Social Networking on the Mara

We spent a few days this week on safari in Kenya. Masai Mara is an amazing place. It’s the northern part of the Serengeti, encompassing 600 square miles of grassland. Each year, millions of animals migrate to the area from the Serengeti plains, and it’s a wonderful place to see the big animals. On the mara, you get the distinct feeling that you’re on the wrong side of the fence at the zoo.

safariHere’s how the safari works. The group gets in the van. In our case, we had two vans with seven people in each. The top pops up about 2.5 feet, so you can stand up in the van and look around. The driver goes around the reserve on dirt roads looking for animals. He frequently turns off the dirt roads in favor of more remote dirt paths that allow you to get closer to the animals. Occasionally, the driver will turn off of those and just drive across the open land. That’s when things can get really interesting.

So here’s the question: how do the drivers know where to find the animals? Sure, some of them are easy. You can hardly drive anywhere without running into zebras and gazelles. But lions and cheetahs are harder to spot, especially when the grass is high like it was this week.

As it turns out, the drivers use social networking. At any given time, there are probably 50 different tour groups driving around. Every time we passed another van, the drivers stopped and exchanged information. What are you looking for? What have you seen? Where can I find lions? Even though they all work for different tour companies, they freely share what they know. If they can show their clients the animals they want to see, everyone benefits.

They also use two-way radios. There’s a constant chatter in Swahili about the state of the mara. They’re talking about where to find the best animals, where there’s a lion eating a zebra, where there’s a gazelle that’s about to become lunch. Every time we happened on a particularly good find, it was only a matter of minutes before the other vans started showing up.

When they’re really in a pinch, they pull out the cell phones. They have a better range than the radios, and the mara is pretty big. Amazingly, cell reception is fairly good, due to some strategically placed, poorly disguised cell towers.

Social networking isn’t new. It doesn’t have to be Twitter and Plurk and blogs and Skype. It’s just taking advantage of the connections you have with people, and sharing your knowledge for the benefit of all. Those guys out on the mara don’t use the Internet. But they’re some of the best social networkers I’ve seen.