Mara, eighth won­der of new world, is dy­ing

Is it cli­mate change or the ef­fects of man’s plun­der of Earth? What­ever the cause, this cru­cial ecosys­tem is cry­ing for in­ter­ven­tion

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - FRONT PAGE - BY GATU WA MBARIA Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent

“The Mara River will be dead in three years.”

This was the chill­ing con­clu­sion made by Mr Ge­orge Natem­beya, the Narok County Com­mis­sioner, when we spoke to him.

The once mighty river, known world­wide as the haven of fe­ro­cious croc­o­diles that timed and drowned wilde­beest as they crossed, is now a shadow of its for­mer glory.

At some spots, the dry river bed is what re­mains as ev­i­dence of hu­man dam­age to the Mara ecosys­tem. The worst, we were told, is yet to come.

When the Na­tion toured the en­tire ex­panse of the Mara, new im­ages and sights of wilde­beest trot­ting along the dry river bed, where their an­ces­tors had pre­vi­ously been mauled by gi­ant croc­o­diles, be­came the first signs that the spec­tac­u­lar scenes — vividly cap­tured by Na­tional Ge­o­graphic and other wildlife chan­nels — of wilde­beests jump­ing in to the deep swollen river were noth­ing but his­tory.

Our mis­sion was to find out why the dry­ing up of this in­ter­na­tion­ally-im­por­tant wa­ter body seems al­most as­sured. From the ex­ten­sive tour, in­ter­views with many peo­ple and ref­er­ence to doc­u­ments, there are no doubts that sooner, rather than later, the chicken might fi­nally come home to roost.

At the mo­ment — the ques­tion is no longer whether — but how long that will take.

Al­though some gave a win­dow of be­tween five and 10 years, ev­ery­one was clear that the Mara River is dy­ing: the big­gest blow to Kenya’s tourism sec­tor and a doom to the Ma­sai Mara Game Re­serve.

Ac­com­pa­nied by crew from NTV, we toured some of the trib­u­taries that empty into the Mara River and saw the vis­i­ble ef­fects of over-con­cen­tra­tion of tourist fa­cil­i­ties in the ecosys­tem.

But we never an­tic­i­pated what we saw at Kip­tunga Swamp which is the source of the Mara River.

Joseph Kitkai, one of the herders we met there, in­formed us that some 20 years ago, any­one ven­tur­ing into the swamp, an­i­mals in­cluded, “would be swal­lowed” into the ground.

“We lost 10 cows here,” he said in­di­cat­ing that the swamp had a sink­hole. But this is no more; an­i­mals can now graze in­side the swamp while a pri­vate com­pany, Tim­sales Ltd, was li­censed by the Kenya For­est Ser­vice to be plant­ing and har­vest­ing ex­otic, wa­ter-guz­zling tree species close by.

Ap­par­ently, the up­per zone of the Mara River has min­i­mal wa­ter ex­trac­tion ac­tiv­i­ties but in the mid­dle and lower zones, there is di­rect col­lec­tion by house­holds, ur­ban cen­tres and ir­ri­ga­tion schemes. Re­ports also show that the Nyan­gores River pro­vides wa­ter to Ten­wek hos­pi­tal, Silib­wet and Bomet Town.

Al­ready, the loss of vol­umes along the river has af­fected the glob­ally renown wilde­beest mi­gra­tion which was de­clared one of the new Seven Won­ders of the World in 2006. This is likely to se­verely cut the cu­mu­lated earn­ings at the Mara by the ho­tels which were es­ti­mated at Sh14.1 bil­lion while gate col­lec­tions stood at Sh867 mil­lion in 2011 — ac­cord­ing to Lake Basin Com­mis­sion.

And that is not all, the sur­vival of hun­dreds of thou­sands of pas­toral­ists, farm­ers and other peo­ple who rely on the river and its tributary will be jeop­ar­dised as the pres­sure for land and wa­ter sparks eth­nic ten­sions.

When we vis­ited the Mara, mem­bers of the Maasai and Kalen­jin com­mu­ni­ties had clashed over land — which means that the loss of Mara River is now a na­tional se­cu­rity is­sue.

