Wildlife Holidays in Masai Mara

The Masai Mara needs no introduction; this remarkable reserve is perhaps the world’s most famous wildlife destination. The setting for countless documentaries, the Mara plays host to one of nature’s most spectacular events – the Great Migration – when millions of Blue Wildebeest, along with vast numbers of Plains Zebra, Topi and Thomson’s Gazelle, travel up from Tanzania to graze the seasonally rich grasslands. It is these grasslands that give the reserve its name; ‘mara’ means ‘spotted’ in the Masai language – a reference to the scattered trees that characterise the otherwise unbroken landscape. Although the migration is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown, the reserve supports a year-round embarrassment of riches. There are few better places for encountering Africa’s most sought-after wild creatures, and none where it is possible to do so in more dramatically beautiful surroundings.

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Speak with our Wildlife Holidays in the Masai Mara specialist

Kerrie Porteous
Operations Manager
Kerrie Porteous

Our Specialist Recommends

Our ‘Wildlife of Kenya’s Masai Mara’ safari is a great way to see beautiful Lake Naivasha, the astonishing scenery of the Great Rift Valley and the vast numbers of game – and associated predators – in the world famous Masai Mara.

Operations Manager - Kerrie Porteous

The Magic of the Masai Mara

The Masai Mara National Reserve itself extends over around 1,510 square kilometres, and is surrounded by additional conservancies and community lands, many of which also support high densities of wildlife. Furthermore, the Greater Mara region forms an integral part of the wider Serengeti-Mara ecosystem which, together with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, covers over 25,000 square kilometres. This protected area contains some of the most productive habitats on Earth, and consequently is home to an essentially unrivalled natural abundance. Many of these species have become rare or diminished elsewhere, but here they still exist on a scarcely imaginable scale.

Many visitors come in search of the ‘Big Five’ – Lion, Leopard, African Buffalo, African Elephant and Black Rhinoceros. Although this term is often used to describe the most desirable species for safari-goers, it has a complicated history, originally referring to the animals deemed most dangerous for big game hunters to pursue. Today, thankfully, tourists are more likely to travel with cameras than rifles, but the ‘Big Five’ retain their appeal, even though there are many other animals equally worthy of attention. Nevertheless, four of the five are regularly seen in the Masai Mara, with only the Black Rhino presenting a truly significant challenge. Rhinos were common until the 1960s, but a poaching epidemic in the ‘70s and ‘80s decimated their numbers, with the population crashing to a low of just 15. As the only entirely natural Black Rhino population in Kenya, there are hopes that the species will eventually recover – the Mara has the potential to support one of the largest populations in Africa.

In contrast, Lions are especially numerous, and those here have been immortalised by documentaries such as the BBC’s ‘Big Cat Diary’. There are several thousand in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, with an estimated 850-900 on the Kenyan side alone; this represents one of the highest known densities in Africa, and these most social of felines are usually hard to miss. Although Leopards are also present in healthy numbers, they are much more elusive, staying mostly in dense cover along rivers and in rocky areas. Most sightings of Leopard in the Mara are in trees, where they often drag their kills to keep away from scavengers like Spotted Hyaena.

The third large cat in the Mara is the Cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal. Although it is often described as a ‘big cat’, it is in fact not a true member of that group, being more closely related to the Puma of the Americas. The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is one of the species’ last great strongholds; over 1,000 individuals out of just 7,000 remaining worldwide range across the grasslands of south-west Kenya and northern Tanzania. Consequently, it is amongst the best places to see this elegant animal. However, even here the Cheetah is vulnerable – the open plains make it easy for scavengers to spot and steal their kills, and the crowding of tourist vehicles can be intensely stressful. Happily, better regulations have improved tourist behaviour in recent years.

These classic African predators are resident in the Masai Mara, as is a variety of herbivorous species including African Buffalo, Impala, Grant’s Gazelle and Common Warthog. For most of the year, the predators sustain themselves by hunting these animals, but for a few months, the abundance of potential prey is almost overwhelming. Every July, between one and two million Blue Wildebeest, 400,000 Plains Zebra and 200,000 Thomson’s Gazelles (along with other species such as Topi and Common Eland) pour into the Mara from Tanzania, following the seasonal rains that give life to the savannah. Every year, an estimated quarter of a million wildebeest lose their lives, to predators, drought or simply exhaustion; the migration reaches its dramatic zenith when the great herds must cross the swollen Mara River, battling not just the raging torrent but also lurking Nile Crocodiles, and Lions lying in wait on the opposite bank. This is perhaps the world’s most extravagant demonstration of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’; none who witness it will ever forget the experience.

For the birder, the Mara’s stunning open landscapes and astonishing variety of species also produce an unrivalled assault on the senses. Visibility is excellent, and many of the reserve’s birds are equally showy and impressive. Kori Bustards – the heaviest of all flying birds – patrol the grasslands in the company of Southern Ground Hornbills, Secretarybirds, Common Ostriches and Grey Crowned Crane, while Rosy-breasted Longclaw and Coqui Francolin scuttle beneath their feet. Birds of prey in particular are bewilderingly diverse, including giants such as Martial Eagle, Bateleur, White-backed, Lappet-faced and White-headed Vulture. Wetlands hold the extraordinary Saddle-billed Stork and rare Rufous-bellied Heron, while trees along the major rivers could hide Schalow’s and Ross’s Turacos; members of this family, which is endemic to Africa, are the only birds on Earth to possess true red pigment – their wingtips flash bright crimson in flight.

The Masai Mara National Reserve is divided into two main sections. Two thirds of the reserve is administered by Narok County Council, while the remaining 510 square kilometres is known as the Mara Triangle and is managed by an organisation called The Mara Conservancy. This part of the reserve, west of the Mara River and bounded by the Tanzanian border to the south and the Oloololo Escarpment to the north-west, is much less visited, containing only two permanent lodges. It is thus an excellent option for avoiding the crowds for which the Mara is sometimes known.

Surrounding the reserve itself are numerous community lands and conservancies. These support both conservation and the traditional livelihoods of pastoralist Masai communities, and many, such as Mara North, Naboisho and Olare Motorogi, can even surpass their illustrious neighbour for the quality of wildlife encounters. As they are private lands, tourist vehicle numbers are strictly limited, and there are fewer restrictions, so activities like night drives are permitted. These can turn up some real ‘safari rarities’, such as Aardvark, Zorilla, Serval, Caracal and Bat-eared Fox. The most popular activities, both in the conservancies and the National Reserve, are game drives, although walks, visits to Masai villages and even hot air balloon rides are also possible.

The Masai Mara has a formidable reputation, but it lives up to and even exceeds every expectation. The Great Migration is a spectacle that all wildlife lovers should experience, but the sheer abundance of nature will delight visitors year-round.