James Robertson

Chairman of Ker & Downey Safaris


Alison M. Jones

NWNL Director & Photographer

Langata, Kenya - September 19, 2009


The Mau Forest & Maasai Mara N. R.
The Scope of Water Needs
Agriculture is Emptying Rivers
Maasai Pastoralism

If the Mau Forest and Mara dry up, you'd lose the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem's lifeblood. There are reports high salinity due to low water flow is affecting the river. What is that doing to wildlife - or to the fish that have died? --James Robertson: Mara Conservancy Board; Chmn. Of Ker & Downey Safaris

All images © Alison M Jones. All rights reserved. 

Introductory Note

Kenyan-born James Robertson has been a conservationist, Ker & Downey Safaris Chairman and on the Kenya Wildlife Trust. A Founding Board Member of the Mara Conservancy Board, helped form this new model of community-based management model in the Maasai Mara, which he calls “Africa’s best wildlife destination.” 

James has long supported a health Mara River and warned of impacts of deforestation at its source. In 2009 he forecast, “If the Mara River dries up, we’ll lose the lifeblood of the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystems and its great wildebeest migration.” 

Worried that without healthy wildlife ecosystems 2 million Kenyans could lose tourism income, he hails education as key to a sustainable Kenya. Worried over the drought-threatened livelihoods of pastoralists, he notes “Maasai setting up community conservation areas will find wildlife and tourism more viable than cattle.” 

Update: Sept. 2023: A “reforestation marathon” in the Mau Forest will help fund Kenya’s goal to plant 1.5 billion trees per year to increase its tree cover 30% by 2032. 

James Robertson and Maasai guide

The Mau Forest & Maasai Mara N.R.

NWNL  James, thank you for helping us organize the Kenya part of our No Water No Life expedition. As we assess the value of the Mara River today, we immediately face the question of what will happen if the Mara River dries up? Could Kenya lose the Maasai Mara as a tourist destination? 

JAMES  The Maasai Mara National Reserve [hereafter, Maasai Mara NR] is Kenya’s #1 wildlife destination. Every person visiting Kenya on safari goes to the Mara – unlike other national parks in this country. Without the Mara, we’d lose a lot. The Mara is the only place in Africa I’ve seen over sixty lion in one pride! That speaks to the value of the Mara! There isn’t a place that compares to it. It’s probably the best wildlife destination in Africa. If we lose the Mara, we lose probably one of the finest wildlife heritages in the world. 

NWNL  What does the Mara contribute to Kenya’s economy? Is wildlife tourism critical? 

JAMES  Yes. Coffee, tea and tourism are Kenya’s top three income producers. At times, tourism is the largest foreign exchange owner in this country. It is a huge employer. Every person employed in tourism supports approximately ten people around them. So, probably between 1 to 2 million people, out of 40 million, benefit from tourism. 

NWNL  That is significant. Plus, the loss of tourism would cause a devastating impact on Kenya’s unique and large populations of world-renowned wildlife species. Let’s discuss today’s threats to the diversity and numbers of Kenya’s wildlife. 

JAMES  The Mara River is key! It begins in the Mau Forest, Kenya’s largest water tower. But, unfortunately, that “old forest” is almost completely lost, due to timber businesses. Yet downstream, there is newer forest being protected and coming back. On your expedition you’ll visit the farm of Hugo Woods and his son Tarquin. They are planning a 30,000-acre conservancy there that will start protecting new forest. That is very good, even though it’s not yet formalized. 

The road from there down to Talek almost borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve. It seems that that area will become the Mara North Conservancy. Then, up through the Lemek area, there will be another conservancy. That will set up a string of private conservancies. The whole Mara River Basin outside the Maasai Mara NR needs the protection of private conservancies. 

NWNL  Is private conservation the best approach to conservation? Or should it be nationally based via the government of Kenya, or perhaps internationally sponsored? Or, maybe a combination of those approaches? 

JAMES  I think a “combination” would best allow wildlife to survive. As maps show, the Rift Valley and Mau Forest are an integral part of all the Amala and Nyangores River tributaries that form the Mara River. Thus, I say: “No Mau Forest, No Mara Reserve.” 

Places like the Maasai Mara National Reserve are run by Maasai councils, not national government. We’ve found they are almost impossible to manage. Thus, outside of protected reserves and national parks, we need private conservation agreements with individual owners. Also there’s a big push now for the national government’s Kenya Wildlife Service to take over the area outside the Maasai Mara Reserve’s boundaries. If we get those areas gazetted by government, we can maintain a good wildlife area. 

Basically, Mau Forest development issues are being faced and are well on the way to being sorted. Now it’s a matter of defining the details. I think there’s enough money behind our efforts and enough international pressure from the Americans, Japanese and Canadians. They are supplying funds to move the people, sorting out how it gets done and deciding who gets compensated. They plan to compensate the local people, but not President Moi or the politicians who instigated a lot of the destruction.

NWNL  Today’s “Save the Mau” reforestation efforts includes moving people out so the forest can recover. Is there a chance that the Mau could eventually become an exciting tourists destination? 

JAMES  Absolutely! It would include the forest itself and surrounding areas. The Mau has amazing trout fishing areas and amazing birdwatching that includes western and eastern Kenyan species. 

The Scope of Water Needs

NWNL  Kenyans need jobs and food. But today there is less and less available farmland. Can the demands of both people and wildlife in the Mara River Basin be met in a sustainable manner?  

JAMES  You’re asking one of the most difficult questions. The Mau Forest is a critical Kenyan watershed area. Downstream, the Mara River water supply must meet the needs of ecosystems, wildlife and people’s farms and thirst. The great thing about such a wide scope of needs is that it brings to light the critical importance of our rivers. 

