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Animal numbers tumble as fences block migration corridors

By Peter Muiruri | May 13th 2021
Wildebeest at Maasai Mara National game reserve in Narok County. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

A lone wildebeest gazes at an approaching storm near Ereyiet Oltome village, on the eastern edge of Ol Kinyei Conservancy in Maasai Mara.

It seems startled by our vehicle as Simon Nkoitoi, senior warden and manager at the conservancy, responds to a distress call from villagers held hostage by a herd of elephants.

In the rush to get away from our intrusion, the animal squeezes itself through a barbed wire fence reinforced with wooden planks. Though empty, the fenced piece of land measuring close to 100 acres is privately-owned. The animals are unknowingly trespassing.

“This one is fortunate. I have seen others break their legs or necks trying to jump over these fences. Who knew that animals too will lose their freedom of movement?” Nkoitoi asks rhetorically. “Look, this is what will become of this ecosystem if we are not careful. Land earmarked for alternative use rather than conservation is being fenced by the day.”

Nkoitoi has lived around Masai Mara all his life. Decades ago, he says, one could not see a single fence here and wildebeests from the Loita plains would migrate to Masai Mara, joining those from Serengeti to create a sea of ungulates and a global spectacle.

“Because of the fences, most of the Loita herds are now confined to the conservancies, depleting grass for other animals. These fences have meant the closure of elephant corridors, again confining the jumbos to the conservancies where they destroy more trees and limiting the habitats of other animals,” says Nkoitoi.

Protected areas

Nkoitoi says it got worse when some landowners fenced in some wild animals that would get injured or killed while trying to escape.

Sadly, such fencing is not confined to land around Masai Mara.

As the human population rises, so does the pressure on land that previously served either as wildlife corridors or dispersal areas. The country’s human population stands at 47.6 million as per the 2019 census. It is projected to reach over 95 million by 2050.

On the other hand, more than 65 per cent of the country’s wildlife lives outside of the protected areas, with Kenya Wildlife Service controlling a meagre eight per cent of Kenya’s landmass.

To landowners avoiding human-wildlife conflicts, fencing off the land creates a sense of security, more so in a country where fraudulent land deals are the order of the day.

However, wild animals have become the unintended victims of the fencing.

A global report spearheaded by Kenyan scientist Joseph Ogutu shows how fences  around wildlife conservation areas are threatening to drive wildlife migration to oblivion.

The report, Barriers to Migration - The Negative Impact of Fences on Ungulate Population in Africa, says Kenya has already lost wildebeest and zebra migration in the Athi-Kaputiei ecosystem of which Nairobi National Park is a key component.

According to the report, first published in the Science journal, the animals would arrive in the park drawn in by permanent sources of water after which they would head south during the rains to feed and breed due to renewed pastures.

However, fences meant to protect private property as well as growing urban centres to the south have cut off the migratory animals from easy access to the park.

“As a result, the migratory wildebeest decreased from 30,000 animals in 1978 to less than 1,000 today. And, as if fences weren’t enough, these migrating animals now face a new set of challenges with the recent expansion of the Athi-Namanga road, the Nairobi southern by-pass, and the new railway line that cuts right across the park, despite the underpass provided in its design,” says Ogutu.

Alan Donovan, the avid art collector and whose African Heritage House overlooks the park, is among those who witnessed the migration in and out of Nairobi National Park.

“This is Nairobi National Park 50 years ago,” Donovan says, pointing to a large, framed photo of thousands of wildebeests within the park. “The picture was taken from this house when I came to Kenya in 1970. This migration was at par with the Masai Mara one. But not anymore.”

Like Nkoitoi, Ogutu, who is also a senior statistician at the Biostatistics Unit, Institute of Crop Science at the University of Hohenheim, Germany now fears the Loita migration that joins the famous Serengeti-Mara migration is on its death bed. According to Ogutu, the Loita herds would head northeast after the main migration just in time for fresh pastures.

“Up until the late 1970s, this migration involved the movement of up to 120,000- 150,000 wildebeest, 78,000-94,000 Plains zebra, 126,000-169,000 Thomson’s gazelle and 5,700-8,200 elands. However, it has virtually collapsed over the past five years,” Ogutu says in the report.

Kenya’s wildebeest population has fallen by 70 per cent over the last 40 years.

Permanent settlements

His report backs up Nkoitoi’s claims that only few of the 20,000 remaining Mara-Loita wildebeests that get to Masai Mara have “adopted a sedentary lifestyle” in Masai Mara and nearby conservancies.

Human activities around Narok, just like those in the Athi-Kaputiei ecosystem, are to blame for the increased fencing. Individual land demarcation has forced the Maasai community to loosen their traditional nomadic way of life for more permanent settlements.

Decades ago, the government encouraged the largely pastoralist community to set up large scale wheat farms with the support of multilateral lenders. Some farms, says Ogutu, were set up right in the middle of wildebeest calving ranges, signalling the first steps to the extinction of the Loita migration.

“The Kenya government further promoted erecting game control moats and fences to protect wheat farms and tacitly approved control shooting of wildebeest alongside other animals to maximise farmers’ profits. With the instinct to keep going, many wildebeest look for alternative routes. However, these new paths often mean that the herds need to overcome dangerous barriers or travel much longer distances to reach their destination.”

Wildebeests cross from Serengeti National Park to Maasai Mara National Reserve is search of pasture. [Lonah Kibet, Standard]

The story is no different in the Amboseli ecosystem where land sub-division has seen some landowners cede land for large-scale commercial farming. Such land is fenced not only to keep human intruders at bay but to secure the farm produce from wild animals, especially elephants.

Recently, KiliAvo, a firm that fenced off some land near Amboseli National Park came under fire for carrying out avocado farming activities on what is said to be an elephant migratory corridor connecting Amboseli and Kimana Wildlife Sanctuary, Tsavo and Chyulu Hills.

On April 26, National Environment Management Authority, revoked the environment impact assessment licence previously given to the proprietors of the 180-acre farm.

“This is an important win for wildlife and Kenya,” said Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect. “The destruction of wildlife buffer zones, dispersal areas and corridors has reached a tipping point and urgent enforcement is needed to mitigate these impacts.”

While conservationists were elated by such small wins, most wildlife migration routes are closed through intermittent fences. KWS, in a report on the dwindling corridors, pegs its hopes on “cooperation and participation” of the landowners.

Nkoitoi, the senior warden at Masai Mara’s Ol Kinyei Conservancy agrees.

“Engage these landowners so that they can see the economic importance of hosting wildlife on their land,” advises Nkoitoi. “It is about livelihoods after all.”

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