An early morning in Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve – with a wildebeest quietly grazing, birds crowding on the branches of a lone acacia tree and some zebras meandering nearby – is suddenly interrupted by an incoming radio call.
After hearing that the famous “four brothers” are on the prowl, our tour guide drives a four-wheel drive across the plains.
These male cheetahs are known to collaborate with lethal efficiency – though with so many wildebeest in the area, it’s hard to imagine breakfast will be a challenge.
Ours isn’t the only four-wheel drive racing across the dry grass, witnessing the impending death. There are at least 27 other vehicles circling the herd of zebra and wildebeest, all waiting for the show.
When the four cats finally attack their helpless prey and bring one young wildebeest to the ground, about half the cars crowd around to watch. Each car transports a group of tourists, each with a camera in hand, filming the cheetahs’ jaws on the wildebeest’s neck and recording the animal’s final mournful cries.
Many tourists come to see the execution. On the African savannah, the harsh brutality of the animal kingdom was on display.
Few would say they came to see swarms of other tourists charging off to the next sighting, or to use parked Land Rovers as a backdrop in their best shots, but for many, that is what a trip to the Mara has become.
The Narok County government reissued a set of rules to guides last month that must be followed when taking tourists on game drives.
It comes after a group of visitors and their camp were barred from visiting the Mara indefinitely in July following the widespread distribution of a video showing a man filming a leopard cub at the open door of his car on social media.
Vehicles must be at least 25 metres (82 feet) away from cat species, and drivers must not form a circle of cars around the animals, who must be able to assess the environment for potential danger.
There are also supposed to be a maximum of five vehicles at any one time at a sighting – but this is frequently disregarded.
If you are caught breaking the rules, you may face an immediate fine, removal from the Mara, or a ban from future visits.
However, enforcing the rules in a 1,500-square-kilometer (579-square-mile) park is difficult, and John Ole Tira, chairman of the Mara Guides Association, a volunteer organisation with 175 members, says there is also the issue of managing tourists’ expectations.
“When they pay the money, most clients assume they didn’t see anything if they didn’t see a lion or an elephant – the ‘Big Five.'”
The “Big Five” – lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, and leopard – are game hunters’ term for the most difficult animals to kill.
According to Phoebe Mottram, a British conservationist based in South Africa who used to work as a safari guide, the concept of the Big Five remains problematic, even though it now refers to spotting rather than shooting animals.
“It all comes down to marketing,” she explains.
“Guests want to see what they’re told they should see, and most guides rely on tips because their pay is inadequate.”
“As a result, the guide pursues the Big Five, receives better tips, and the cycle continues.”
She and her former guide partner, Lawrence Steyn, recently launched Thatch and Earth, an online platform that connects tourists with ethical safari camps and guides.
“You have a responsibility to put your money where you want,” Mr Steyn says.
While responding to radio calls for animal sightings is part of the job, he believes that instead of racing to tick off a list of five animals, guides should be educating clients about appreciating the ecosystem as a whole.
“That’s what we call a Ferrari safari,” he says. “It’s South African slang for people who go from the buffalo to the elephant to the rhino and then go home and call it a good day.”
‘Serengeti is more relaxed’
The website Exploring Africa’s Romina Facci warns that if guides continue to put pressure on animals by overcrowding them, the animals may become harder to find.
“If the animals become stressed, they may decide to flee the cars,” she says.
Some may even choose to skip the annual migration from the Serengeti to the Mara, which is one of Africa’s most popular wildlife attractions, as more than a million animals migrate in search of greener pastures.
“During certain seasons, when the rains are plentiful, some hartebeest [antelope] herds decide to stay in Tanzania rather than cross the Mara River to go to Kenya because they don’t need to: they prefer to stay in a more relaxed environment.”
A 2018 study found that cheetahs raised fewer cubs in areas of the Maasai Mara with a high density of tourist vehicles than in areas with a low density of tourists, a concerning trend for a species with only around 7,000 mature animals left in the wild.
The first ever Kenyan wildlife census, conducted earlier this year, discovered that while populations of some endangered animals, such as the black rhino and elephant, are gradually increasing, others, such as the roan and sable antelope, are on the verge of extinction, with only 15 and 51 left in Kenya, respectively.
According to Jerome Gaugris, an ecologist who runs an environmental consultancy in South Africa, the solution is to educate tour guides and tourists.
Vehicle limits, which have been standard practise in private South African game reserves for years, should be enforced in Kenya, he says, though he admits it is more difficult to do so on public land where different guides, operators, and agencies work.
“We limit it to four vehicles at a sighting at any given time,” says André Burger, owner of South Africa’s Welgevonden Game Reserve.
“It’s not all about the Big Five.”