MASAI MARA, KENYA — The lion stirs from his late-afternoon nap, stretches, and lets out a roar. A herd of zebras, munching grass in the distance, lift their heads to listen. A whine issues from the sidelines: "What about the cheetah? I want to see a cheetah!"
The king of the jungle shakes his mane, and - ignoring the whine, the cameras, the binoculars, and the seven white minibuses - saunters off into the bush. The tourists happily check off the "lion" box on their safari log books and head off in search of the elephants.
Just another day at the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya, where thousands of tourists come every year to get a glimpse of the "big five" - lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard.
With 700,000 visitors annually, Kenya is second only to South Africa as a tourist destination on this continent, and tourism is the second-largest contributor to Kenya's economy, after agriculture.
But years of unregulated mass-market tourism are taking a toll. Off-road minibus driving is wrecking the vegetation in national parks and game reserves, sewage is seeping into rivers, trees are being cut down for firewood, and some animals - such as the cheetah - are even changing their hunting habits to avoid tourists. And both Kenyan tour operators and discerning visitors are looking for an alternative.
Enter ecotourism: environmentally and community-oriented travel.
"The future of Kenyan tourism is green," says Judy Gona, executive director of the Ecotourism Society of Kenya (ESOK). "The trend in the world, as well as in Kenya, is to create a tourism industry which will be low impact. It will meet our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.... Those who realize this, and begin to change their thinking and actions, will reap the long-term benefits."
There is, as yet, no official definition of ecotourism. However, the United Nations - which has declared 2002 the year of ecotourism - has identified its general characteristics. Ecotourism, it says, is sustainable, nature and culture based, invests in and supports the protection of the environment, and respects and involves local communities.
There are some 80 members of ESOK, many of which either call themselves ecotourism destinations or are working to become such. The majority of these camps and lodges are small and secluded, catering to no more than 20 visitors at a time. They are built with materials found in the region, use alternative energy sources, are very careful about their waste products, and try to serve food grown and produced nearby.
Most of the destinations are situated outside big-game parks, and many discourage minibus travel, promoting walking tours instead as well as lectures by local villagers. These establishments are either run by, or in conjunction with, the local population and often support community projects.
"People don't specifically ask for ecotourism vacations," says Allan Dixson, managing director of Lets Go, one of the largest travel agencies in the country, "but when they describe what they want, they increasingly use words like 'not crowded' or 'unobtrusive.' They want to know the county in a more authentic way [and] are willing to pay for this."
"There was a tunnel vision here as regards the package market, and we were late in seeing what other countries, like Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa saw awhile back - that there is advantage in smaller-volume, higher-value tourism," says Chris Flatt, director of Bush Homes, a small, very upscale tourist operation in Kenya. "The country has been forced to shake itself up. Mass tourism has cheapened the product as well as hurt the environment, and the industry is now in the process of moving away from that."
Even before last week's attacks on the United States raised new concerns about travel and security, tourism was down here. Airlines have reduced flights, and several hotels along the coast are in receivership.
According to the director of one tour agency, package-tour visitors account for most of the cancellations. Those planning more exclusive trips, including visits to ecotourist sites, have been sticking with their plans.
Meanwhile, even operations that don't fall under the ecotourism banner are, as one tour operator said, "being bullied by the changing market" to adopt eco-friendly policies. Most of the large lodges in the Masai Mara, for example, are moving away from using firewood to heat water and turning to solar energy, gas, or fuel briquettes - made of everything from coffee husks and water hyacinth to manure.
Mara Intrepids, one of the larger luxury camps in Masai Mara, gave a briquette-making machine to the nearby village of Kolong, and now buys cow-dung briquettes from villagers instead of wood.
"We used to bring in two trucks of firewood every week," says Shadrack Kahindi, the Mara Intrepids manager. "Now, we realize that if we and every other lodge kept doing this - and if visitors continued to take their two hot showers a day - we would eventually end up with a desert around us."
At Kolong, the women - who, in Masai tradition, are assigned the task of gathering wood - are thrilled with their new briquette maker. They keep it safe behind a small fence of dried twigs and take turns collecting, mixing and stirring the cow dung that is the main ingredient.
"It's wonderful," says a beaming Nailepo, the elderly woman in charge of operations. "Instead of going all day to look for firewood, we stay here and have more extra time for ourselves.... We can fix our hair or do beadwork or fetch more water."
With the rising popularity of ecotourism, there are many trying to cash in on the label.
"A hotel gives nature walks and calls itself an ecotourism venture, or asks its guests not to have their towels washed every day, and thus feels like it's doing it's part," reads an editorial in the quarterly Ecoforum magazine.
"There are many operators jumping on the bandwagon," says Flatt, "but this term should not be abused."
To address this issue, ESOK is in the process of setting up an ecotourism rating and certification system. If implemented early next year as planned, the system would be the first of its kind in Africa and would, it is hoped, go a long way in helping Kenya to preserve its place as a premier safari location - without jeopardizing its future.