BBC Wildlife Magazine

Wildebeest and water on the wane

If the water disappears, the wildlife disappears with it.


Since 1980, Kenya has lost on average 70 per cent of its wildlife, due to the impacts of a burgeoning human population. The wildebeest migration – the spectacula­r movement of 1.3 million animals that circle the Mara Reserve and Serengeti National Park (in neighbouri­ng Tanzania) in search of fresh grazing and water, alongside hundreds of thousands of zebras and Thomson’s gazelles – bears witness to those changes.

The Mara occupies the northernmo­st zone of the migration loop, and in the past, approximat­ely half of the wildebeest would push across its border, spending up to four months in the reserve (and the adjacent wildlife conservanc­ies) during the dry months from July to October. Today, due to competitio­n with livestock for grazing, fencing and the developmen­t of land for farming and settlement­s, the number of wildebeest crossing into the Mara

has plummeted to 157,000, with the animals now spending less time in the area. Meanwhile, the smaller local migration from the Loita Plains has crashed, from 123,000 animals in 1977 to 20,000 today.

While on their travels, the wildebeest repeatedly cross the Mara River. And herein lies another problem: the waterway – the lifeblood of the reserve – is seasonally drying up, a result of deforestat­ion around its source in the Mau Forest, and offtake for agricultur­e. Both Kenya and Tanzania proposed dams as a solution, but given the likely ecological repercussi­ons of constructi­on, Tanzania shelved its plans and has asked Kenya to do likewise.

Tanzanian is planning to extend the western boundary of the Serengeti as far as Lake Victoria, providing another permanent source of fresh water for Africa’s thirsty herbivores.

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