestock numbers are capped in terms of how many can graze, the excess cattle are kept in static bomas on small pieces of privately owned land on the periphery of the reserve, and it is these that are illegally grazing at night. The pressure on the system is immense and there are no easy answers. On one hand, we want to protect wildlife and wilderness and on the other, we want to protect a traditional way of life that has been around for generations: somehow, we need to marry the two together for the mutual benefit of both the communities and the wildlife.

You mention Mara-based conservancies that are doing a good job. As you know, we work closely with Enonkishu, which does some incredible work. Are there others that come to mind?

The majority of the Mara conservancies are navigating with degrees of success this new and tricky path of balancing community needs, wildlife needs, and tourism investors’ needs.

The better-known conservancies such as Mara North, Olare Motorogi, Naboisho and Olderkesi will always spring to mind, but there are numerous other community-owned conservancies across Kenya that are proving successful, down into the Rift Valley, and across the Amboseli-Chyulu-Tsavo landscape, and right through to northern Kenya. All have their individual bumps to negotiate, but at least the discussions are happening. Once the value of the wildlife is realised in terms of income, the value of other ecosystem services provided will become apparent and hopefully these areas will be protected for generations to come.

As a side note, it is encouraging to note that Shampole – one of the very first conservancy models in Kenya, and which a few years ago came to a rather sudden and bitter end – is being revived and new tourism partners are negotiating to build on the tourism potential of this stunning area. An optimistic future lies ahead hopefully!

Legendary Expeditions

Legendary Expeditions

Squack, this has been a most illuminating chat. Thank you so much for taking the time to download and share your experience and thoughts. When will you next be in the Mara and what for?

I am heading back to the Mara with a family after gorilla trekking in Rwanda just after Christmas! We will be in Olare Motorogi Conservancy, well known for its fantastic big cat sightings and I’m looking forward to getting back there and sharing it with them.

Unless stated (below), all images © Squack Evans. As well as running his own guiding outfit, Squack works with Journeys by Design as an exploration specialist and professional guide. If you’d like to learn more, either generally or about trips to the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem, please get in touch. Both he and I would love to hear from you. 

Other images: Map taken from Serengeti Shall Not Die (1959) | Fly camp: Nomad Tanzania | Walking safari: Legendary Expeditions

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