Following the Mara River downstream, the last 2 years have seen the most dire water runoff we’ve known in the Mara River Basin. In the past 30 years, I’ve never seen the Mara River dry. But it literally has dried up. The wildebeest crossing the Mara River now just paddle through. It’s the first time the Mara River has been this low at this time of the year. The most important rains the Mau Forest gets is from April to September. So, now the water flow from the Mau into the Mara River should be at its highest. 

When you meet with Brian Heath, the Mara Conservancy CEO, and scientists Amanda Subaluski and Chris Dutton, you’ll learn about the incredible salinity levels now affecting the Mara River – probably at levels never before recorded. We worry what that is doing to wildlife. We know the fish are dying… 

Yet, the Mara’s situation is not as dire as that of Kenya’s northern rivers where agriculture is completely ruined, since 90% of their water supply is gone. Luckily, people like yourself are following and documenting these issues, because it’ll raise an awareness that we could lose the Mara.

The migration moves north from Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya’s Mara for water. It is one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. But an empty Mara River negates the lifeblood of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. If we can get control of the Mau Forest and the Mara River, prior to their complete destruction, we’ll be lucky. Again… No Mau, No Mara. And that would be dire. 

Agriculture is Emptying Rivers

NWNL  You say upstream agriculture is a major contributor to the loss of flow in Kenya’s rivers. Certainly, Kenya needs to produce food for its growing population. So, can the country find innovative and more efficient agricultural practices? 

JAMES  Yes, but at the same time we can’t lose our rivers. As you visit the farms, you’ll see innovative ways they’re now managing their water resources. However, innovative in agricultural methodology is only occurring at larger farms that have the revenue resources. The government isn’t helping subsistence farmers. 

And remember, beyond agricultural impacts, the many people now settled in the Mau Forest have created uncountable, uncontrollable and unmonitored take-offs from those rivers. Our National Forestry Department has no controls on those water rights. The laws banning settlement within a hundred yards (I think) on either side of any river in the Mau Forest are now gone, so people have settled all the way down the banks. Thus erosion problems are increased and causing problems. So now, with all that settlement, we have little forest.  

NWNL  Who is more responsible for drawing water out of Kenyan rivers: subsistence or commercial farmers? 

JAMES  Kenya has so many subsistence farmers needing water. On Mt. Kenya I just saw dry rivers with only a few pool of waters into which farmers are moving their pumps – even pools where hippos may be! There is a constant take off now; and I hate to think of how many new take offs are going in on a daily basis. 

NWNL  So, you think water withdrawal by subsistence farmers is the bigger problem? 


JAMES  I do. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of small farmers’ take-offs, whereas bigger farms’ take-offs are controlled. The latter seem to grasp the dire predictions regarding water levels of the Mara River. Also, commercial farms have money that subsistence farmers lack for the higher costs of irrigation alternatives. It seems the government should help subsistence farmers find alternative sources of water harvesting. 

Maasai Pastoralism

NWNL  We talked about agriculture impacting Mara River flows, but what about the impact of the cattle farming? For instance, the traditional Maasai still follow their pastoralist ways; and that’s another important means of feeding Kenya. 

JAMES  It all comes down to population growth, which has grown from 7 million to about 40 million today. The Maasai have also had incredible increases in numbers. To support themselves, they’ve increased their cattle to the point that their pastoralism is totally unsustainable on the land today. 

They have overgrazed the land. Even in wet years, there’s almost no grazing available. So, in a drought like this, the Maasai are  desperate. When we didn’t have today’s increases in numbers of people and cattle, pastoralism was sustainable. They could get through droughts by moving one’s cattle around the place.

In the Mara, you’ll see the current intense pressure of too many cattle. The Maasai are now keeping their cattle on the Reserve’s boundary so they can go there in to graze all night. Then they leave by 6 a.m. so tourism can continue. The effect on wildlife of this overgrazing is there’s not a blade of grass left. People are now doing research on how to bring the land back.

NWNL  What sustainable solutions exist for the Maasai? 

JAMES  Education is needed for other forms of livelihood. The Maasai can’t continue pastoralism as their population grows. There should be alternative jobs for them in their areas. They cannot keep raising cattle. Education can open new avenues for them, and cities will have to be places of the future for the Maasai. It would be great if education focused on wildlife. Any number of jobs could be found in that field. 

NWNL  Does wildlife income now support the Maasai? 

JAMES  Tourism probably makes five times more for them than other careers – and that possibly will save our wildlife. Since the Maasai can’t make a livelihood now with cattle, they are desperate to link up with tourist operators. Tourism will make a great deal more money.

NWNL  It makes sense – if they are willing to change. 

JAMES  It is happening. The Maasai are setting up “community conservation areas” for wildlife tourism that are very viable. But that brings about the problem of getting that revenue to the people. For instance, 19% of the revenue from the Mara Conservancy (the western third of Maasai Mara NR) is meant to go to the Maasai. But it’s difficult to make sure that money goes to the whole community. With its new management plan, the Maasai Mara NR will now earn several billion Kenya shillings. Giving 19% of that to the community surrounding would be incredible.


Education is the key. Everything follows on its heels. Tourism is one business, but there are also others. The bottom line is it’s going to take time. But let’s take away “western education” because what they need to know is what works for them. I think the whole education system here needs to be ripped apart and put back together to make it sustainable on the ground and allowing them to keep their cultural pride. It’s sad to see a Maasai being sent to school in western clothing, and not allowed to pierce their ears. Their culture should not be removed from them.

Posted by NWNL on October 19, 2023.
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.

All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.