© Serengeti Watch / Xavier Surinyach

Serengeti Tourism at a Crossroads: A Call to Action for the Travel Industry

8 July 2024

The Serengeti is rightly regarded as one of our planet’s great natural treasures. Kenya’s share is the Masai Mara Reserve (583 square miles) plus the Greater Mara, a wildlife and human inhabited area of about 2,500 square miles. The Mara joins seamlessly with Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park (5,695 square miles) which is surrounded by the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and several reserves. 

Tourism has long been seen as a way to protect this ecosystem by providing income for development. But now tourism finds itself among a growing list of threats. The travel industry needs to take stock and figure out the road ahead.

The Mara: A Case Study in Overtourism

After independence in 1963, Kenya saw the slow and steady beginnings of its tourism industry. Television shows abroad featured African wildlife and safari lodges hosting celebrity guests. The Swahili word safari itself became synonymous with adventure. Oscar winner Out of Africa helped supercharge an influx of tourists, and Kenyan tourism was firmly on its way. 

Unfortunately, tourism in Kenya, and especially the Masai Mara Reserve, has followed a familiar scenario: it begans with a few intrepid travelers, the word gets out, and mass tourism arrives, often corrupting the experience that attracted people in the first place. 

Without thought to guardrails or limits, the Mara has become overgrown with lodges and camps, some built without legal permits. By the 1980’s the reserve was suffering from corruption and mismanagement with benefits flowing to a few politically connected elites. It’s even been referred to as, “Kenya’s poster child for tourism overdevelopment.”  

The impacts on wildlife have been devastating. Joseph Ogutu, a Kenyan and Senior Wildlife Researcher at the University of Hohenheim in Germany, writes that Kenya lost 70% of its wildlife between 1977 and 2013. The Mara has been especially hard hit: populations of giraffes have declined 95%, warthogs 80%, hartebeest 76%, and impala 67%. 

This dramatic decline is not widely known, and the glowing reputation of a former Mara persists. It’s regularly listed, often well above Serengeti National Park, as the ultimate wildlife safari destination. Travel articles frequently repeat the claim that more than a million wildebeest migrate from Tanzania into the reserve. In fact, that number has dropped by 75%, from a million in the 1970’s to fewer than 250,000. A local wildebeest migration within the Mara itself collapsed from 26,800 in 1978 to less than 3,000 in 2014, an 81% decline. 

The major cause of this is a growing human and livestock population. This has compressed wildlife into a smaller range, where cattle compete for food and even graze within the reserve itself. In some areas, fences have been put up to protect cattle from predators, disastrously curtailing wildlife movement. To counter this, Maasai have been encouraged to set aside land as wildlife conservancies for tourism. In some cases, this has worked, though reportedly the income often does not trickle down

But tourism shares the blame for the Mara’s wildlife decline. Just a tenth the size of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, it has about double the number of camps and lodges. Overcrowding, overbuilding, poor tourism practices, and a lack of enforcement of regulations have all contributed to stress on wildlife – particularly when it comes to reproduction.

University of Oxford researcher, Femke Broekhuis, says that tourism affects cheetahs’ reproductive success, number of cubs reared, and ability to hunt. She writes that we must limit tourist numbers to save cheetahs from becoming an endangered species. 

According to the World Bank, “lodges built near watering holes compete for prime habitat. In these areas, excessive construction of tourist lodges combined with withdrawal of water from the Mara River for upstream irrigation has reduced wildebeest densities, with concomitant impacts on predator abundance and tourist satisfaction.”

Simon Espley, head of Africa Geographic, told the New York Times that he watched in horror as sixty vehicles idled on both sides of the Mara River during a wildebeest crossing. There was a “crazy, chaotic rush as hundreds of tons of steel lunged forward with screaming engines…It was surreal and sickening as we all converged on what is only a few hundred meters of riverbank, jostled for position and somehow avoided collisions.”

