Masai Mara National Park, protected area in southwestern Kenya, on Kenya’s southern border with Tanzania. First protected in 1948, it was officially declared a national reserve in 1984. The Masai Mara, which covers an area of 1,510 sq km (580 sq mi), is one of Kenya’s best known and most visited parks.
The Masai Mara consists of rolling open grasslands with woody thickets, patches of acacia woodland, tree-lined rivers, and isolated rocky outcrops known as kopjes. It is bounded on the west by an escarpment, the other side of which slopes down to Lake Victoria, and on the east by the hills bordering the Eastern Rift of the Great Rift Valley. Across the border, in Tanzania, is Serengeti National Park.
The Masai Mara is of vital importance to the Serengeti ecosystem. This ecosystem is defined by the area used by the region’s migratory herds of wildebeest (see Gnu), currently numbering around 2 million, and the associated herds of around 200,000 zebra which move with them. The wildebeest give birth on the open plains of the southeastern Serengeti, where annual rains from about November to May produce a rich growth of lush grasses. However, these grasses soon dry and the wildebeest are forced to move west across the Serengeti, and then northward into the Masai Mara, in search of grazing land. In essence, the wildebeest follow the rains and the associated lush grasses. In doing so they generate one of the most spectacular wildlife spectacles in the world: From July to August nearly 2 million animals move across the open dusty plains of the Masai Mara in seemingly never-ending droves. The herds turn around and disperse southward back into the Serengeti in October and November.
The herds of wildebeest and zebra are preyed on by lion, spotted hyena, leopard, and cheetah. The Masai Mara supports the largest lion population in Kenya and is one of the best places for visitors to view cheetah. Other mammals in the reserve include elephant, buffalo, giraffe, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle, topi, hartebeest, and hippopotamus. During the 1980s rampant poaching nearly exterminated the park’s population of the endangered black rhinoceros.
The Masai Mara National Park is a traditional homeland of the Masai people, many of whom follow traditional, pastoral ways of life. The interests of the park and of the Masai often conflict. At stake, typically, is how much park land the Masai are allowed to use for livestock grazing, and the extent to which the Masai should benefit from the park’s tourist revenues. The Masai have also invoked traditional rights to the land in the hopes of converting parts of the park to intensive agriculture.
Tourism itself can be a threat to the park’s ecosystem. In the early 1990s park administrators closed parts of the park to visitors in order to allow the vegetation to recover from excessive vehicular traffic. Excessive crowding of tourist vehicles around predators such as lion and cheetah has also been credited with changing the animals’ behavioral patterns.
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