The Masai Mara in Kenya is without doubt on that exclusive list of the earth's greatest wildlife hotspots to which people will travel thousands of miles to experience.
What for years has drawn visitors from all over the globe has been the abundance of Africa's "charismatic megafauna", as zoologists like to say, on the Mara's open grasslands. Not only are what hunters used to call the "Big Five" much in evidence – lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino (although the black rhino are increasingly rare) – but so are the vast herds of hoofed animals, the wildebeest, zebras and Thomson's gazelles.
The Masai Mara and the Serengeti in effect form a single savannah ecosystem bestriding the Kenya-Tanzanian border, and in October the herds migrate back to the Serengeti, in some of the largest animal movements on the planet; the wildebeest are thought to number more than a million. Most of the other magnificent creatures which Africa displays can also be found: cheetah, hippopotamus, giraffe, hyena, many antelopes and gazelles, and more than 450 species of birds. Many Britons who have never visited Africa will be familiar with the park from television shows such as Big Cat Diary.
Located 140 miles from Nairobi, and named after the Masai people, the tall cattle herders who were the traditional inhabitants of the area, the Mara has been a Kenyan national park since 1967. Tourists have flooded in for decades; the stiff entry fees ($60 [£38] for an adult last year, and $30 for a child) have been a major source of foreign currency for the Kenyan government.
But all is not well with the park and its wildlife. A scientific paper published last year showed that many animal species were declining, and blamed increased human settlement in and around the reserve. Funded by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), the study monitored hoofed species in the Masai Mara on a monthly basis for 15 years, and concluded that six species – giraffes, impala, warthogs, topis and water-bucks – had declined significantly, and at an alarming rate. Now comes the suggestion that too much tourism, especially when not properly regulated, can also start to erode the value of one of the world's richest wildlife areas. It is clear that "charismatic megafauna" and humans can mix – but only so far.
Species of birds in the Masai Mara.Reuse content