The Masai Mara Ecosystem

The Masai Mara grassland is one of Africa’s most fascinating and diverse ecosystems. Its long ecological history, along with wildlife conservation by the local Maasai tribe, ensures its status as one of the Earth’s top ten bio-diverse locations…

Think of the African savannah, and the Masai Mara ecosystem and landscape will come to mind. This vast grassland is a pristine example of the savannah, and one of the best-protected reserves on the African continent. It is home to many charismatic large mammals, and successful conservation efforts have ensured stable population numbers of animals like lions, cheetahs and leopards.

Landscape of the Masai Mara at sunset, tinted red by the setting sun
The bushy, spotted landscape of Mara Naboisho, part of the Masai Mara ecosystem

The Landscape of the Masai Mara

The Masai Mara is famous for its “spotted” vistas. Amidst fields of golden grass are several varieties of acacia trees dotting the landscape. This unique vista is the result of millions of years of co-evolution between flora and fauna of the Masai Mara.

Red and violet sunset over the African savannah in Mara Naboisho
The fiery African sun, setting over the plains of the Masai Mara

Step into a time machine and go back 30 million years, and you’ll arrive into a thickly forested area filled with trees. Over the aeons, grazing mammals have turned the forests into the savannahs of today. Over the centuries, the animals of the Masai Mara, and its landscape, have evolved hand in hand.

Vervet monkey eating from leaves of spiny tree
This vervet monkey does not seem to mind the thorns as is eating from the leaves of this spiny acacia tree

Trees and Shrubs in the Masai Mara Ecosystem

The trees and shrubs on the savannah are all thorny, the result of natural selection between the plants and the animals that eat them. There are over 40 species of acacia trees in Kenya. However, popular culture credits the umbrella acacia for the classic image of a tree silhouetted against the setting sun on the African savannah.

Sun setting behind an acacia tree
The classic image – a sun setting behind an acacia tree

The vegetation throughout the Masai Mara and its adjacent conservancies (for example Mara North and Naboisho) vary in density and type. Open grassland is more common in the Greater Mara and the Mara Triangle. Entering Naboisho, the land becomes bushier.

Lioness hiding in an orange croton bush, a natural insect repellent
Lioness under an orange croton bush – the orange croton has insect repellent properties, keeping annoying flies away from the lions while they rest

Animals of the Masai Mara Ecosystem

The Masai Mara is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, especially when it comes to mega-fauna and grazing animals. The Mara-Serengeti migration is the most species diverse migration to occur year on year. It is home to the big five, the little five, and an incredible number of bird, reptiles and insects. Observing wildlife in the Masai Mara will undoubtedly raise appreciation for how all these creatures exist in an intricate web of interdependence.

A dead hyena being eaten by vultures and marabou storks
The cycle of life – the scavenger will eventually one day, itself, be eaten…

We will cover all the animals we spotted on the Masai Mara in a separate post: Wildlife in the Masai Mara, so stay tuned.

The Great Migration

Often the Great Migration is referred to as the Great Wildebeest Migration. However, this is inaccurate as many other ungulates migrate with them, taking advantage of there being safety in numbers. Altogether, over a million animals make the yearly clockwise circle within the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.

Wildebeests jumping into the Mara river during the Great Migration
Wildebeest leaping into the Mara River

The animals that migrate with the wildebeest include zebra, impala, Grant’s and Thomson gazelles, eland, topi and a host of other hoofed animals.

Spotting the Big Ten in the Masai Mara

Everyone knows the big five, but what are the big ten? Although lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino remain in the top positions, there are others that content for the remaining slots.

The Big Five

The lion, elephant and buffalo are common in the Masai Mara. Herds of elephant and buffalo are easily spotted. It is common to have multiple sightings of individual animals on a single game drive.


Elephant herds can be seen gathering in shady spots and watering holes (preferable both) during the day. These pachyderms find mud irresistible and will plunge into a cold pool whenever they can.

