Fires in TZ freeze wildebeest show

Blazes lit by Tanzanian rangers on migratory route have raised eyebrows on timing

In what could be the vilest form of sibling rivalry ever, rangers from Tanzania National Parks Authority (Tanapa) are lighting fires on the Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara Game Reserve border to allegedly delay the wildebeest migration.

The wildfires, which started on Friday last week, have destroyed hundreds of acres of vegetation in Serengeti.

Tanapa officials, who declined to be quoted, say the burning of bush is aimed at aiding regeneration of grass but tour guides in the Mara disagree. They claim the fires are meant to prevent or delay the migration, a world wonder expected to happen this weekend.

Hundreds of tourists are camping near various crossing points in the Mara hoping to watch the spectacular event that has already delayed for nearly two months this year.

“Though, fires always aid vegetation regeneration, the timing is suspect,” said Daniel Soit, the head tour guides at Sarova Mara Game Camp.

Big fire

He said a group of about 90,000 wildebeests, which were gathering to cross from Loliondo, Balongoja and Sand River crossing points in northern Serengeti, were this week dispersed by the rapidly spreading fires.

“A big column had gathered along the crossing points but retreated when fires were lit across their planned routes,” he said.

He asked Kenya and Tanzania authorities to resolve the long-standing tradition of burning bushes whenever wildebeests prepare to cross into the Mara. Hoteliers say the action amounts to economic sabotage.

However, a Tanapa official denied the bushfires are meant to delay or prevent the crossing.

“We have a schedule that stipulates that when these animals cross to Kenya, grass is burned so that when they return, there is enough,” he told People Daily but declined to be named because he is not authorised to speak on behalf of the agency.

Lily Wadington, the proprietor of Osero Camp in Siana Conservancy, is confident the animals will soon arrive. 

“They have been lighting fires but because this is a natural phenomenon, the animals always cross,” she says.

The first group of about 750,000 wildebeests were expected to cross into the Mara this week. A small group of zebras crossed earlier, signifying it will not take long before gnus arrive. About two million gnus are expected in the sprawling reserve by the end of next month. They will be there to graze and calve before returning by end of September.

Heavy rains 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, 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).

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,” ole Soit said.

Meanwhile, most lodges and tented camps are full as tourists wait to watch the migration. High-end hotels are now charging between Sh45,000 and Sh80,000 full board a day.

“The high arrivals is forcing managers and senior members of the staff to surrender their houses to the guests,” said Steve Keriga, assistant manager Fairmont Mara Safari Club. He said 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.

A number of international television channels have also been camping in Mara, hoping to relay the event to their audiences live.

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