Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

February 2008

Is Kenya safe for Safaris this year?

Our 2007 photo safaris concluded about two weeks before Kenya's hotly contested presidential election, and I must admit Mary nor I were worried about any type of policital unrest. We knew that safari bookings and travel to Kenya were down, reflecting travelers' possible concern, but we thought those worries were rather groundless. As it turned out, we were wrong.

Nearly two months since the election and the election results are still disputed, and unrest still lies in some areas of the country. Unfortunately, the media lumps any unrest under a rather blanket term, sometimes implicating the entire country or, at best, a rather large region. As our Kenya outfitter recently noted, the work of a few hooligans is played up in the media to tarnish the entire country, and that media coverage does not reflect the actual conditions. I'm reminded of a friend's phone call to home several years ago, where, when speaking with his wife, he was informed the Johannesburg, South Africa was in flames and tumult -- she was watching the coverage live on CNN. Our friend was in an upper level room at a hotel in Jo'burg at the time, and went to the window to check, since he'd not had any evidence of anything amiss. He could see nothing, not even smoke from the fires that were set. He realized that the media coverage, focusing on a ghetto area far out of town, was painting a picture of unrest that simply wasn't accurate, and he put his wife's fears to rest.

If I can make an analogy, what is happening in some isolated locations in Kenya right now are analagous to the OJ riots in Los Angeles several years ago, or the Rodney King disruptions after the acquital of the policemen charged in that crime. Can you imagine news coverage warning the world of violent riots occuring in the US, or in California, instead of specifically identifying South-Central LA as the source of the problems. Well, that's what's happening in Kenya right now, where far northwestern Kenya, an area virtually no safari company ever visits (the plains game is not found there), and in a few ghetto/slum districts in a few other cities, where a hand-full of gangsters are settling personal scores and creating great fodder for inflamatory news coverage.

At this point I am surprised that the disruptions have lasted as long as they have, regardless of which section of the country they're taking place in, but I really don't believe that they will last and that anyone's plans for travel to Kenya this summer or, as with us, this fall, should not be abandoned because of recent events. Here are excerpts from an email our outfitter sent to us on February 12, 2008, that outlines the situation from an on-the-ground spectator, and which hopefully would put anyone's fears to rest:

I would like to quote below what our tour operator (who is a native born Kenyan and who's family has owned a renowned safari company for several decades, and run tours there for years) wrote to me last night. I think that this will help to put everything into perspective for outsiders, like us.

"In terms of the actual situation in Kenya it is important to understand that there are two conflicts ongoing that have been ignorantly lumped together by the international press.

The politicians are in the midst of negotiations being mediated by Kofi Annan. Quite frankly this is a minor issue. I don't personally believe they will reach an agreement anytime soon however they are saying they will reach one in the next 72 hours - so who knows. African politics is a very complicated affair and it not possible to articulate the complexities of that here, however one can rest assured that the only outcome will
be continued arguing, bickering and threats -none of which frankly materialize and the politicians and governments will achieve nothing anyway.

I am sure you have already seen how inept they are? We just have to look at the calls for mass action immediately after the elections. Calls for 1 million demonstrators resulted in demos of 50-100 paid thugs that were even outnumbered by press and reporters. The result was classic - they fizzled out due to lack of support, even by the supporters. The one exception to this is Kisumu city - where there were some substantial demonstrations.

Even during the middle of those demonstrations early last month, they were entirely confined to the high-density slum areas where you and I do not go, and as a result I, my staff and my guests never saw any signs of any problems. All I saw was what was being shown on CNN! What you saw was the demonstrations of 100 people in a country of 35 million! It was not representative.

