Nairobi — The Maasai Mara will become the Fleeting Wonder, unless careful and urgent conservation measures are taken to manage human traffic and development in the wild.
The Great Migration, a spectacle of millions of wildlife moving between the Mara and the Serengeti plains in neighbouring Tanzania, were this week praised by a popular television show in America as the new Seventh Wonder of the World.
This has caused excitement in Kenya because of the interest it will generate for the destination and the consequent increase in tourism that it is expected to bring. Tourism is, of course, one of the pillars of the Kenyan economy and a facet of our culture.
The government keeps a wary eye on tourist arrivals, knowing that a reduction, caused by travel advisories or security scares, will have serious implications on revenues and growth. Kenyan tourism had taken a beating after the terrorist attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa, competition from similar destinations and the poor state of the infrastructure.
However, a massive and largely productive marketing effort has turned around the sector with arrivals rising by 13 per cent to more than half a million visitors in the first seven months of this year.
The Seventh Wonder news will boost these efforts and generate even more tourism business. This is in direct conflict with the reason why the Mara, and other wilds, are popular: Because they are raw, untouched nature. They are praised as places where human development is scarce and teeming species of game co-exist in relative peace.
The absence of human habitation is a magnet to people, setting off a chain reaction which would ultimately, left unchecked, destroy the very reason why such places are attractive.
There are already concerns about the increasing human traffic in these wilds; a lion can hardly eat a gazelle without 10 or 20 cameras in its face, a cheetah cannot take a nap in the afternoon without an assembly of humans peeping from their mini buses. At this rate, according to one wag, we will need traffic lights in the Mara in the next couple of years. And then it will no longer be a wonder.
Showing off our wilds is part of our culture. But the whole of humanity cannot be bussed into the parks at the same time without destroying them. We need stringent conservation regulations to control human traffic in the wild.
There are only so many hotels, game lodges and tent camps you can have in - and around - a game park without edging out the zebras. We welcome the moratorium on the construction of new lodges in parks.
It is also encouraging that there are strategy meetings taking place this weekend to address conservation. We urge radical and firm resolutions which will take a long term view of eco-tourism.
Secondly, we need to formulate strategies to improve the value of Kenya as a destination so that there are fewer visitors paying more to get into the wild. The focus should be yield rather than brute numbers.
Thirdly, the infrastructure serving our game reserves is a total disgrace. A more determined effort must be made to plough back tourism revenues into maintaining roads and improving security.
Finally, more efficient management, conservation and ownership structures are required. The game parks might be in communal lands but do such communities have the capacity to manage and conserve the wilds in a modern, competitive and profitable manner?
Being Seventh Wonder is going to be a lot harder and require a lot more investment and work than being the Fleeting Wonder.