The Cheetah, the Maasai & the Tourist

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As seen in National Geographic NewsWatch

Ears back. After getting harassed by the topi and found out by the wildebeest, the cheetah brothers walk off into the sunset in search of easier prey. Mara North Conservancy, Kenya.

The wildebeest are on high alert. Following their gaze I see two male cheetah staring back at them. Their cover blown, one brother turns in the opposite direction to consider the nearby topi. The topi are having none it. They walk toward the cheetah, facing them down. Between two herds of prey, the cheetah brothers have choice, but no cover in the short grass. To my surprise, the topi run at the cats. In a confusing mess, the cheetah run into the charging topi herd and are separated. A dash of tail and spots, they’re chasing and being chased at the same time. Someone is going to get hurt, and it doesn’t look favorable for our cheetah. Finally they realize its just not worth it and walk off into the sunset. The attitude of the topi is one of ‘and stay out!’

A united front, the topi stare down the cheetah brothers. Tension mounts as the staring contest leads to a full charge at the cheetah, confusing the hunt. Both parties go their separate ways, unharmed. Mara North Conservancy, Kenya

A life in the wild, an evening dinner plan squashed; life in the Mara North Conservancy for the cheetah.

‘and STAY OUT!’ reads the posture of the herd of topi after catching the cheetah brothers in the act of stalking. Mara North Conservancy, Kenya

After a four hour game-drive witnessing the drama and culminating in watching a pride of lions devour two wildebeests in the pouring rain, word comes over the driver’s radio from Elephant Pepper Camp that Femke Broekhuis. has driven across the reserve and is waiting to chat all things cheetah. We speed off back to the lodge, bouncing over the rough road with the violent wind and rain in our faces. I arrive like a drowned rat and greet Dr. Broekhuis who has no hair out of place. This is clearly someone with far more experience living in the bush than me. Femke comes from a family of wildlife professionals. She was born in Zambia and grew up in Botswana surrounded by wildlife. When I ask her how she chose this profession she says wasn’t much of a thought as a natural progression. Of course she’d work in conservation in Africa, there was never any question about it.

The leopard is just one of the formidable predators that pose a threat to the cheetah in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.


Dr. Femke Broekhuis’ new Mara Cheetah Project is just getting started on the edge of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in the Olare Orok Conservancy. From her research station she encounters the occasional uninvited snake and listens to the sounds of lions roaring, dogs barking, hyenas whooping, cattle bells and people talking. “It’s quite surreal, it’s amazing. We’re right there on that border of where humans and wildlife live together”.

Maasai herdsmen tap a mid-day nap on the edge of the Mara North Conservancy, Kenya.

This is the edge, where the Maasai communities live next to the reserves and where wildlife roam. The Mara Cheetah Project is the first of its kind dedicated to cheetah conservation in this area. A little hard to believe as the Serengeti Cheetah Project in neighboring Tanzania has been going strong for over thirty years. Femke says “we are only project that covers the Greater Mara Ecosystem (the Reserve, the Triangle and all the neighboring conservancies), and not just the Mara National Reserve. This is because we believe that conservation lies on the edges of the protected area in the interface been wildlife and humans.” A similar initiative, the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project led by Dr. Elena Chelysheva compares the Mara and Meru regions assessing behavior and human impact on the resident cheetah populations.

During the Great Migration swarms of tourists descend upon the Maasai Mara to watch as the wildebeest and zebra make the perilous crossing of the Mara River.

To start, the Mara Cheetah Project must figure out what the actual threats are beyond anecdotal data. Disease, human-wildlife conflict, illegal night grazing, stress brought on by mass tourism are all factors to consider. “People don’t know the difference between cheetah and leopard. They see a spotted cat and there isn’t that differentiation. Especially if you see it at night.”

“Everything seems to be at an extreme. There’s huge numbers of prey, large densities of predator but at the same time you’ve got this mass tourism, and you’ve got a large human population as well with cattle so just everything is at its extreme. It’s extremely complex to understand just how a system like that here works, and use that information to guide policies and management.”

The Great Migration brings over one million wildebeest to cross the Mara River, and about as many tourists to watch.

What is in it for the Maasai?

“They need to get value from the land, they need to get something back from it. Some are taking a holistic approach based on ideas by a Zimbabwean named Allan Savory. Using the land for grazing cattle where you can actually have large densities of cattle in a rotational system and the land ends up being more productive than letting everything come in and graze everything at the same time.

In Naibosho for example, in the low season the cattle are allowed to come into the conservancy and graze there and when the tourists come in the cattle are allowed to use the edge.”

Message to Tourists?

Topis play ‘King of the Hill’ in an iconic Maasai Mara pose. Other herbivores like the zebra featured here know to stick near the topi whose superior eyesight and willingness to be the lookout will spot a predatory threat sooner than other animals.

Femke agrees there should be a call to break down the barriers between tourists and herders. The Naboisho Conservancy is working on this, and is slowly spreading to other community-run conservancies.

“The Maasai are part of it, its part of their culture, part of the whole system. It needs to be a balance between that. You cannot completely exclude the cattle from this area, from the Maasai. They’ve been living on these lands forever and it’s really their land and we need to respect that. And the tourists that come into this area, they do see the grazing, understand that its not the pristine wilderness that you’re looking for but its part of the heritage, its part of the culture. And that’s how the Maasai have always lived. I think documentaries showing Africa as a pristine wilderness is misleading, Botswana is definitely one of them, but I think being here and seeing that (pastoralism) is actually part of the experience and seeing that humans and wildlife can live together. I think it’s important. “

Basking in the evening sun, a male cheetah takes a respite from the hunt in the Mara North Conservancy, Kenya.



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