The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, one of the most protected conservation areas on earth has seen a 400 per cent increase in human population over the past decade putting its future in peril.
As a result, the increased human activity and an influx of livestock along the borders of the iconic ecosystem are threatening the renowned wildebeest migration among other wildlife patterns.
The Kenyan side has witnessed a 75 per cent reduction in the population of larger wildlife species during the same period.
The grim revelations are contained in research findings initiated by African Bio Services and conducted by an international team of scientists that pored at 40 years of conservation-related data.
The effects of such activities, warn the scientists, could potentially make the ecosystem less resilient to future shocks such as drought or further climate change.
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So serious is the hemming in of the wildlife in the core-protected area that the experts now feel the danger posed by human activities should be tackled on the same level as poaching.
“Our work shows that encroachment by people should be considered just as serious a challenge as better known issues such as poaching and climate change,” said Dr Colin Beale from the University of York.
Apart from harm done to wildlife, the research also discovered that the increased human activity along the areas bordering the protected areas is having a detrimental impact on plants and soils as well.
According to the research whose results were also published this week by the journal Science, such activities along the parks’ buffer zones have squeezed the area available for migration of wildebeests, zebras and gazelles, causing them to spend more time consuming less nutritious grass than they did in the past.
Every year a million wildebeests, half a million gazelles and 200,000 zebras make the perilous trek from Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya in their search for water and grazing land.
However, the report says the intense grazing has reduced the frequency of natural fires, changing the vegetation and altering grazing opportunities for other wildlife in the core areas.
“The impacts are cascading down the food chain, favouring less palatable herbs and altering the beneficial interactions between plants and microorganisms that enable the ecosystem to capture and utilize essential nutrients,” states the report.
Dr. Joseph Ogutu from the University of Hohenheim and one of the key scientists behind the report says the time to act and save the ecosystem is now.
“The intense compression of a large protected area, such as the Serengeti-Mara, should ring alarm bells because most other protected areas are far smaller in size and therefore experience even more intense pressures from human activities,” he says.
Dr.Michiel Veldhuis, lead author of the study from the University of Groningen noted that there is an urgent need to rethink how the boundaries of protected areas are managed to conserve biodiversity.
“The future of the world’s most iconic protected area and their associated human population may depend on it. These findings alter our view on what is needed to protect biodiversity,” he said.
According to the scientists, the situation is dire in a country like Kenya where more than 65 per cent of wildlife is found outside protected areas.
Unfortunately, most of the measures put in place to protect wildlife have not borne the needed fruits.
Professor Mark Ritchie from Syracuse University says keeping people out of an area to protect biodiversity is not enough as there is a need to integrate human activities and conservation outside the reserves.
Around Masai Mara, for example, several wildlife conservancies were established to combine wildlife protection with income generation through ecotourism and protect interests of the Maasai pastoralists. However, research findings show that this system is breaking down as well.
As the pastoralists’ economic fortunes increase through land leases to the conservancies, the more they increase their livestock numbers, which in turn graze in the protected areas. This has pushed out the common grazers except for wide ranging animals such as wildebeest, zebra and elephants.
Masai Mara now relies on improved conservation efforts from her southern neighbour where wildlife authorities are currently addressing the issue on a national level.
“It is fair to say that better protection of the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania is currently subsidizing the tourism industry in the Kenyan Mara by still sustaining the mass wildebeest migration,” states a brief by African Bio-Services.
It is hoped that policy makers and political leaders across the region will use this research in finding lasting solutions to the ongoing threat to the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.