Maasai Mara Game Reserve

Photo by Solivagant.

Maasai Mara Game Reserve is part of the Tentative list of Kenya in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

The Maasai Mara Game Reserve is known for its spectacular migrations of large herbivores such as the wildebeest and plains zebra. It lies in a landscape of primarily open grassland in the Great Rift Valley. The reserve has been in peaceful coexistence with the surrounding pastoralist Maasai communities.

Map of Maasai Mara Game Reserve

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

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UK - 20-Jan-24 -

Maasai Mara Game Reserve (T) by Solivagant

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River......  Undoubtedly one of the great “mass gathering” wild-life “experiences” of the World, up there with e.g the butterflies of Mexico and the penguins of S Georgia. I use the word “experiences” because it is so much more than a mere “sight” - I particularly remember the chaos and noise! The Maasai Mara Game Reserve (MMGR) offers fine wildlife viewing in other ways too with all those animals out on the plains and the resulting very visible carnivore population. But the “star” turn which really differentiates it from other African "plains" parks is undoubtedly the action packed “river crossing” (There are “crossings” too in Tanzania/Serengeti at Grumeti River but, apparently, less “dramatic”). Anyone visiting should surely at least plan to try to experience it? We were lucky enough to do so way back in August 1991 (photos).  But much has changed across those years and the logistics and costs of a visit are now very different. It still seems worth describing them as they then were to highlight the changes and to provide an indication of the things to consider when deciding how to visit today. Also to examine why this, undoubtedly "World Class", site is not yet a WHS.


We visited across 3.5 days in a self drive 4x4 without a guide and with our own 2 man tent (plus a little petrol Primus for cooking!) during a 19 day, 2300 mile tour of Kenya, going as far north as Samburu NP and as far South as Malindi/Mombasa/Tsavo NP. Nothing was pre-booked. We traveled in August - the optimal time for seeing a “crossing”, but sightings are not guaranteed and vary in frequency and exact timing according to the rains etc. We were the only visitors present to see “ours” and my digitized photos across the visit confirm my memory that nothing was that “busy” anywhere, apart from one Cheetah viewing where we did have a “cat in the car park” experience with around 6 other vehicles encircling them. Conversely I remember an entire afternoon spent watching a pride of lion and a herd of buffalo "facing off" with only 1 other vehicle present 

The MMGR was a 6+ hr drive from Nairobi, though the road to Sekenani Main Gate is now fully paved and 1 to 2 hours closer. It took us a whole day going via Naivasha to fall short of the entrance by sunset and I remember wild camping with another car which had a fire going to keep the nearby (and “interested in us”) Hyenas away! Gates opened at 6 am and our routine was to be on the move immediately, have an “early morning” game drive until around 9.30 and then retreat to the up-market lodge of Mara Serena where, in those days at least, they would serve a slap up (and remarkably good value) breakfast to passing non residents! An hour later we would leave for another short game drive before, in the midday heat, either returning for a Serena lunch or stopping in the bush for a picnic using our Primus for a “brew up” (Tea of course - we are English) and eat our ill-gotten food gains from the Serena breakfast buffet! Then a final late afternoon/early evening game drive until an exit from the chosen gate, dead on 6.30 pm closure!! We camped for 3 nights just outside the “gates” at various sides of the Reserve which, as we then understood it, were the only available public camp sites. There were “Tented Camps” inside but, as far as we then knew, none of them were interested in budget “own tenters”!.

Our self drive route within the Reserve (See this map) took us - Day 1 Sekenani Gate to Sand River Gate (24km), Day 2 Sand River to Oloololo Gate (76km), Day 3 Oloololo to Talek Gate (87km), Day 4 more drives before pm departure from Talek. Direct distances provide an indication of the size of the Reserve - how many extra kms you do game-finding is up to you! In those pre GPS days we used a paper map and found our way round perfectly well with reasonable map reading skills, a sense of direction and dead reckoning (The Oloololo Escarpment  on the Western boundary provides an excellent universally visible reference point)! We may of course have missed things by not having a guide and nowadays one with a mobile/radio and colleagues across the Reserve will know exactly what animals are where. We obtained petrol at the lodges. Our somewhat ropey Suzuki 4 x 4 from Europcar had one puncture in the Reserve (and many more elsewhere on the trip including 2 at one time with only 1 spare wheel!!) which we were able to get repaired at Keekorok Lodge. It also had the disconcerting habit sometimes of not starting unless one lifted the bonnet (“Hood”!) and wiggled the battery leads - not something one wanted to do if one had stopped to look at a nearby pride of Lions!!