© Serengeti Watch / Simon Espley - Africa Geograpic
Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park 

As capitalist Kenya was busy developing its tourism, Tanzania was on a different path. Its experiment with Ujamaa, “African socialism,” viewed tourism as a kind of cultural pollution and shunned private investment. Tourists were tolerated, though not warmly welcomed. Over time, all that changed. Key players in Tanzania realized what a tremendous economic asset tourism could be and the race to attract travelers began. Both Tanzania and Kenya recently announced hugely ambitious goals of five million tourists in the next few years, nearly three times current numbers. While probably not feasible, it shows that growth itself is the priority. 

Congestion in the central Serengeti National Park is heavy, and it will get even worse if the government moves ahead with a plan to pave roads there. Now the crowding and resulting wildlife impacts seen in the Mara are spreading south into the northern Serengeti National Park. 

Tourism companies are actively marketing wildebeest river crossings, and the result is a huge number of vehicles scrambling for space, interfering with migrating animals and causing them to divert to less suitable crossing areas. 

One traveler reported to Serengeti Watch that they saw a vehicle hit a young zebra. Another related, “We were driving along beside a herd when we realized that a wildebeest mother was dropping her baby so we stopped to watch the birth. Then our driver informed the other vans in the area and they came racing up to where we were, and because of that approach the female dropped the new born baby and ran off with the rest of the herd ... She never came back, so I presume the baby was taken by a lion or something.”  

A recent YouTube video shows a solitary cheetah with a gazelle being approached by a safari vehicle, then more and more arrived, until the cheetah was completely surrounded by literally dozens of vehicles. But even more telling were the comments below the video. Viewers were absolutely outraged, saying they would never take part in such a travesty. Posts of trophy hunters with their kill usually elicit such outrage, now that anger is spreading to tourists seeking the perfect photo.

A Perfect Storm of Threats

Tourism’s impacts do not operate in isolation; there are already many other stressors on the ecosystem. Tanzania’s population is on track to more than double by mid-century, from 69 million people now, to 93 million in 2035, to 130 million in 2050. Studies have shown that increasing external human pressure is causing wildlife to be spatially compressed into the core of the ecosystem, affecting grass cover, soils, beneficial natural fires, and the increasing impacts from climate change. 

Longer droughts and heavy water usage for irrigating crops threaten water supplies both from rivers and free-standing water, the ability of grasslands to support large herds of herbivores, and the normal seasonal movements of animals. The ever-growing herds of livestock are actually causing large herbivores like wildebeest to shift their activity from daytime to evening, though the implications of this are not yet well understood.

There are other threats, too. Invasive plants, like devil weed, displace native species and affect the nutrition of wildlife. Wildlife lodges sometimes bring in ornamental plants for their gardens that are not native to the areas. Roads fragment the ecosystem. Poaching has changed from individuals supplementing the family diet to organized gangs, the byproduct of legalized bushmeat markets.

© Serengeti Watch / Xavier Surinyach

“Safaris of Shame” Displacing Maasai 

An often-declared aim of tourism is to benefit local communities, which in turn help preserve their ecosystems and wildlife. How is this working? In the Mara, some local Maasai communities have developed Conservancies, private land devoted to wildlife and tourism. This has helped. But the benefits have not trickled down

It’s different in Tanzania, where all land is owned by the state. The jobs and income that tourism generates haven’t reached local communities around the Serengeti. Despite bearing the brunt of human-wildlife conflict, they are seen as obstacles to tourism development. Maasai are being evicted from lands they’ve occupied for hundreds of years.

They recently lost 1,500 square kilometers of grazing land in Loliondo, a migration corridor next to the Serengeti National Park near Kenya. The government turned this into a game reserve, resulting in violence between Maasai and police. The area is now being used as a hunting block by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates who regularly fly into their own airstrip, shoot wildlife, and fly out. This is done under the banner of “tourism.”  

