The Maasai Mara in Kenya is part of the Mau-Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, one of the last large-mammal refuges on Earth. It stretches 25,000 km2 from Tanzania to southern Kenya and is home to 40% of Africa’s large mammals. The Mara is most famous for the annual wildebeest migration – one of the seven natural wonders of Africa and one of the most spectacular wildlife shows on the planet! The ‘Great Migration’ occurs between July and October when the Mara becomes host to over one million wildebeest that travel from the Serengeti in Tanzania in search of food. Massive megafauna migrations were once common all over the world, but today the Mara-Serengeti migrations are among the last of their kind, representing a unique and irreplaceable African heritage. Besides wildebeest, all of the ‘Big Five’ are present – lion, leopard, African elephant, cape buffalo, and rhino – as well as cheetah, giraffe, hippos, zebra, Nile crocodiles, hyenas, African wild dogs, and even the rare and secretive pangolin!
The main access point to the Mara is the Maasai Mara National Reserve (MMNR) – a protected area of around 1,500 km2 that is surrounded by a number of private and community-owned conservancies. You can reach the MMNR by road (5-6 hours from Nairobi) but the unpaved section of the road after Narok (the nearest town) and the Reserve entrance is one of Kenya’s most notorious. Alternatively, you can fly (40 mins) from Nairobi into any of the eight airstrips in and around the Mara. It is possible to self-drive within the Reserve (with a good 4X4) but WildSide recommends going with an experienced driver and guide that knows the Reserve and understands the seasonal patterns of the animals. For a first-timer, it can be quite complicated to understand where to go and where to stay!
Average rating: 5.0 (very good)
Average spend per person: $1,000 for an all-inclusive 3-4 night stay
Number of reports: 2
Best time to visit: impressive at any time of year but at its very best during the Great Migration in July to October – the peak time is mid-July and August but you may have to share the experience with dozens of other vehicles
Typical activities: 4×4 safari, animal watching, walking
WILDLIFE IN MAASAI MARA
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the species visitors most want to see here are as follows:
AFRICAN ELEPHANT – 100% OF VISITORS (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The African bush elephants that live in the Mara are the largest species of elephant and the largest living land animal on Earth. Their extra-large ears and long front legs distinguish them from other types of elephants. There are 2,400 or so elephants that reside in the Mara so you have a good chance of seeing them. While they generally prefer scrublands and forests, they can sometimes be seen marching across the wide grass savannahs in search of food and water. The conservancies adjoining the MMNR offer the best opportunities for getting up close to elephants in the company of an experienced guide, but access is limited to those staying in them.
CAPE BUFFALO – 100% OF VISITORS (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Mara offers good opportunities for viewing Cape buffalo all year round, as the grasses in the ecosystem are their favourite food. An aerial count from 2017 estimated there are over 9,400 buffalo in the Maasai Mara. They can typically be found living in large groups, spending their time grazing the floodplains and savannah. Although older males who have been forced out of the group by younger bulls may be solitary or in smaller bachelor herds. Cape buffalos have a reputation for suffering a severe lack of humour, taking on anything they dislike. They can charge at great speed when they feel threatened – making them the most feared animal on any walking safari!
CHEETAH – 100% OF VISITORS (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Maasai Mara has one of the highest cheetah densities (roughly 31 adults) in the world, but it’s a landscape that is under increasing human pressure. Cheetahs are most active between sunrise and sunset. While they are perhaps easiest to find in open grasslands, data has shown that they prefer semi-closed habitat (Vachellia woodland and Croton thickets). For the best chances of seeing a cheetah, go with one of the experienced local guides as they will know roughly where they are based on previous sightings. They are also able to exchange information with other guides. If you do spot a cheetah, you can play a part in their conservation by downloading Spot a Cat and recording your sighting.
GIRAFFE – 100% OF VISITORS (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
As well as the largest, the world’s tallest mammal can be found in the Masai Mara. The Maasai giraffe is the tallest subspecies of giraffe – reaching up to 5.5 metres tall! With their towering legs and long necks, you have a very high chance of seeing these graceful animals browsing acacia trees or silhouetted against the horizon. In 2017, an aerial count of the region revealed a population of over 2,500 Maasai giraffes, an increase of 61% on the 2010 count.
