By Steve Kinuthia
If you have been to Maasai Mara of late like I have been, you must have gone through the rigorous routine of the searches at the two main entrances to the Mara conservancy. I call it rigorous because it involves physical searches and sniffer dogs.
When I went in at Oloololo gate, the dreaded wait at the check in office which was orchestrated by the new ticketing system was nothing compared to the search.
As the ticketing officers struggled with the computers and collected all the passports from the clients for verification, other officers were inside the land cruiser literally turning things upside down. I had to caution one overzealous officer who wanted to open a lady's bag when the owner was outside the vehicle.
One would easily think we were entering military barracks or White House. Initially, the dog refused to obey its minder's orders. After some time, it obliged and started with the luggage inside the car before moving on to the boot, sniffing all the bags several times over before we were cleared to proceed. This was a staggering 45 minutes clearing four passengers. Needless to mention, I was late for lunch at Serena lodge, but being well known and expected, I got something for the clients and we went for our game drive.
The new ticketing system that has spread over to the side initially known as the Narok county controlled side, is commendable. Not at all like the previous one where we had to get cards from Equity Bank for each client. Much as we cried foul over the cards, no one bothered to listen. Now they are no longer there and this is due to the new devolved system of government that expanded the Narok county to cover the Trans Mara area. If it is the decision of the county governor to normalise the ticketing system, I salute him because it is much better than any that has been used before.
Coming back to the exaggerated security check, I thought of enquiring from the rangers why such time-consuming searches were necessary at the gate. They told me it was introduced after the West Gate mall attack. The attackers, as he put it, had promised to attack a prominent game lodge and they were not taking it lightly. At that time, the country was awash with news of continued poaching of the endangered rhinos.
A month before, a rhino was killed in Mara near the Olkiombo area. Although that was not the area under the jurisdiction of the conservancy, protecting the endangered rhino under the present circumstances, should be a priority and a duty to all those who work in the Mara region regardless of whether they are in the conservancy or in the larger Narok area. To subject a client to more than half an hour of search at the entry looking for explosives while some people are killing our rhinos with such ease, is beyond comprehension.
I have been to the Mara for at least 24 years now. I am sure some of us who are still in the industry understand Mara more than the so-called security officers. Some of them came into the Mara plains less than a year ago. They concentrate only at the gates and the most commonly used rest points like the lookout points and hippo pools. I am one of those guides that like to venture deep into the wilderness and get away from the overused areas close to the lodges. During such forays, I have seen numerous points where normal vehicles can enter and exit the park without using the main gates. I have never seen a single security vehicle in such areas. But I have seen many, strong land cruisers with white drivers, who even had the guts to ask me why I was doing game drives in "their areas"!
I was one time unable to access the world famous cottars 1920 luxury camp through the sand river gate after heavy rains. I tried using an unused track that diverted from the Oloolaimutia gate. After an hour's drive, I found myself in Tanzania, but within the park area. I was on the road to Lobo. I had to consult the local Maasai to direct me on how to get to the camp.
Those are the points the anti-poaching units should watch out, instead of putting all their resources at the gates. I still wonder why such operations do not involve some of us with valuable knowledge of the parks and its environs. We have to pull all strings to stop the poaching menace. But if the people concerned play lords untouchables and go about making policies in the offices and sending dogs and guns to stand at the gates, our dear animals will be wiped out as we watch.