The first group of about 750,000 wildebeests are now about 90km from the borders of Masai Mara National Reserve from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
They are coming a month-and-a-half late by the time they cross beginning mid this month. A large herd was on Monday evening spotted in Lobo area in Serengeti, moving slowly towards the Mara.
For the first time in the known history of the migration, they will be crossing into the park from Loliondo region and not through the usual crossing points along Mara River. “They are not using the traditional routes. The first group will be crossing through Loliondo dry land, a few kilometres from the Sand River Gate crossing point into the park,” Daniel ole Soit, a tour guide with Sarova Mara Game Camp, said.
He said a small group of zebras are about to cross, signifying it will not take long before wildebeests arrive. About two million gnus are expected in the sprawling reserve by the end of next month. They will graze and calve before—following their instincts —returning before the end of September.
Hundreds of tourists who had arrived last month at the reserve to witness the annual gnu trek— one of the wonders of the world—have left disappointed after the animals delayed.
Some international television channels have also been camping in the reserve, hoping to relay the event to their audiences live or make documentaries. “Many guests who came hoping to watch the migration went back without witnessing it. Due to climate and ecological changes, the pattern is now changing,” said Steve Keriga, assistant manager at Fairmont Mara Safari Club.
Heavy rains fell between March and last month in Serengeti, which ensured continued growth of grass, delayed the migration, ecologists said. “The change in weather pattern is responsible for the delay. In June every year, Serengeti is always dry, paving way for migration to Mara where grass is available,” says Kevin Gichangi, the Mara River Basin manager for World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Tour guides and drivers have also encountered difficulties in locating the big cats, which prey on wildebeests, further disappointing their clients. “Around this time every year, it is easier to view the carnivores as they are many,” Soit said.
He said many tourists from various parts of the world have in the last one month been camping along Mara River, hoping to view the migration. Most lodges and camps are fully booked as are mobile-tented camps, which always operate during peak seasons, record good business.
“We have been fully booked since mid last month. Unlike in the previous few years, where the majority of our clients were Chinese, this year we have more visitors from US, UK and other parts of the world,” said Isaac Kasura, general manager Entumoto Camp within Siana Conservancy.
He said this season will be similar to 2007 when arrivals from Europe and US hit a new record high since 1992. “The expected launch of direct flights by Kenya Airways to US in October will also boost future arrivals,” he said.
During the political campaigns in July-October last year, many potential tourists stayed away or opted to visit the neighbouring Serengeti. “The charged electioneering period kept many out of Mara and Kenya. We are happy that political tensions have died down. Up to now, the numbers are impressive,” said Kasura.
James Koileken, the manager, Mara Simba Lodge told Travelwise that for the first time in about two decades, tourists from the Scandinavian countries are back to Mara. “Things are changing fast; imagine they are back after a long absence. Tourism in Kenya is definitely on the rebound,” said an optimistic Koileken.
According to hoteliers, unlike Chinese who have been common visitors to the Mara since 2013, tourists from US, UK and other European countries spend big during their holidays. All hotels, which more than seven months ago had sent their staff on unpaid leave because of lack of business, have recalled them.
Suppliers are also thriving as are curio dealers whose businesses closed two years ago due depressed arrivals. “Most shops between Mai Mahiu and Mara closed, severely disrupting incomes to hundreds of households,” said Geoffrey Kimani, the secretary, Mara Curio Dealers Association.
Hot air balloon companies are also back in business and all of them are recalling their crews. “Since last month, business has surprisingly picked up,” Kimani added.