Most of our re­spon­dents at­trib­uted the loss of vol­umes to over-ab­strac­tion by a big num­ber of users. They pointed to the largescale flower farm­ing by com­pa­nies such as Mara Peas as well as maize and sorghum farm­ing by Shimo Ltd which get wa­ter from Nyan­gores and Amala trib­u­taries of the Mara.

In­deed, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished by the Lake Vic­to­ria Basin Com­mis­sion in 2011, the to­tal wa­ter de­mand in the basin was es­ti­mated at 24 mil­lion cu­bic me­ters per year with large-scale ir­ri­ga­tion ac­count­ing for 51 per cent, hu­man do­mes­tic de­mand 20 per cent and live­stock 17 per cent.

Oth­ers blamed the al­leged lack­lus­tre man­age­ment of the re­serve by the Narok County Gov­ern­ment which is yet to come up with a man­age­ment plan for the re­serve and out­ly­ing ecosys­tem.

Lo­cal and na­tional po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ships were blamed for “marked in­dif­fer­ence” and for fail­ing to com­pre­hen­sively ad­dress what is now termed as the Mau co­nun­drum. Top gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials are ac­cused of on-and-off, not-herenor-there, timid at­tempts at sav­ing the Mau that are al­most primed to be thwarted by politi­cians from the Kalen­jin com­mu­nity who are al­ways quick to con­vert the Mau is­sue into a po­lit­i­cal mine­field.

But Fran­cis ole Nkaku, for­merly with the Wa­ter Tow­ers Agency, dis­agrees: “If the move to re­claim ri­par­ian re­serves in Nairobi is any­thing to go by, the gov­ern­ment looks se­ri­ous this time around about pro­tect­ing the Mau.”

Dur­ing our ex­pan­sive tour, it was clear that Kenya is deal­ing with a might­ily com­plex sce­nario that needs to be han­dled with the me­thod­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity of a sur­geon at the op­er­at­ing ta­ble. Ev­ery­one — in­vaders, politi­cians, farm­ers, pas­toral­ists, en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists, com­mu­nity elite — ap­pear jus­ti­fied to do what­ever they have been up to and un­less one (jour­nal­ists in­cluded) en­gages in an elab­o­rate fact-find­ing ex­er­cise, they are likely to be con­fused by the maze of claims and counter-claims.

Fur­ther, Kenya’s in­abil­ity to deal con­clu­sively with the de­struc­tion of the Mau has geopo­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions. As a trans­bound­ary re­source, the Mara is shared be­tween Kenya and Tan­za­nia’s most im­por­tant wildlife area, the Serengeti.

Kenya knows that soon, Tan­za­nia will com­plain about the Mara.

“We usu­ally hold ad hoc meet­ings with our Tan­za­nian coun­ter­parts and we ex­pect them to com­plain if the de­struc­tion of the source of the Mara River goes on,” said Mr Natem­beya. The Mara is a shared wa­ter re­source that flows though Lake Na­tron and Mu­soma area of Tan­za­nia be­fore emp­ty­ing into Lake Vic­to­ria, the source of the White Nile.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly, the de­struc­tion of the Mau has greatly af­fected the ‘silent’ users of the Mara and Serengeti. Th­ese in­clude the mil­lions of wilde­beest and ze­bras that make the an­nual epic jour­ney be­tween Serengeti (where they breed in the Ntutu area) to the Maasai Mara from July to Oc­to­ber be­fore go­ing back.

For some rea­son, the vast herds were late in com­ing to the Mara this year and when they did, fewer than usual came only to cross through a near-empty river. Be­sides, there are many other species that use the two wildlife ar­eas — li­ons, ele­phants, Topi, gi­raffes, elands, leop­ards, chee­tahs, gazelles, a di­ver­sity of birds, snakes and other rep­tiles as well as species that in­habit the river.