A visit today is going to be very different. Firstly there has been a massive increase in tourist numbers across those 33 years. There are now c5000 beds in the area (other sources suggest rather more - see the 2013 article below). Consider how many Safari vans that means - all wanting to see the same things!  This 2014 article has data up to 2000 when there were fewer than 2500 beds. Since 1991 Kenya's population has risen from c24 to c56 million (and is forecast at c72 million and still rising by 2034) - a lot of them will look to Kenya's tourism industry to make a living. This map shows the current, almost continuous, line of lodges and camps alongside the Mara. Note also the privately run “Conservancies” outside the Reserve to the North contributing to the overall numbers inside. Even then, in peak season, demand easily exceeds supply, pre booking is required and costs rise. 

Entry fees have just been hiked for 2024 from $70/80pppd in 2023. I quote - “Narok County Government has confirmed the Masai Mara Park Fees for 2024 will be increased to USD 100 per non resident adult per day from 1st January 2024 to 30th June 2024, USD 200 per non resident adult per day from 1st July 2024 onwards.” Note also all the other rules and charges - vehicle fees, camping fees, ranger fees (“It is mandatory for campers at private campsites to hire two rangers for night-time security”). I don’t even understand the rules about entering the “Mara Conservancy" (Mara Triangle) which seem to suggest the need now to pay separately for the National Reserve (“managed by the Narok County Government”) and the Conservancy (“privately managed”) but still a part of the “Reserve” unlike the other “Conservancies” referred to earlier). This could be a massive downside since the “Triangle” includes possibly the “best” areas (as well as the Serena Lodge!) and did not previously charge separate entry fees.  The requirements for “No more than 5 vehicles at wildlife sightings” and “When there are more than 5 vehicles waiting to see an animal viewing time is restricted to 10 minutes” hint at the reality. This article from 2013  highlighted the problems existing then … and this from 2021 doesn’t show improvement. 

“Bad news” all round - for animals, eco-system and the “visit experience”. I would fear that the freedom, adventure and satisfaction of doing it oneself provided by our “Self drive and camp" option could now be outweighed or at least compromised by the need to “compete” within such a crowded domain. I quote “the days are gone when you could drive down from Nairobi…….and just do entirely your own thing (but they are trying to sell Safaris of course!). An organized tour offers guaranteed accommodation and services, the “value” added by a local guide, a higher game viewing position in a safari van (but more crowded, unless you are paying for a private vehicle), maybe some “luxury” depending on how up-market one went and also the possible benefits of staying inside the Reserve with the extra access that might give. Against it are the additional extra costs/tips, the downsides of having little or no control over the visit and being in a group.

If one is already driving around Kenya with a saloon car then leaving it and paying for safari transport might be “annoying” but is inevitable as 4x4 is obligatory in the Reserve. If you already have a 4x4 for other Kenyan NPs then to also pay for Safari transport would be more than “annoying”! If you don’t have your own tent then the numerous accommodation options, as per the above map, range from “budget” up to “super luxury” to be chosen according to one’s preferred Price/Value balance. It does seem that some budget camps do now allow “own tents” (though at what “discount” I don’t know).  And, at the end of the day, however “lowly” your accommodation, you face the same “high entry fees” as the luxury traveller! IMO, this Web site gives a good “starting” run down of the current options and factors to consider. 

Regarding the cost increases. I have looked out our 1991 entry receipt (I keep such things!) - 1 car with 2 PAX cost 930 KES for the entire visit. Exchange rates at the time were £1= 48KES and $1 = 27KES ie c£20 or $34. Differing national inflation and exchange rates across the period make comparison based on local currency complicated but these US$ denominated entry fees have clearly been increased by orders of magnitude more than the US cumulative CoL increase across the period (c125%). Camping was 50KES (c$2) pppn and is currently $40. I fear "budget travellers" will not be wanted in this emerging safari travel world! Our Serena breakfasts were a mere 170KES = $6.25 but whether the Serena even allows passing grubby skinflints inside their “luxury portals” today I know not - they now do their own pre-bookable al fresco breakfasts on the trail at “Hippo Pools” for $40 but this might be in addition to the full board cost of staying there. Kenya, in common with some other African countries, seems to have decided that its overseas tourism market is not particularly price sensitive when it comes to paying for "once in a lifetime" experiences and that entry fees can be massively increased without “killing” the demand. Indeed it could even be seen to be environmentally beneficial to limit visitor numbers whilst increasing total revenue by providing high value-added / high employment services  - though one wonders just how much of these increased revenues actually reaches the Reserve and the people.


