Does the Masai Mara need a new lodge in pristine habitat? - Somak seems to think so. And there are unanswered questions.
Does the Masai Mara need more camps in pristine habitat?
Stop press - SOMAK HAVE REMOVED THE ASHNIL MARA CAMP FROM SALE AS OF TODAY (FEBRUARY 10TH 2010). Read the Somak statement.
Why build a new safari camp in the middle of the Masai Mara?
With thanks To Chris Haslam of the Sunday Times, Matt Walpole - rhino researcher, and Somak holidays.
February 2010. There are calls to boycott a new safari camp on Kenya's Masai Mara over concerns about its construction in a very sensitive area. The Ashnil Mara Camp has been built in what some people claim to be important rhino habitat, crucial for the survival of the indigenous black rhino population of the Mara.
The Rhino Programme Warden, the Minister for Local Government, the local County Council and Kenya's National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) all originally opposed the construction of the camp due to the threat it would have on the rhino population. However Somak point to a report produced by the chief game warden of the Masai Mara National Reserve that implies that the area that the new camp has been built is not a problem for rhinos, or anything else.
Somak blasted for poaching rhino's habitat
Conservationists have joined a facebook campaign urging a boycott tour of safari operator Somak after the company started taking bookings for the controversial camp.
BBC Big Cat Diary presenter Jonathan Scott
BBC Big Cat Diary presenter Jonathan Scott says the tourist camp jeopardises the future of the Masai Mara National Reserve. "I have no hesitation in putting my name to the ‘I will not safari with Somak,' campaign," he said. "A company of this standing should be prepared to play their part in halting the rash of development threatening the Mara."
Just 40 black rhinos left in the Mara
There are less than 40 of the critically endangered black rhinos living in the vast Mara reserve. Of these, more than half are thought to live in a small tract of riverine forest at the confluence of the Mara and Olkeju Ronkai rivers, where the 30-bed Ashnil Mara camp, owned by Somak subsidiary Ashnil Hotels, has been built.
Brian Jackman - "incandescent with rage"
Veteran safari writer Brian Jackman said he was "incandescent with rage" at the development, which has been built in what Benson Okita-Ouma, senior research scientist with the Kenya Wildlife Service, describes as the Mara's "prime black rhino habitat."
Somak pledged to "walk away from the lodge" if it was proved that the area was a breeding habitat, but said it was a "non-issue."
Matt Walpole, independent rhino researcher, said "The fact is that black rhinos live, eat and sleep in the area," he said. "You cannot distinguish this from breeding habitat."
Somak released a statement in defence of their use of the camp. They state:-
On Thursday 14th January 2010 we were asked to comment by the Sunday Times about allegations that Ashnil Mara Camp is built on a rhino breeding ground; we said that we had no knowledge of this.
We have never received any evidence from anyone to support such allegations, despite many requests to a variety of sources. If any such evidence is presented to Somak Holidays about this or any other lodge or camp in the Masai Mara, we will act appropriately and will withdraw them from sale. Somak is hugely committed to Kenya, and has supported the country through thick and thin. We would never wish to be involved in anything that damaged its jewel in the crown, the Masai Mara.
Also on Thursday 14th January we received a complete document with comprehensive information that claims that the camp in no way affects the rhino population of the Mara. This was forwarded to The Sunday Times on 14th January, although their article makes no mention of it. It was produced by the Chief Game Warden of the Masai Mara National Reserve and is an environmental report about the proposed development."
The camp was built and is owned by Olkeju Ronkai Ltd. Ashnil is a management company contracted to market the camp worldwide to tour operators and to DMCs (Destination Management Company?) in Kenya. Somak Safaris is a DMC in Kenya. Somak Holidays uses Somak Safaris in Kenya as their DMC. In short, Somak does not own the lodge.
chief warden's version of the 'Mukinya map'
Click here to see a larger version
the original 'mukinya map'
Click here for a larger version
We asked Matt Walpole, - rhino researcher who spent some years monitoring the rhinos and their habitat in the Masai Mara, for his opinion on this debate. Matt writes:-
My understanding is that Somak have been constructing a tourism accommodation facility in a relatively remote and undisturbed area of the Masai Mara National Reserve, and are taking bookings for a scheduled opening in early-mid 2010. This has caused controversy because of concerns that the area is ecologically sensitive and of particular importance for, amongst other things, the black rhino population in the Reserve. The Report of the Senior Warden of the Reserve to the National Tribunal on the issue refuted these concerns and concluded that there was no evidence that the development would have significant negative impacts on the rhino population or the ecology of the Reserve more broadly, assuming that the developers adhered to the guidelines and requirements of the Environmental Impact Assessment report. As a result it appears that the development will be allowed to proceed and to open.
Do I agree with the warden's report? Well, I haven't been to the Mara for over five years and my data are too old to say whether rhinos are using the area right now, but I do believe that the vegetation in that area would provide both the food and shelter that rhinos require and so would likely be relatively high quality habitat for rhinos (which like thicker vegetation close to streams and drainage lines), whether or not they were actually breeding there. Such vegetation is under-represented in the Mara (the vegetation in that area is not quite the same as that near Governors Camp further north on the Mara River, which I would agree is less suitable for Rhinos). I would also point out that rhinos in the Mara are easily disturbed and displaced (especially females with calves). Any permanent human presence in an area may have a displacement effect on rhinos, although tourism presence may also deter illegal activity such as poaching and thus have an indirect beneficial effect.
Rhinos have moved away since construction began
I have since been told that the rhino warden in the Mara had said the area was used by rhinos but that they have moved away since the construction began. Rhino patrol data from 2007/08 indicate rhinos were seen very close to the site of the development, but I have not seen any data for 2009 to confirm whether they have moved away. However I read a news article where a reporter claims to have seen 2009 patrol reports that indicate the rhinos are no longer in that area. I have also seen unconfirmed reports that the rhino warden in the Mara believes rhinos have moved away from that area.
Uncontrolled tourism development
Ultimately, however, the rhinos are being used as a poster child for a wider disquiet at what some see as uncontrolled tourism development in the Mara. No one has yet been able to answer the question 'how much tourism is too much'? This particular development appears to have raised so much objection in part because it is located in an undisturbed area (of which there are few remaining in the Mara) and in apparent contravention of a new draft tourism zoning plan for the Reserve. Few people believe that the Mara needs more tourism facilities, and opponents of the Somak development fear that business concerns outweigh environmental ones and that this development will open the floodgates for further tourism development in the last empty corners of the Reserve. Whether it does or not depends on the motivations of the authorities and the strength of proposed future planning controls.