Wildebeests (Connochaetes taurinus) cross the Mara river during their migration to the greener pastures, between the Maasai Mara game reserve and the open plains of the Serengeti, southwest of Nairobi, in the Maasai Mara game reserve, Kenya 9 August  2020.
Wildebeests (Connochaetes taurinus) cross the Mara river during their migration to the greener pastures, between the Maasai Mara game reserve and the open plains of the Serengeti, southwest of Nairobi, in the Maasai Mara game reserve, Kenya 9 August 2020.Reuters

Normally, the magnificent plains of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve are crowded with international tourists hoping to see a lion hunt during the annual wildebeest migration - but this year COVID-19 means Kenyans had it all to themselves.

That’s good news for animal watchers but bad for conservationists who rely on the funds to pay for rangers and protection. By June, Kenya had already lost 80 billion Kenyan shillings ($740 million) in tourism revenue, about half of last year’s total, due to the coronavirus crisis.

This weekend, thousands of mostly Kenyan visitors travelled to the park to witness the migration. There were few foreigners - Kenya shut down international flights in March and only resumed them on 1 August.

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“Once I came here, my thought and my view about everything has changed. I am actually embarrassed that I have not come here the 29 years I have been alive,” tourist Patience Mumo said.

So far Kenya has just over 26,000 confirmed cases of the disease and 420 deaths. Tourist resorts are required to observe strict social distancing and hygiene measures but have been allowed to reopen.

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“We are trying to revive the sector through the domestic tourism strategy. And that is why we ask Kenyans ... to support tourism,” Tourism and Wildlife Minister Najib Balala said.

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As part of that push, the government was using celebrities like Eliud Kipchoge, world marathon record holder, to showcase local attractions like the Mara.

“What has impressed me is the terrain, the environment, the good air, the presence of animals,” Kipchoge told Reuters after having a jog with game rangers.