Finally we get the news we have been waiting for - that we can film off-road at night in the main Mara reserve - having paid quite a lot of money for the privilege (which it truly is).
Twelve years ago when we made Mara Nights here, we went all over, into what is now the Olare Orok Conservancy, the Aitong conservancy, the Mara North Conservancy as well as the Mara itself. Today, each area requires different permissions, different fees, and has different levels of 'allowed’ land usage, from light grazing to the building of permanent settlements. Further to the North, this also means ploughing the land and planting wheat.
Most National Parks exist simply because nobody could find another use for the land. The Mara is exceptional as it occupies prime agricultural land, and as such is really only secure as long as it earns more money through tourism than if it was converted to wheat. The areas surrounding the Mara are under imminent threat, and this has galvanised various organisations and alliances of tourist operators and land owners to create what is in effect a series of secure buffer zones and extensions of the bigger reserve.
There is however a problem. Cattle. This year has seen the driest drought in Kenya for 70 years. The Mara has the only remaining grass in Kenya (much of the best of the rest having been ploughed and planted). Estimates vary in the total number of cows that have been brought here from elsewhere, anything from 40,000 to 100,000, all grazing wherever they can – dodging wardens by going at night. Whether or not this grazing is bad for the plains and wildlife is hard to say. Generally, areas which cattle have grazed have shorter grass, which is what the wildebeest, gazelles and zebras like anyway, so these animals are often to be found among the cattle. But on the other hand, the number of people wandering around the reserve and surrounds has now got to the point that many of the predators have changed their behaviour and become more nocturnal or moved on altogether. And some areas have now been overgrazed to the point that they are just bare dirt waiting for rain.
Last night we watched as hyenas watched an advancing wall of cattle hundreds of bells ringing, Masai whistling commands, torches flashing. The hyenas took it in their stride and melted away when people came near. It’s a very complicated situation, but the will seems to be there on all sides to solve it, and keep that Mara largely as it is - the most incredible and beautiful place for wildlife I know of.