Maasai Mara, also sometimes spelled Masai Mara and locally known simply as The Mara, is a large national game reserve in Narok, Kenya, contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. It is named in honor of the Maasai people, the ancestral inhabitants of the area, who migrated to the area from the Nile Basin. Their description of the area when looked at from afar: “Mara” means “spotted” in the local Maasai language, due to the many short bushy trees which dot the landscape.
Maasai Mara is one of the most famous and important wildlife conservation and wilderness areas in Africa, world-renowned for its exceptional populations of lion, African leopard, cheetah and African bush elephant. It also hosts the Great Migration, which secured it as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, and as one of the ten Wonders of the World.
The Greater Mara ecosystem encompasses areas known as the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Mara Triangle, and several Maasai Conservancies, including Koiyaki, Lemek, Ol Chorro Oirowua, Mara North, Olkinyei, Siana, Maji Moto, Naikara, Ol Derkesi, Kerinkani, Oloirien, and Kimintet.
When it was originally established in 1961 as a wildlife sanctuary the Mara covered only 520 km2 (200 sq mi) of the current area, including the Mara Triangle. The area was extended to the east in 1961 to cover 1,821 km2 (703 sq mi) and converted to a Game Reserve. The Narok County Council (NCC) took over management of the reserve at this time. Part of the reserve was given National Reserve status in 1974, and the remaining area of 159 km2 (61 sq mi) was returned to local communities. An additional 162 km2 (63 sq mi) were removed from the reserve in 1976, and the park was reduced to 1,510 km2 (580 sq mi) in 1984.
In 1994, the TransMara County Council (TMCC) was formed in the western part of the reserve, and control was divided between the new council and the existing Narok County Council. In May 2001, the not-for-profit Mara Conservancy took over management of the Mara Triangle which is covers the western part of the reserve.
The Maasai people make up a community that spans across northern, central and southern Kenya and northern parts of Tanzania. As pastoralists, the community holds the belief that they own all of the cattle in the world. The Maasai rely off of their lands to sustain their cattle, as well as themselves and their families. Prior to the establishment of the reserve as a protected area for the conservation of wildlife and wilderness, the Maasai were forced to move out of their native lands.
Tradition continues to play a major role in the lives of modern-day Maasai people, who are known for their tall stature, patterned shukas and beadwork. It is estimated that there are approximately half a million individuals that speak the Maa language and this number includes not only the Maasai but also Samburu and Camus people in Kenya.
View of Mara River
Sunrise over Maasai Mara National Reserve
The total area under conservation in the Greater Maasai Mara ecosystem amounts to almost 1,510 km2 (580 sq mi). It is the northernmost section of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, which covers some 25,000 km2 (9,700 sq mi) in Tanzania and Kenya. It is bounded by the Serengeti Park to the south, the Siria / Oloololo escarpment to the west, and Maasai pastoral ranches to the north, east and west. Rainfall in the ecosystem increases markedly along a southeast–northwest gradient, varies in space and time, and is markedly bimodal. The Sand, Talek River and Mara River are the major rivers draining the reserve. Shrubs and trees fringe most drainage lines and cover hillslopes and hilltops.
The terrain of the reserve is primarily open grassland with seasonal riverlets. In the south-east region are clumps of the distinctive acacia tree. The western border is the Esoit (Siria) Escarpment of the East African Rift, which is a system of rifts some 5,600 km (3,500 mi) long, from Ethiopia’s Red Sea through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and into Mozambique. Wildlife tends to be most concentrated here, as the swampy ground means that access to water is always good, while tourist disruption is minimal. The easternmost border is 224 km (139.2 mi) from Nairobi, and hence it is the eastern regions which are most visited by tourists.
It has a semi-arid climate with biannual rains and two distinct rainy seasons. Local farmers have referred to these as the ‘long rains’ which last approximately six to eight weeks in April and May and the ‘short rains’ in November and December which last approximately four weeks.
Elevation: 1,500–2,180 m (4,920–7,150 ft); Rainfall: 83 mm (3.3 in)/month; Temperature range: 12–30 °C (54–86 °F)
A scene with scattered bushes, animals, cloud shadows, and umbrella acacia trees
East African cheetah with cubs
Wildebeest, topi, zebra, and Thomson’s gazelle migrate into and occupy the Mara reserve, from the Serengeti plains to the south and Loita Plains in the pastoral ranches to the north-east, from July to October or later. Herds of all three species are also resident in the reserve.
All members of the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, black and white rhinos) are found here all year round. The population of black rhinos was fairly numerous until 1960, but it was severely depleted by poaching in the 1970s and early 1980s, dropping to a low of 15 individuals. Numbers have been slowly increasing, but the population was still only up to an estimated 23 in 1999. The Maasai Mara is the only protected area in Kenya with an indigenous black rhino population, unaffected by translocations, and due to its size, is able to support one of the largest populations in Africa.
Hippopotamuses and crocodiles are found in large groups in the Mara and Talek rivers. The plains between the Mara River and the Esoit Siria Escarpment are probably the best area for game viewing, in particular regarding lion and cheetah.
There are many large carnivores found here in the reserve. Lions are the most dominant and are found here in large numbers. Spotted hyenas are another abundant carnivore, and will often compete with lions for food. Leopards are found anywhere in the reserve where there are trees for them to escape to. Cheetahs are also found in high numbers on the open savanna, hunting gazelles and wildebeest. African wild dogs are quite rare here due to the widespread transmission of diseases like canine distemper and the heavy competition they face with lions, who can often decimate their populations. Their packs also roam around a lot and travel far distances throughout the plains, making it hard to track them. Smaller carnivores that don’t directly compete with the latter include African golden wolves, black-backed jackals, African striped weasels, caracals, servals, honey badgers, aardwolves, African wildcats, side-striped jackals, bat-eared foxes, zorillas, African civets, genets, several mongoose species, and otters.
Wildebeest are the dominant inhabitants of the Maasai Mara, and their numbers are estimated in the millions. Around July of each year, these animals migrate north from the Serengeti plains in search of fresh pasture, and return to the south around October. The Great Migration is one of the most impressive natural events worldwide, involving some 1,300,000 blue wildebeest, 500,000 Thomson’s gazelles, 97,000 topi, 18,000 common elands, and 200,000 Grant’s zebras.
Antelopes can be found, including Grant’s gazelles, impalas, duikers and Coke’s hartebeests. The plains are also home to the distinctive Masai giraffe. The large roan antelope and the nocturnal bat-eared fox, rarely present elsewhere in Kenya, can be seen within the reserve borders.
More than 470 species of birds have been identified in the park, many of which are migrants, with almost 60 species being raptors. Birds that call this area home for at least part of the year include: vultures, marabou storks, secretary birds, hornbills, crowned cranes, ostriches, long-crested eagles, African pygmy-falcons and the lilac-breasted roller, which is the national bird of Kenya.