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As the Herds Return, Tour Operators Hope Visitors Will Do the Same

The Masai Mara Game Reserve is a haven for impalas as well as lions, cheetahs, zebras, elephants and other animals.
The Masai Mara Game Reserve is a haven for impalas as well as lions, cheetahs, zebras, elephants and other animals. (Radu Sigheti - Reuters)

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By Joseph J. Schatz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Riding around on the bumpy roads of Kenya in a glorified minivan, with your head sticking out a pop-top sunroof, is a peculiar way to see nature.

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But it definitely has its moments.

As the van, our vehicle throughout a four-day budget camping safari, neared the exit of Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya's Rift Valley, my wife, Parsa, yelled "Lion! Lion!" -- breaking every rule of safari etiquette.

We had happened upon two rare tree-climbing lions perched in a tree -- just yards from two leopards, one lounging precariously in the highest branches of a neighboring tree and another dragging a dik-dik, a tiny antelope, up a tree to feast on later.

We needn't have worried about scaring off the animals: Several other vans had already pulled up within sight of the big cats. As we left the park, our driver stopped to chat with another driver. Upon hearing of the lions, the other driver grinned and hit the gas, full speed ahead in the direction of the tree-climbing lions.

In many ways, our trip last June, before Kenya's post-election troubles, typified the Kenya safari experience. The classic safari destination, Kenya boasts the world-famous Masai Mara Game Reserve, Lake Nakuru, Mount Kenya, Amboseli National Park and a sheer volume of wildlife that is hard to match elsewhere in Africa. Indeed, the moment you leave the airport in Nairobi, you're liable to see a herd of giraffes next door in Nairobi National Park. Kenya is also one of the most accessible safari destinations, with a long-established tourist industry and lots of options for tourists with varying budgets.

Whether all those tourists will keep coming, however, is the big question. Indeed, the road to Lake Nakuru was taken over by ethnic gangs in February, one of the spates of post-election violence that killed 1,000 people and scarred the country -- and, for tourists, made safari trips touch-and-go.

The violence, which started after President Mwai Kibaki declared a reelection victory in Kenya's Dec. 26 election amid opposition charges that he had rigged the vote, pitted tribe against tribe in a country long considered one of the most stable and prosperous in Africa. While Kenyan tourist authorities put on a game face, stressing that violence was restricted to isolated areas, tourism numbers plummeted by 60 percent, according to the Kenya Tourist Board.

But with the implementation this month of a power-sharing deal between the government and the main opposition party, Kenya's tourism authorities says things have returned to normal. "Bookings are looking up again" as the safari industry tries to recover and prepares for its busy season in June, said Anne Kanini, a public relations officer with the tourist board.

After earlier issuing a travel warning encouraging Americans to avoid traveling to Rift Valley, Western and Nyanza provinces, and suspending Peace Corps activities, the U.S. State Department relaxed its warning on March 21, noting that "threats of political demonstrations and violence have dramatically receded." It recommends that "private American citizens in Kenya and those considering travel to Kenya evaluate their personal security situation in light of continuing, potential threats from terrorism and crime."

Before the power-sharing deal, some tour operators, such as Nairobi-based Ketty Tours, canceled safaris to Mount Kenya and western Kenya because of safety concerns; some talked to lodges in Zambia and other countries about rerouting their clients. But many operators are once again pushing the case for Kenya. Road and air safaris in the country are now operating normally, and there is a visible police presence on main highways near Nairobi and Mombasa "to reassure visitors and Kenyans alike," said U.S. safari booker Abercrombie and Kent. "Thousands of international visitors are in Kenya right now, enjoying safari and beach holidays," media relations manager Jean Fawcett said in an e-mail.

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