Want other tourists hoarding in our your Chettah? F-ck them. At Spritzler Safaris we have a 1/2 mile military perimeter around our trips.
What's that you ask? Any competing vacation provider will immediately come under fire if they breach that space. We hire former Nigerian child soldiers to keep the Americans and EU pansies away so you can enjoy the wildlife with no interruptions.
Stalone is one of our celebrity guest guides.
Tourists Besiege African Wildlife. Can I Reserve You a Cheetah at 4 p.m.?
The cutest cubs or gnarliest kills can draw dozens of Land Cruisers, prompting a quest for a high-tech solution
A cheetah draws tourists in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
By Michael M. Phillips, WSJ
Jan. 25, 2024 9:00 pm ET
MAASAI MARA, Kenya—It’s gotten to the point where even the hyenas have noticed that one of the world’s great wildlife refuges is overrun by tourists.
Back in the day, spotted hyenas in the Maasai Mara National Reserve would track a pride of hunting lions and then slip in to steal leftover chunks of hippo or impala. Now, hyenas track Toyota Land Cruisers, knowing a cluster of 4x4s inevitably signals a big cat nearby, likely with a fresh kill.
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“Now they’re not working too hard. They’re just waiting for the vehicles,” said Marley Sianto, assistant director of tourism and wildlife for Narok County, which operates the reserve on behalf of the local Maasai people.
Hyenas aren’t the only ones adapting to the crush of visitors in the Maasai Mara, vast grasslands featured in a flock of nature documentaries. Park managers, conservationists, safari guides, camp owners and even venture capitalists are trying to figure out how to keep the 580-square-mile reserve and its wildlife from being spoiled by the very tourism industry that keeps it afloat.
Some 300,000 tourists visit the reserve each year, many hoping to witness that National Geographic moment when some of the two million wildebeest migrating from Tanzania steady their nerves, slide down a steep riverbank, splash through a congregation of waiting crocodiles and try to reach their Kenyan mating grounds uneaten.
The result is that the most harrowing river crossings, the bloodiest kills, the loneliest leopards and the cutest cubs are often besieged by dozens or even hundreds of vehicles full of camera-toting tourists.
Vehicles often crowd around photogenic wildlife.
“In the Maasai Mara, as soon as there’s a sighting, it’s a free-for-all,” said Charl Grobler, chief guide for the Elewana Collection, which owns a camp in the reserve and another in one of the 24 private conservancies along the edge of the park.
The reserve and surrounding buffer zone have more than 200 safari camps. Privately, park officials say corruption has allowed for catastrophic growth, with officials allowing friends and patrons to set up new camps.
The expectations of well-heeled visitors, who might pay as much as $2,500 per person per night for a top-end safari, are exacerbating the problem. During migration season, in July and August, they expect to see a crossing. They expect to see a kill. And they expect their guides to get them up close and personal with the Big Five they have seen in the brochures—lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and black rhino.
“You’re managing expectations of guests who might have seen a BBC documentary where something spectacular happened,” said Valery Super, chief executive of Emboo River, an eco-camp in the reserve. “And they come here and want to see the same thing.”
For the guides, it’s survival of the fittest: A happy tourist tips better. Hence the pressure to rush to the site of a kill and maneuver the Land Cruiser into position for the clearest shot of the action.
“Maybe on one site you have 100 cars at a go,” said Joel Kipilosh, an independent Maasai guide. “Can you imagine how stressful that is? We have to scramble for both position and lighting.”
In the trucks, allied guides radio one another about sightings. Knowing that many visitors have at least a Lion King-deep knowledge of Swahili animal names—simba means lion—they use code to preserve the surprise. For lion, it’s kichwa, or head, as in head of the jungle. An elephant is masikio, or ears. A crocodile is msumeno, or carpenter’s saw.
A lion with a hippo kill at the airstrip in the Mara North Conservancy bordering the reserve.
Last summer, serial entrepreneur Paul English hosted 14 friends in the Maasai Mara. English had been to the park in 2013, the year he sold the Kayak travel site he founded for $2 billion. He was dismayed by the traffic jams at the migration crossing points.
“It feels like Disney World,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like Africa anymore.”
This visit, his group came across a hyena carrying half a warthog. A leopard snatched the carcass and dragged it up a tree. Soon, 15 other vehicles pulled up. Kenyan guides refer to such a scene as a Toyota showroom.
English figured there must be a high-tech way to better distribute tourists among the animals. So his Boston Venture Studio is teaming up with Nairobi-based Purple Elephant Ventures to develop a safari crowd-control app.
The planned technology would allow a guide to report, say, the location of a lion eating a topi antelope. Then the app would put other guides into a queue to visit the site of the action. The tool would work like a your-table-is-ready system at a restaurant—your lion is ready for viewing.
Ultimately, the developers said, visitors could use the system to record sightings, rate guides, pay conservancy fees and book balloon rides or full safari packages. English thinks it will cost about $300,000 to put a test version into the field in the Maasai Mara in the next few months.
There are hurdles to be overcome. Cell service is reliable in only about 80% of the reserve, according to Sianto. Ultimately, the app’s success will depend on whether guides, especially ones unaffiliated with established camps, will abide by the new rules when the cheetah hits the gazelle.
Reserve officials say they are taking steps to thin the herds of tourists. In the coming months, the reserve and conservancies expect to launch a counterintuitive marketing strategy: to play down the Great Migration and the Big Five that made the Maasai Mara famous. “We have oversold the migration season,” said Sianto.
Instead, tourism officials plan to highlight Maasai culture and the variety of non-Big Five wildlife seen in the park, including 500 bird species.
To reduce crowds and raise revenue, Narok County nearly tripled entry fees this month, to $200 per foreign visitor per day during migration season, from $70. Private conservancies have their own fee schedules.
There is a moratorium on new camps and hot-air-balloon safari outfits.
The reserve has long had rules intended to reduce crowding—no more than five vehicles at a sighting, for instance—but officials admit enforcement has been lax.
Under the new plans, guides and guests will have to sign safari etiquette rules. Vehicles must remain at least 35 yards away from crossing points.
The Reserve set up a cheetah antiharassment unit after a video surfaced on social media in 2022 showing dozens of Land Cruisers racing to surround a pair of cheetahs taking down an antelope. Drivers honked and guides yelled as the cats—researchers count just 66 cheetahs remaining in the reserve and conservancies—struggled to finish off their prey.
“Rarely,” said Sianto, “do many cars crowd around an herbivore.”