- Populations of major wild grazing animals that are the heart and soul of Kenya's cherished and heavily visited Masai Mara National Reserve - including giraffes, hartebeest, impala, and warthogs - have "decreased substantially," a new study shows.
The dramatic reduction has occurred "in only 15 years," as Kenyan wildlife increasingly competes for survival with a growing concentration of human settlements in the region, according to a new study published this month in the latest issue of the scientific 'British Journal of Zoology'.
The study, analysed by researchers at the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and led by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), is based on monthly monitoring between 1989 and 2003 of seven "ungulate," or hoofed, species in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, which covers some 1,500 square kilometres in south-western Kenya.
Scientists found that a total of six species - giraffes, hartebeest, impala, warthogs, topis and waterbuck - declined markedly and persistently throughout the reserve. The study details how this wildlife decline is linked to the rapid expansion of human populations near the boundaries of the reserve.
An analysis of the sample counts indicates that the losses were as high as 95 percent for giraffes, 80 percent for warthogs, 76 percent for hartebeest, and 67 percent for impala. Researchers say the declines they documented are supported by previous studies that have found dramatic drops in the reserve of once abundant wildebeest, gazelles and zebras.
"The situation we documented paints a bleak picture and requires urgent and decisive action if we want to save this treasure from disaster," said Joseph Ogutu, the lead author of the study and an ecologist at ILRI. "Our study offers the best evidence to date that wildlife losses in the reserve are widespread and substantial, and that these trends are likely linked to the steady increase in human settlements on lands adjacent to the reserve."
Researchers found the growing human population has diminished the wild animal population by usurping wildlife grazing territory for crop and livestock production to support their families. Some traditional farming cultures to the west and southwest of the Mara continue to hunt wildlife inside the Mara Reserve for food, which is illegal.
The Mara National Reserve is located in the northernmost section of the Mara–Serengeti ecosystem in East Africa. The reserve is bounded by Tanzania's Serengeti National Park to the south, Maasai pastoral ranches to the north and east, and crop farming to the west. The area is world-famous for its exceptional wildlife population and an annual migration of nearly two million wildebeest, zebra and other wildlife across the Serengeti and Mara plains.
Mr Ogutu and his colleagues focused much of their attention on the rapid changes occurring in the large territories around the Mara Reserve known as the Mara ranchlands, which are home to the Maasai. Until recently, most Maasai were semi-nomadic herders, who co-existed easily with the wildlife in the region.
But over the last few decades, some Maasai have left their traditional mud-and-wattle homesteads, known as bomas, and gravitated to more permanent settlements, on the borders of the reserve. Mr Ogutu and his colleagues report that in just one of the ranchlands adjacent to the reserve, the number of bomas has surged from 44 in 1950 to 368 in 2003, while the number of huts grew from 44 to 2735 in number.
"Wildlife are constantly moving between the reserve and surrounding ranchlands and they are increasingly competing for habitat with livestock and with large-scale crop cultivation around the human settlements," Mr Ogutu said. "In particular, our analysis found that more and more people in the ranchlands are allowing their livestock to graze in the reserve, an illegal activity the impoverished Maasai resort to when faced with prolonged drought and other problems," he added.
In addition, the study warns that retaliatory killings of wildlife that break down fences, damage crops, degrade water supplies or threaten livestock and humans is "common and increasing" in the ranchlands. Mr Ogutu said the various forces threatening wildlife in the ranchlands "could have grave consequences" for protecting wildlife in the reserve.
While not covered in their analysis, the researchers involved in the study are quick to point out that the Maasai's transition to a more sedentary lifestyle has been driven partly by decades of policy neglect that left many Maasai with no choice but to abandon their more environmentally sustainable practice of grazing livestock over wide expanses of grasslands.
"The traditional livestock livelihoods of the Maasai, who rarely consume wild animals, actually helped maintain the abundance of grazing animals in East Africa, and where a pastoral approach to livestock grazing is still practiced, it continues to benefit wild populations," said Robin Reid, a co-author of the paper who is now director of the US-based Centre for Collaborative Conservation.
"There appears to be a 'tipping point' of human populations above which former co-existence between Maasai and wildlife begins to break down," Mr Reid added. "In the villages on the border of the Mara, this point has been passed, but large areas of the Mara still have populations low enough that compatibility is still possible."
Maasai landowners are now working together with the tourism companies to establish conservancies where they carefully manage the number of settlements and the number of livestock to achieve this balance. They also have the incentive to do so because the local community receives a share of the profits from tourism on their land.
"We know from thousands of years of history that pastoral livestock-keeping can co-exist with East Africa's renowned concentrations of big mammals. And we look to these pastoralists for solutions to the current conflicts," added Carlos Seré, Director General of ILRI. "With their help and the significant tourism revenue that the Mara wildlife generates, it is possible to invest in evidence-based approaches that can protect this region's iconic pastoral peoples, as well as its wildlife populations."
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