Animals pay the price of pollution in River Mara

hippos

Hippos with skin condition affected by contaminated hippo pools that is emitting foul smell in Mara River at Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Narok County on March 20, 2022.

Photo credit: Cheboite Kigen | Nation Media Group

Hippos wheeze honk as they move around in Ntiaktiak River in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, oblivious to what is happening downstream.

Low levels of water at the intersection of Ntiaktiak and Olare Orok rivers in Olkiombo make it easy to spot several of the beasts with pink discolouration on their skins. The two rivers meet before flowing into the River Talek and ultimately into the Mara River.

Residents say they recently started noticing more hippos with peeling skins and some with discolouration (a condition scientists call leucism) and suspect this is caused by pollution of the Mara River waters.

Downstream, hundreds of miles away in Tanzania, fish in their thousands are dying, prompting officials to create an 11-member task force to investigate the phenomenon. The government has banned fishing in the Mara River and the use of its water for domestic purposes in Kirumi, Kwibuse, Marasibora and Ryamisanga as investigations continue.

The Nation set off to the Maasai Mara and the Mara River catchment areas to assess the situation. We came face to face with widespread pollution in the Mara River and its tributaries.

Residents of Talek, near the reserve, say they no longer draw the water for domestic use or even let their cows drink it as it is dirty, emits a foul smell and carries coloured effluent from upstream.

“When I was a little boy, we would go to the river, kneel and drink from it directly. We would even bathe there, let our cows drink from it and carry some water home,” said Sairua Kasaine, the founder of the Water Resources Users Association (WRUA).

“These days, that is impossible. Even the cows look at the water and turn away. It is smelly and dirty.” Residents, he said, have had to look for alternative sources of water.

Hippos

Hippos with skin discolouration suspected to be due to contamination of Mara River in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve on March 20, 2022.

Photo credit: Cheboite Kigen | Nation Media Group

Sections of the Talek, Olare Orok and Ntiaktiak rivers that feed into the Mara River contain high volumes of hippo excreta blocking some of the passageways of the seasonal rivers that currently have low volumes of water due to the prolonged dry spell.

“The faeces and urine from the hippos accumulated for several months and now that the rain has started falling, the waste together with hippo and wildebeest carcasses and other waste are being swept into the Mara River,” Mr Kasaine said.

Another resident and tour guide, James Tira, said the concentration of hippos in pools and in sections of the rivers has increased.

“Hippos have over time been forced to gather in enclosed areas and small pools because of the increasing number of hotels and tented camps in the Maasai Mara National Reserve,” he said.

He added: “These hotels and camps have occupied their habitats and pools and now, the hippos have been pushed into the rivers, which are already reeling from the effects of climate change and human activities upstream.”

WRUA chairman Stanley Neboo pointed out that the use of fertilisers, insecticides and other agrochemicals upstream, clearing of vegetation in the Mau Forest and sand harvesting also contribute to the pollution of the Mara River.

In Aitong, Lemek and other parts of the northern Mara, some farmers use the water from the Mara River tributaries for irrigation, cutting water volumes. The use of chemicals on these farms has also been blamed for the pollution of rivers that drain into the river.

“We have over 200 hotels and camps in the entire Maasai Mara National Reserve, most of which are discharging untreated waste into the Mara River,” said Nicholas Murero, the chairman of the Narok County Natural Resources Network. “These hotels and camps are rarely monitored by the relevant government agencies for compliance and some of them are discharging raw waste here and some of them even throw inorganic waste into the rivers.”,

Higher upstream in the Mau escarpment, increased human activities in the Mara River tributaries of Amala and Nyangores continue. Environmental experts say farming along these rivers in the western Mau escarpment has increased soil deposition into the rivers.

Erosion itself collects a lot of impurities and dumps them into the river, said Prof Meitamei Olol Dapash. The cutting of trees, he added, had made the situation worse as the waters that drain into the rivers are not filtered.

Prof Dapash faulted the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) for not stopping environmental degradation in the Mara. “Very few lodges have a robust waste management system,” he said.

The western Mau escarpment also supports both small-scale and medium-size farms,mainly tea estates.

“There are tea factories that we are really trying to monitor, and ensure that whatever they drain into the rivers is not toxic,” said Crispinus Wekesa, a sub-regional manager with the Water Resource Authority (WRA).

He said the Mara basin has four major tributaries draining into the Mara – Talek, Sand, Amala and Nyangores rivers – which support agriculture in Bomet, Narok, Kericho and Nakuru counties. The Talek is a seasonal river that receives the Olare Orok, Ntiaktiak, Sekenani and Loita drainages.

Although Mr Wekesa, who is in charge of the Sondu and Mara basins, defends Kenya, saying that the latter is not entirely to blame for the ecological disaster in Tanzania, he admits that the level of pollution on the Kenyan side has increased over the years due to urbanisation and growing human population.

In Tanzania, the Mara River flows into Serengeti National Park and is joined by the Sand River before it meanders southwards to the Mara wetlands, where human and livestock densities are high and small-scale subsistence agriculture is the main land use. These increase the pollution of the river on the Tanzania side.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Environmental Alerts Services (Unep-GEAS) has repeatedly warned that the pollution of the Mara River and its tributaries threatens the iconic wildebeest migration and is likely to reduce tourism in the Mara-Serengeti region.

“Many wildebeest populations are in drastic decline across the region. Their dispersal areas and migratory corridors are being lost due to high human population densities, increasing urbanisation, expanding agriculture and fences,” Unep-GEAS says in its recent report.

“Their loss would contribute to biodiversity decline, and jeopardise tourism and other ecosystem services,” it adds.

Similarly, the World Wide Fund for Nature says in a report released last year that fish are being driven to extinction in the Mara River basin, putting the livelihoods of more than one million people in Kenya and Tanzania in jeopardy. The report, Freshwater Biodiversity of the Mara River Basin of Kenya and Tanzania, states that between 1973 and 2000, “there (was) a 203 per cent increase in agricultural cover in the Mara basin”.

The collective pollution threatens Lake Victoria, which receives waters from the Mara River. WRA says it is studying samples of water it has collected from the river and its tributaries.

“So far, we do not have anything alarming, but we will do further analysis of the samples,” Mr Wekesa said.

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