LEOPARD – 100% OF VISITORS (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Although the number of Mara leopards is currently unknown, it is believed to be higher than that of cheetahs. This does not make leopards any easier to spot as they are solitary and elusive animals. This shy nocturnal animal loves rocky and woodland areas and is most likely to be encountered resting in a tree. The Mara Predator Conservation Programme has compiled a leopard distribution map based on information from sightings since 2014. This suggests that the population is spread across the Mara but most concentrated in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy to the north of the MMNR.
LION – 100% OF VISITORS (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Mara has one of the highest lion densities in Africa making it one of the best places to see lions. The Mara Predator Project has identified 11 prides (over 400 lions) that reside in the Maasai Mara. The Marsh Pride, typically residing in the far northwest of the MMNR, is one of the celebrities of the lion world. As the star of both the BBC’s Big Cat Diary series and David Attenborough’s nature documentary, Dynasties.
The best time for spotting lions is in the early mornings and evenings when they tend to be most active. If you’re staying in the MMNR or one of the neighbouring conservancies, the chances are that you’ll hear the lions grunting and roaring through the night. You can spot them all year round. For the most dramatic encounters, head to the Reserve at the same time as the wildebeest migration, when they’re enlivened by the abundance of prey.
Hippo – 50% of visitors (1/2) reported sightings
The MMNR is home to a whopping 4,000 hippos. So if you are on the lookout for hippos, your chances of seeing them are high. In fact, the population is so large, one study estimated that the Mara’s resident hippos add over 9 tonnes of faeces into the river every day! This partially digested plant matter releases large amounts of nutrients into the river. During dry periods, this can lead to sudden build-ups of oxygen, causing fish to die in large numbers. While this sounds bad, it provides an important source of food for birds and crocodiles.
PANGOLIN – 0% OF VISITORS (0/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Pangolins live in woodlands and savannas that are within reach of water. They remain in their burrows during the day and come out at night to hunt. It is said that the best time to see a pangolin is after heavy rains. At this time they go searching for flying termites which emerge when the ground is soft.
Very little is known about the population of pangolins in the Maasai Mara – which is hardly surprising given they are very secretive and rarely seen. Many of the guides who have lived and worked in the Mara all their lives have never seen a pangolin! There have been reports of sightings near the southern border of the MMNR in 2016, and of one seen defending itself against a couple of male lions in early 2019. According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, the highest frequency of pangolin sightings is in Olderkesi Conservancy, immediately southeast of the MMNR. In May 2019, footage of a pangolin was caught on a camera trap at Cottar’s Camp in the Conservancy. If you do see a pangolin, consider yourself incredibly lucky as this is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime event!
RHINO – 0% OF VISITORS (0/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Kenya is one of the few countries with significant populations of black rhino. The largest naturally occurring group is in the Masai Mara National Reserve. In 1971 there were around 120 rhinos, but because of poaching these numbers dwindled dramatically. By 2001 there was only one female rhino left. After security strengthened, and more poachers began to be prosecuted, a male rhino was moved into the region to mate with the female. It is estimated that there are now between 35-50 black rhino in the Masai Mara at any one time, with 15 or so moving between the Mara and Serengeti each year. But the chances of seeing a black rhino are rare. The best time to see them is just after sunset. The Mara used to be home to the northern white rhino although this is now thought to be extinct in the wild.
ZEBRA – 100% OF VISITORS (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
It is estimated that up to 200,000 plains zebra move between the Serengeti and Maasai Mara between August and September each year in search of good grazing. If you are lucky with the timing (which varies each year depending on the rainfall patterns), you can watch the millions of wildebeest and zebra running the gauntlet across the Mara river with Nile crocodiles lying in wait. The best time to spot zebra is between July and October (during the Great Migration) but you have a reasonably good chance of seeing them at other times of year as there is also a sizeable resident population.
Photo credit: Ralf Κλενγελ under a Creative Commons licence from Flickr