A herd of elephants following their matriarch across the grasslands of the Masai Mara
A herd of elephants following their matriarch across the grasslands of the Masai Mara


The Masai Mara is home to the black rhino, although sightings are rare and we did not see a single rhino, or even a rhino midden during our entire week in the Mara. 


Lions, although common, are difficult to spot. Being naturally lazy, they spend most of their time sleeping in the long grass. However, with a local tracker who knows where they den, sighting them is almost guaranteed, particularly in the early hours of the morning or late in the evening.

The golden morning light falls on these two male lions in the Masai Mara
Two lions resting in the tall grass under the light of dawn


There are many leopards in the Masai Mara. However, these are extremely difficult to spot. You only get to see a leopard when it wants you to see it. Twice, we found ourselves in the presence of a leopard. However, both times, we were unable to spot her.

The Other Animals that Make up the Big Ten

There’s no definitive list, but the most popular candidates are the cheetah, the giraffe, the hippo, the crocodile and the zebra.


Masai Mara is known for its cheetahs. A number of them in the past have been featured in BBC’s Planet Earth and Big Cat Diaries. Cheetahs are diurnal and tend to hunt during the day. However, recent research has shown that 30% of cheetah hunts happen at night. Under the light of the full moon, these fleet footed cats are successful night-time hunters.

Three cheetah cubs in long green grass looking at a zebra
Three nearly grown cheetah cubs looking attentively at their surroundings in Mara North


The silhouette of a giraffe beside an acacia tree is a a classic image of the Masai Mara. The most common species in the Mara is the Maasai giraffe. Giraffes are easily seen, leading us to believe they are not endangered, but unfortunately, they are.

Four giraffes silhouetted against a white sky
Silhouette of a four giraffes standing in the tall grass, a classic photo of the Masai Mara


The hippo is the most dangerous animal on the Masai Mara. The Maasai tribe consistently rate it as the number one killer on the savannah. However, as long as you stay out of their way, they are unlikely to attack.

Two hippos fighting in the water
Hippo fights can get very violent, however most of them do not last long


The Mara River is infested with crocodiles. They can go for months without a meal, lying in wait for the right moment. During the Great Migration, they wait for the herds to plunge into the Mara’s cool waters. When the opportunity arises, they strike. Getting eaten by crocodile is one of the risks wildebeests take when they attempt the crossing.

Crocodile in the Mara river waiting for a wildebeest
A crocodile in the Mara River, at one of the crossing points, waiting for an opportunity to grab a wildebeest


Zebras are truly majestic creatures. Unlike the horse, they have never been successfully tamed. Researches believe the zebra remains unpredictable and aggressive because it co-evolved with Africa’s greatest predators. The Masai Mara has great zebra herds, especially during the migration season.

A black and white photo of a herd of zebras in a clearing in the Masai Mara
The Masai Mara was filled with many large zebra herds. The creatures do look dazzling in the bushy landscape of the African grassland

The Little Five of the Masai Mara

The little five are the elephant shrew, the ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver and the leopard tortoise. Of these five, we only photographed the buffalo weaver and the leopard tortoise. The others are abundant in the Masai Mara, but were too small for us to notice. 

A leopard tortoise spotted among the grass
A leopard tortoise “hiding” in the grass outside Eagle View Camp

We found the red-billed buffalo weaver mostly on buffalos and wildebeests. In fact, buffalos almost always come accompanied by these birds. The leopard tortoise, on the other hand, is not so easily seen. It keeps hidden on the ground amongst the tall grasses. However, we did manage see one on the compound of Eagle View Lodge in Naboisho. The leopard tortoise was there to use the watering hole nearby, and take advantage of the safety on the grounds.

Abstract photo of a red-billed buffalo weaver on the shoulders of a massive male buffalo.
A red-billed buffalo weaver on the shoulders of a massive male buffalo. The two seem to make a great pair…

Birds in the Masai Mara

Birding is unparalleled in the Masai Mara. The Mara is home to the largest number of bird species in all of Africa, especially from October to February.

