The Masai Mara

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

We had been in Africa for almost a week. Our adventure was well begun. A visit with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda had thrilled us. Now we were anxious to see some of the animals normally associated with Africa - lions, elephants, giraffe, zebras and others. There was a two day opening on our itinerary before we had to be in Tanzania to begin our attempt to trek to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In order to make best use of that time, we had arranged a visit to the Masai Mara in Kenya,

The Masai Mara National Reserve is located in south - western Kenya, about 275 miles from Nairobi. It is probably the most famous and most visited Reserve in Kenya. It offers breathtaking scenery (much of the movie "Out of Africa" was filmed here) and an extraordinary density of animals. It is also part of the stage for an ancient phenomenon that is the largest movement of wildlife on earth, called the Great Migration of Animals. This is the vast, annual movement of animals, following rains and subsequent good grazing, on the plains of Africa. It is composed of 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and 500,000 Thomson gazelles. Animals that prey on these species, especially lions and hyenas, will usually be found very nearby. At certain times, in this migration, one of the most dramatic spectacles in the natural world occurs when a crossing of the Mara River is attempted by portions of the herds. A river crossing is a tumultuous, frenzied effort by the grazing animals to reach the opposite bank. They must avoid drowning in the deep water, being grasped by the jaws of hungry crocodiles that lay in wait and escape injury climbing the steep banks that would leave them easy prey for other predators.

We did not see a river crossing during our visit to the Masai Mara. However, we saw the river and all the participants in the drama, including the crocodiles, resting below the riverbanks. Wildebeest cover the gently rolling grasslands as far as the eye can see, in some locations. It is a humbling and awe inspiring sight. I imagine it is a scene very similar to the one that people in western North America saw when buffalo inhabited the great plains of the west. Zebra usually travel with the wildebeest. Preferring different parts of the same grass, they are complementary grazers. Thompson gazelle, impala and Topi are the most common antelope species, amongst the herbivores. We also saw lions, hyenas and cheetah; all appearing relaxed and well fed.

One day we stopped at a Masai village in the Reserve. We were entertained with a demonstration of their dancing, learned about their culture and visited their homes. The Masai are a semi-nomadic, proud and independent tribe of people who live in the semi-arid Rift Valley region of Kenya and Tanzania. Many continue to live in a life style that has persisted for generations. They own large herds of cattle, sheep and goats which they follow, seasonally in search of new grazing grounds and water sources. Cattle represent food and power for the Masai.

The human-animal bond, this special, age-old relationship that exists between us and animals, always fascinates me. Africa certainly demonstrates this bond in some of its most complex nature. It is quite remarkable to see the Masai co-existing with such vast numbers of wild species that compete for food and water with their own domesticated animal herds. At the same time, predators who would be just as happy to feast on sheep or cow as wildebeest and zebra, continue to exist in this milieu, seemingly little affected.

Have not the indigenous people in this area in the world figured out the way to do things much better than we have? While our forbears slaughtered the bison, ruthlessly destroyed their predators and drove many species to the point of extinction, in Africa, things have happened differently. If our own aboriginal people had been allowed to have more input, would native North American animal species not have fared better?  I, for one, am very grateful to have had the opportunity to view, to enjoy and to marvel at the African alternative.