Far more worrying however, is the second conflict in western Kenya. Again I have only seen what you have also seen on the TV as again these events are so far away from where I go, and from the tourism areas. This is far more traumatic for Kenya than anything else,
however we must understand that this is not a new conflict - it has been ongoing for 30+ years (remember 2000 people were killed in 2 months in 1997 - we are only half that this time - it's only a bigger media deal because the international press were here at the time
covering the election!) They got paid for 2 stories! The tribal conflict was not created by the political issues of December 28 - however there is no doubt that those political issues ignited a fuse that blew the lid off a "simmering problem" that was far more serious than the average Kenyan believed. That "simmering problem is a worldwide phenomenon of locally indigenous people, feeling that their limited resources and assets (land) are being taken over by outsiders and immigrants.

The problem goes back to the colonial era, where the land owned by departing colonial farmers (the famous White Highlands - Kericho, Eldoret, Kitale) was grabbed by corrupt Kikiyu politicians and businessman. Ever since then those tribes (Kalenin, Luyha, Luo etc) have fought for the land as their own, and the political climate caused the resentment to escalate. So yes if you are a Kikiyu farmer farming on Kalenjin land then it is very dangerous and most of those people have now fled back to their ancestral homelands in the heart of Kikiyu land. The bottom line is that you don't go to these areas anyway - you never have, and probably never will.

The reaction to this, about 3 weeks ago over a period of 48-72 hours, was a group of Kikiyu vigilante militia (about 100 people) traveled around some of the high density slum areas of Central Kenya - especially Limuru, Narok, Naivasha and Nakuru and forcibly killed or evicted Kalenjin and Luo immigrants in retaliation for the evictions of western Kenya. Of course it was very brutal and traumatic for those involved, but it was not a threat to you and I - or my parents who live in Naivasha. I know it is difficult to comprehend, especially with the over reaction of the international media, but imagine if a gang of 50 vigilante went into the inner city district of Tucson to kill half a dozen Mexican drug dealers - it would not impact or be a direct threat to you or I (we hope). Of course one does not want to get caught up in the fracas, by being at the wrong place at the wrong time - but as with all of these things - you don't go looking for the problems in those problem areas at the time of heightened tension. And outside those times and places life is quite "normal".

I can't say there is an easy solution to this problem - if any, and in typical African fashion there will probably never be a "solution" but instead, and as always with poverty stricken people the chores of daily life and the struggle for survival take over. Life is tragic, these issues get pushed to one side, forgotten for another day one day in the future, and people start to have another crisis, maybe drought, ebola, aids etc to contend with.

I can understand that with the incredible media footage, the marketability of Kenya has hit rock bottom, so that is history, and we might as well deal with it. The reality however is so distant from the perception that the media create, that it is laughable.

The up side however is that Kenya was overcrowded anyway - way to overcrowded it was a bit embarrassing, so in fact a reduction is probably necessary in the hope that the tourist industry can provide a better service to fewer tourists. Our parks are paradise when they are empty - so if anything, this year will be better than average. Quite honestly I'd come, the chance of having the Mara in migration season to one's self without the huge overcrowding that we have experienced in the recent past is a real privilege that I am certainly going to take advantage of.

Here is an example - I went to Disney World with my family in October 2001!!! We were the only people there - we did nearly 100 rides per day!!! Can you image that? So with some rides like Arrowsmith we never even got off - just stayed where we were and went around and around and around for hours!!! Gee the kids loved it - I was a sick as a dog!! It was the best decision we ever made. How many people do you know have done 500+ Disney rides in less than a week!

We can't and won't force people to travel, I can do is reassure them that if they do travel, we will be able to look after them safely, and the only signs of the conflict will be on the TV screen at home."

