Well, how about this.
Finished my contract at Basecamp Masai Mara, and at the same time was offered the chance to work with a company that has been flying passenger balloons close to the Amboseli National Park in South eastern Kenya. The same company holds a lease on a 20 thousand acre piece of land, part of the Olgulului-Lolarashi Group Ranch which encircles almost 90% of Amboseli park.
The Kitenden Wildlife corridor is part of the leased area, and by leasing it, we control any development or usage of this vital link between Mount Kilimanjaro and Amboseli. The plans to develop a conservancy are taking a while to come through, as finding funding for this is no easy task, and at the same time, the Balloon Safari business must keep the lease payments coming in on time, as well as the operation costs (which trust me are huge!). Being handed the responsibility of Operations Managment for Kilimanjaro Balloon Safaris, and at the same time tasked with finding sources of funding for the development of the Kitenden Wildlife Cinservancy has been a huge challenge, with bi-monthly trips to Nairobi to follow up marketing and bookings, and while in Amboseli, flying (yes, got my commercial pilots license - Lighter than air - Balloon with airborne heater rating in November 2008), managing supplies, vehicle maintenance (not much i don't know about my dream cars now - the Land Rover defender 110)...well.. you get the picture...
Now the fun stuff...
Amboseli is spectacular..living in the shadow of the hulking mass of the highest freestanding mountain on earth is a constant reminder of how insignificant we really are in the face of Nature...add to the mix one of the largest populations of the largest land mammal..Loxodnta africana... and you have the recepie for one of the most epic, enduring, timeless and recognised images of Africa. Lovely.
Having had the privilege of living in the Masai Mara for 4 years or so, i have now the opportunity to comment objectively on the situation of that '7th wonder of the natural world'. And having had the opportunity to experience the Amboseli wilderness since leaving the Mara, that adds to my sense of despair for the 'maasai steppe' in Kenya.
On any given day in the high season in the mara, a seat in any one of the 12 to 16 hot air balloons floating over the plains will witness a hoarde of what looks like out of control radio controlled -pardon the pun- white minibuses buzzing all over the park. The mara is estimated to have (minus the newly opened Anshil/Somak something or other lodge) about 4000 beds. divide that by an average of 6 persons per van - thas about 666 vehicles theoretically in the park. The area of the park is about 600 square miles. Do the math. The Kenyan government recently announced the findings of a study on the facilities in the Mara - 108 camps and lodges. Campsites not included as they are not permanent. the reportin in the Daily Nation said only 29% of those were operating legally. They haven't named the legally operational lodges, (i wonder why) which means the regular tourist/travel agent will unknowingly continue to patronise the illegal establishments, making us/them ALL guilty of contributing to the illegal operation of said establishments. They recently announced - in the same week as the opening of the brand spanking new ashnil whatever-the heck-its called lodge, that the government will start taking action against the illegal establishments from the 15th of March. day after tomorrow as i write this. They seem to have conveniently forgotten that the Lodge that senior government officials oficially opened the same week has been the subject of severe criticism, from members of the park management, the scientific community, as well as tourism industry stakeholders, conservationists, tourists, my mum and her dogs as well as every other sane thinking visitor to Africa. A good friend who flew over the lodge recently said 'they've cut a highwy directly from the Keekorok road to this new place.' Right in the middle of the park, no issue over loss of habitat for any kind of animal.nlet alone that the entire conservation/scientific community has been crying out over the building of the lodge in the middle of an established Rhino habitat. No mention of the fact that the National Environmental Management Authority - or NEMA - have aparrently ok'd the lodge.
What '7th wonder of the natural world'? Seriously. you want to watch the Gnu migration - go to Tanzania.
So, Amboseli, on the other hand.. has the opportunity to do things right. The community living around this park are seeing the issues facing their Maasai cousins to the west, and want to employ tourism to save their land, their lifestyles and their wildlife. Working with the Maasai here, they are interested to learn more and develop their ability to provide a quality experience to visitors, because they see the value of the bucks coming in. Maybe some of their willingness to work with tourism comes from their relative lack of resources, compared to the Mara, but whatever the reason, they are wising up, fast, and this might just make Amboseli THE wildlife destination in Kenya for along time to come. Whether this happens or not, i hope the Masai Mara situation improves, if only for the sake of the Rhino and the Gnu's....
So next time you choose a safari, or Balloon safari even, make sure its not one of the 71% (or 76.68 lodges -???) of illegal establisments in the Masai Mara. Amboseli won't go the way of the Masai Mara if visitors support Tourism businesses that are doing their part to make wildlife pay the communities that own the land, for caring for them.