The African Sacred Ibis, flying across the plains of the Masai Mara. These birds arrive to Kenya from further north, towards the equator

During these months, birds from Europe, Russia and North Africa come to the Masai Mara for winter. Don’t be surprised to find European Swallows in the Mara during this time!

Personally I think the ostrich is a good contender for the big ten. It’s not that often seen, and furthermore, it is one of the few large, flightless birds in the world that’s not gone extinct

But apart from migratory birds, the Mara is home to many fascinating resident birds too. Some of the most charismatic being the ostrich and the elegant secretary bird.

White backed vulture on tree in Masai Mara
A white-backed vulture perched on her tree

Also, let’s not forget the vultures. These scavenger birds play a crucial role in keeping the Masai Mara clean and free of rotting carcasses, especially during July to September, when wildebeest die in droves as they migrate. 

A secretary bird in the golden sunlight
The Secretary Bird got is name for the quill like feathers on its head and its elegant gait. These birds hunt by stomping on their prey

The Maasai Tribe

The Maasai play the largest role in maintaining the well being of the Masa Mara ecosystem. The tribes people are traditionally nomadic pastoralists. Herding animals is their primary economic activity because their homeland, the Masai Mara, is semi-arid. Because of the dry climate, these lands can’t support agriculture all year round.

The semi-arid, golden landscape of the Masai Mara in September

In areas where year-round agriculture is possible, communities have switched from herding to agriculture as a primary source of income. However, cattle keeping remains as Maasai culture continues to value it greatly. Furthermore, raising livestock functions also as an insurance policy against uncertain environmental conditions.

Three Maasai guides
Our Maasai guides from Eagle View Camp. Many Maasai living in the communities around the Masai Mara work as lodge staff as their knowledge of the Africa savannah is invaluable to the industry

Culture and Conservation

The local Maasai communities play the most significant role in conserving the land of the Masai Mara National Reserve. Herding livestock is core to their cultural identity, and conflict with wildlife for grazing land is ever-present. Despite this, the Maasai also acknowledge it is essential to preserve the savannah. They have made significant compromises towards maintaining the wilderness of the Mara. We have heard of some herders switching to ranching, although this is not yet common practice.

Two Maasai warriors demonstrate how to use the spear
Maasai guides, Johnson and Wilson demonstrate how to use the Maasai spears

One of the reasons why the Mara has wildlife aplenty is because the Maasai do not believe in killing wild animals for trophies or meat. They have plenty of livestock, so killing for bushmeat is unnecessary. The Maasai also believe that to kill a wild animal is to bring a curse on one’s livestock.

Maasai women dressed in colourful clothing in a village clearing
Maasai women pose for a photo after having sang a song in a Maasai village

In the past, Maasai men used to kill lions during their Morani phase. The communities living around the Masai Mara have phrased this out in the mid-nineties. The last generation to have killed lions as a rite of passage are now in their forties. Many understand that lion hunting is unsustainable and see the financial benefits of preserving them. Adequate compensation, along with career opportunities in tourism further encourage conservation efforts.

A Maasai market with beadwork for sale
Many Maasai villages outside the Masai Mara make most of their income from tourism. This photo depicts a Maasai market, with beadwork for sale

It is vital to note the most critical factor in lion conservation in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem is community participation. 

The Climate in the Masai Mara

The weather in the Masai Mara is unique due to its high elevation. Located at 1550 meters above sea level, it stays comfortably cool year round. During the “winter” months, June to October, the temperature ranges from 10°C to 25°C. However, the interior of a jeep under the sun can get quite hot when it is stationary. In the “summer” months it is only slightly warmer. During this time, the minimum temperature is 13°C and 30°C in mid-afternoon.

To find out more about the weather in Masai Mara, and how climate change is affecting it, check out our post Masai MaraWeather.