In early January, a professional photographer we know was leading two back-to-back Kenya trips, but because of the closeness of the first trip to the first news coverage, he cancelled the first trip. However, the second trip went wonderfully, and here is an excerpt from a personal email about that trip, in response to our questions:

I was more stressed than was needed. [Our Operator] is correct in what he is telling you - We saw nothing different than any other visit - went to the Giraffe Manor and Elephant Orphanage before driving to Amboseli - we stopped for bathroom breaks, gas and shopping along the way - we fly between all the other locations - no problems or fear at all. We had one of our best trips yet - lots of cats in the Mara to be seen. If we could of stayed longer I think we personally would of but we had our Yellowstone tour days after Kenya. We are going to be collecting testimonials from our guests this week for our website so I can pass them on if you would like for your clients to view. The problem with many peoples travel insurance is it doesn't cover "fear" of going somewhere…many people would be in bind if they decided not to go - at least from what we saw in many policies - I was reading MANY policies before leaving! I told everyone there is always some risk to any travel - the media is over playing the situation - there was troubles early on but all is fine - we also said everyone has to make up there own personal discussion whether to go or not - we were not canceling the trip,

Even as I write this, a friend has forwarded a tragic editorial or op-ed piece from the New York Times, written by a native Kenyan deploring how the country is now thinking ethnically and not nationally, and he implies some scarey times for the immediate future. However, as sad as that may be, I share my tour operator's belief that the strife is regional, and rather local, and I do not believe it will, or that it can, continue.

You can be sure that we will be continuing to monitor this situation, and we'll definitely post an update to this question should we come to any new conclusions, especially as the current situation relates to our planned safaris in the fall. I've no doubt that some folks will cancel their trips this summer, or their safaris with us this fall, and I do think any such decision is very much premature. On the positive side, that may mean that our very popular safaris, generally booked a full year in advance, may have some openings for this coming 2008 season, so you might want to contact our office to do a trip this year.


Previous Questions of the Month

Digital Questions

Does the automatic sensor cleaning feature of the Mark III really work?
What is our initial Digital Workflow?
What is our Digital Workflow in the Lab?
 How do I keep track of Digital Files?
Is Shooting in the RAW format worthwhile?
What is the Difference?
How can you capture a sharp image and angel hair on a windy day? 
Can you match the Histograms?
How do we meter White?

 Is the Mark II the ultimate wildlife digital camera?
What is DEC? 
 Wildlife Models - Is there anything new to shoot?

Do You Need a Big Printer?
Can a Wimberley Head be used with small lenses?
 What is Reality? Adobe's powerful LIGHTROOM Program
Why must you have at least 2 digital backups?
 Is Digital Manipulation - a benign alternative to interacting in the natural world?
 Film or Digital? - Why you should shoot film!
 Does the Visibledust cleaning system really work?

Camera Techniques

What Equipment do we usually take afield?
Does the AutoFocus on the EOS 1D Mark III work?
Which Macro Lens is for You?

What is the Most Important thing you can do before a Workshop?
How many Flashes do you need to effectively illuminate hummingbirds?
What is the best shutter speed for panning running mammals?

Is there an easy way to level a camera for panorama shots?
Is the New Wimberley head worth having?
Is an L-Shaped Camera Bracket worth the Money? You bet it is!
Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?

Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?
What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?
What is the Best Composition?
Should you have a depth of field Preview button on your camera?

 How do you determine distances?
Hyperfocal Distance
Apertures for Macro


Flash and Tele-flash Techniques
What is the best flash for closeup and macro photography?
What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?
How do you shoot high-speed action images?
How did I shoot the gliding Sugar Glider?
How did I photograph that flying wasp?
What the heck is a Plamp?


What I did on my summer 'vacation.'
Why is Yellowstone the best for wildlife photography in the US?
Is a Trip to Antarctica Worth it?
What is the best season to do a photo safari in East Africa?

What is the Big Lie? The truth about Kenya's Tourism--it is SAFE!
Which Mountain Park is better for wildlife - Denali or Torres del Paine?
What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales?

How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites? 
How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?

What is the best Car Window Mount?
How can you save your shoulders?
How can you reduce contrast and the effect of wind for flower and macro photography?
What is the best Game Caller?
How Easy is Whale Photography?
Why Can't You Feed A Bear?
What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?



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