Dur­ing the tour, it be­came ap­par­ent too that the se­cu­rity and eco­log­i­cal sit­u­a­tions be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced now — as ev­i­denced by se­vere loss of wa­ter along the Mara — is the cul­mi­na­tion of in­tri­cately in­ter­wo­ven his­tor­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal, neg­a­tive changes in the cul­ture of for­est dwellers, cor­rup­tion, mis­use of power and greed that were left to de­gen­er­ate over the last 40 years. The na­tional gov­ern­ment is los­ing the plot by re­fus­ing to ad­dress how th­ese is­sues might end up de­rail­ing its ef­fort to halt the sense­less de­struc­tion of the 400,000-acre Mau Com­plex and es­pe­cially the Maasai Mau For­est.

There were re­spon­dents who saw what is hap­pen­ing to the Mara River in terms of cli­mate change. They told the Na­tion that the chang­ing cli­mate has re­sulted to a rise in, and wors­en­ing of ex­treme weather events such as droughts and flood­ing. Lately, much of Kenya, Narok in­cluded, has been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a mi­nor drought after ev­ery two years and a ma­jor one each decade. Usu­ally, the droughts hit hard, leav­ing mas­sive deaths of live­stock and wildlife in their wake.

“The de­struc­tion of the Mau, has ex­ac­er­bated the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the Mara ecosys­tem to droughts,” as­serted Vi­o­let Matiru, a Nairobi-based Ecol­o­gist and for­mer Kenya Wildlife Ser­vice staff mem­ber. In­deed, the Lake Basin Com­mis­sion’s re­port says that pas­toral­ists based in the Mara River Basin lost 35 per cent of their live­stock due to drought.

Matiru, who is be­hind a com­mu­nity ini­tia­tive to pro­tect the indige­nous sec­tion of Thogoto For­est in Ki­ambu County, says that the de­struc­tion of the Mau has se­verely dis­rupted the nat­u­ral wa­ter cy­cle from which the Mara River and its trib­u­taries owe their sur­vival. She ex­plained that indige­nous forests have many lay­ers — top canopy, un­der­growth and fallen leaves — which en­able them to re­tain wa­ter when­ever it rains.

“An indige­nous for­est acts as a sponge that ab­sorbs and re­leases wa­ter grad­u­ally.” Matiru fur­ther ex­plains that the sun ‘grabs’ wa­ter from a for­est through the pro­cesses of tran­spi­ra­tion and evap­o­ra­tion and that forests help to re­tain mois­ture in the air.

“When mois­ture-laden winds flow over ar­eas with forests, it is easy for clouds to be formed and for such ar­eas to ex­pe­ri­ence fre­quent rains. But when we de­stroy a for­est, rain drops hit the ground very hard, the wa­ter does not sink into the ground; rather it flows away as runoff caus­ing floods and there­fore does not help to recharge the wa­ter ta­ble. Con­se­quently, the streams and rivers that used to get wa­ter from the wa­ter ta­ble end up with lit­tle or no wa­ter.” Matiru’s as­ser­tion cor­rects Paul Sang, a for­mer Health min­is­ter who pub­licly claimed forests have noth­ing to do with the rain as it comes from the sky.

While it is not clear whether Sang was se­ri­ous or said this in jest, the Mau is­sue is so se­ri­ous that it now threat­ens na­tional se­cu­rity. In­deed, dur­ing our tour, we were chill­ingly in­formed by some mem­bers of the Maasai com­mu­nity that should the gov­ern­ment fail to con­clu­sively deal with the is­sues per­tain­ing to the in­va­sion of Maasai Mau For­est, then morans would do so un­der their own terms and in ways that will lead to what some­one called “a mas­sacre.” In­deed, while the Na­tion toured the area, clashes be­tween the Kalen­jin and Maasai erupted once again lead­ing to the killing of three peo­ple; 10 be­ing in­jured while 58 homes were torched.

Such clashes have re­curred over the last eight years — al­though the bor­der dis­pute be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties goes back to the colo­nial pe­riod.

To­mor­row: The po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion of Mara bound­aries

FILE | NA­TION

A lo­cal tourist looks at a buf­falo stand­ing on the dry­ing Mara River bed in Fe­bru­ary. An eco­log­i­cal cri­sis and death of the river is loom­ing as ev­i­denced by low vol­umes of wa­ter and fre­quent dry­ing.

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