Finally it seems worth examining why the Mara still hasn’t made it to WHS inscription. First the history -

a. 1981 Serengeti NP (ID156) inscribed by Tanzania on Natural Crits vii and x with IUCN comment “Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve was visited as part of this Technical Review; it is clearly part of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem and should be considered for addition to the WH List once Kenya becomes a signatory to the Convention”. (June 1991 - Kenya "Accedes")

b. 1997. The October WHC considered a nomination from Kenya of “ID799. National Reserve of Maasai Mara” and concluded - “The Bureau noted that the site, on its own, does not meet natural criteria. However, the Bureau noted that this site is an integral component of the Serengeti ecosystem and hence could be considered as an extension to the World Heritage site of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The Bureau encouraged the Kenyan authorities to work together with the Government of Tanzania for a trans-frontier agreement to extend the Serengeti World Heritage site to include the National Reserve of Masai Mara. The Bureau expressed concerns over the integrity of the National Reserve of Maasai Mara and asked the Centre to transmit these comments to the authorities of both Tanzania and Kenya”. Strangely Kenya had only submitted its first T List in Jun 97 and it (PDF page 5) did NOT include the Maasai Mara - yet the Nomination has a ref no and (apparently) was evaluated!

c. 2010. Kenya adds the MIXED site of “The African Great Rift Valley - The Maasai Mara” using Crits v, vii and x to its T List. It did this “from scratch” rather than by reformulating ID 799 (even choosing a new title) but stated “Maasai Mara National Reserve is the same ecosystem as the Serengeti National Park in United Republic of Tanzania which is a World Heritage site. The site should be listed as a cross boarder (sic) site as the United Republic of Tanzania has taken the first initiative.” It isn’t clear how it thought that a “mixed” site could be made “transboundary” with a “natural” one. Rather strangely the Cultural Crit v relates to “The Maasai community living adjacent to the reserve” which seems to reflect the fact that, officially, they are no longer allowed to graze cattle inside the Reserve (They do, but legally only in the Northern Conservancies) – in which case why include a Cultural Criterion? The description of 13 years ago makes much of the urgent need even then to protect the Reserve - “Some 45 tented camps and lodges now operate in and around the Reserve. There has been little consideration of how many tourist facilities the area can support, and the proliferation of accommodation puts severe pressure on resources, particularly wood-fuel and water”

d. 2020. In March the Standard newspaper reportsMasai Mara inches closer to UNESCO World Heritage Wall (sic) of fame” describing a meeting of “experts” at the Serena Mara to progress the preparation of Nomination documents for presentation by Feb 1 2021. I can find no more on this - was it still pursuing a “mixed” option?

e. 2023. In June Kenya adds a Natural site to its T List using Crits vii and x - titled “Maasai Mara Game Reserve” (without removing its previous "Mixed" entry). Its description does NOT indicate that a transboundary extension is envisaged, merely stating that it is “contiguous with” and “comparable to” the Serengeti WHS. The stated site size shows that ONLY the Reserve, but including the Triangle, is covered. 

What to make of all this? There is a lot more to be found on the Web about cooperation “difficulties” between Tanzania and Kenya on their shared Serengeti/Mara ecosystem. Several causes can be identified beyond mere nationalism. First the different “conservation” approaches. Tanzania has gone for strict protection within "National" Parks with limited local involvement and zero human activity, whilst Kenya has adopted a more community-based conservation model, incorporating Maasai conservancies alongside "reserves" whose protection is “short” of NP levels at least “Legally”. This inevitably makes a “fully shared” WHS very difficult - especially with IUCN seeming, historically, to favour the Tanzanian approach. There is currently an ongoing dispute in Tanzania regarding changes to the management of Ngorongoro which the Maasai are opposed to. The Maasai have never been happy with what happened to them in the Serengeti. One can imagine the Kenyan Maasai being very wary of anything which might lead to a further loss of their historical rights or not give them direct benefits. Other issues include water resource disputes across the shared Mara basin.

This UNESCO document (1st article) from 2021  highlighted the need for improved transnational cooperation. It also identified difficulties arising from the mixed T List entry for MMGR and concluded "UNESCO also has an opportunity to revisit the listing of the site, review its current listing criteria and expand the same to ensure that the entire ecosystem is listed as one" without expanding on what that might involve.  Perhaps it would be better if UNESCO/IUCN accepted that 2 separate Natural sites, recognizing the varied national conservation approaches whilst improving cooperation across a "dual WHS", would be preferable to the status quo? There are precedents for such dual inscriptions where States Parties are not able/willing fully to agree. e.g Sundarbans and Iguassu.

But, even then, could Kenya demonstrate that it is adequately protecting its MMGR environment from "over tourism"? The current situation does not seem sustainable or likely to be acceptable to IUCN.  Will more have to be done to allocate even the controlled numbers of high paying tourists more evenly across the Reserve in order to protect the wildlife? I remember Indian Tiger reserves like Kanha where each jeep is allocated an area and a route from which it is not allowed to deviate even if a tiger is close by just off it. Whatever, the assumption must surely be that visiting the Mara is going to become relatively even more costly and restricted in future years?

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Full Name
Maasai Mara Game Reserve
Wildlife habitat - Fauna
2023 Added to Tentative List

Unesco Website: Maasai Mara Game Reserve

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Maasai Mara Game Reserve (T)
WHS 1997-2024