A bigger conflict is emerging in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). Created in 1959 when Maasai agreed to vacate Serengeti National Park, its population has grown exponentially. In 1966, Maasai in NCA numbered around 8,700. By 2017 that number had grown to about 93,000. By 2027, it’s estimated to be 161,000, continuing upward. Livestock has grown at a similar pace, though numbers vary with drought. Given the threats of climate change, frequent drought, and land degradation, this trajectory is viewed as unsustainable for both people and wildlife. 

The Tanzanian government believes the Maasai are a threat to tourism, and is systematically pressuring them off their land through cuts in health, education, and other social services. The government is offering government-built housing near the coast, a plan no one believes will work. According to the Oakland Institute, which has reported widely on the issue, mass evictions are on the horizon.

International press coverage has been extensive, from the New York Times to the Guardian to Amnesty International, widely defending Maasai rights and often blaming “fortress conservation.” Tourism is often viewed as being on the wrong side of this issue. Recently, the European Union canceled conservation funding for Tanzania over Maasai abuses.  

© Serengeti Watch / Xavier Surinyach

Tanzania Tourism Evolving

The original model of safari tourism was rooted in the desire for an authentic wilderness experience. Though industry reports say a new generation of travelers still seek authenticity, Serengeti accommodations are evolving toward luxury, with developers insisting on infinity and plunge pools, golf carts, and new roads. Developers built a golf course just outside the park in the path of migrating animals. And recently, a tennis court was built near the Serengeti for a luxury tennis safari. A hot spring in Ruaha National Park “confirmed by a team of experts” to reverse aging will be marketed as medical tourism.

An expert long experienced in environmental impact studies in the region has reported anonymously to Serengeti Watch that established protocols and standards for construction are being ignored, and studies can even be bought. Decisions are being made less on conservation priorities than balance sheets. 

There is some recognition in Tanzania that the northern circuit (Tarangire, Manyara, Ngorongro, Serengeti) might soon be overwhelmed. The World Bank gave $150 million to develop a southern circuit that includes Ruaha and Mikumi National Parks, Nyerere National Park (formerly the Selous), and the more remote Katavi National Park. However, then allegations of gross human rights violations surfaced, including mass evictions and violence against local people. After an investigation, the World Bank withdrew $50 million of the remaining funds. 

Friends of Serengeti – A Conservation Association for Travel Companies

Tourism needs to build guardrails and become firmly aligned with conservation and community development. For this reason, Serengeti Watch, a project of the US-based Earth Island Institute, has created Friends of Serengeti, a nonprofit conservation association expressly for travel companies. 

Its mission is to build a permanent framework of support, advocacy, and funding for the Serengeti. The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem has entered a critical phase, and decisions made now will shape its future. This is a significant time for both the ecosystem and the local communities, and travel companies have a key role to play.

The foundational message of Friends of Serengeti is that those who use the Serengeti, travel companies and their travelers, need to get involved. Membership in Friends of Serengeti offers an important way to communicate values to clients, partners, and travelers. By joining, members commit to:

  • Uphold best practices of responsible and sustainable tourism.
  • Support the rights and livelihoods of local communities.
  • Educate travelers and the public.
  • Encourage travelers to support conservation and community programs.
  • Monitor the ecosystem and report issues for collective action.
  • Ensure local operators and guides maintain high standards.
  • Advocate collectively for responsible tourism policies.

Members involve their travelers by giving them information on issues and asking them for voluntary donations when paying for their trips. It works with partner organizations on the ground to identify needs and carry out projects. Modeled after the successful International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, experience amply shows that travelers are willing to give and like to feel they’re part of the solution. 

Joining Friends of Serengeti

Membership is open to international outbound tour operators of all sizes who send travelers to Kenya or Tanzania. International members are asked to participate in our Serengeti Travelers Conservation Fund.  East African companies can apply as well. 

For information and an application, email: [email protected]

Learn more at our website: https://serengetiwatch.org/friends-of-serengeti/

Friends of Serengeti is a program of Serengeti Watch, part of the Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit organization located in Berkeley, CA, USA.  www.earthisland.org