Humans Putting the Squeeze on Serengeti Ecosystem

Inside the Serengeti National Park, February 2019. (Photo courtesy Richard Pampuro)

(CN) – The grass is always greener on the other side, but what happens when you’re a cattle rancher and the best grazing grounds are inside the world’s greatest wildlife conservation? Research reveals how growing human activity on the borders of the great Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in Eastern Africa is impacting the historic migration patterns of wildebeest.

Increasing pressures from human activities are “squeezing the wildlife in its core,” say researchers in a study published Thursday in Science magazine.

“We should re-think our protected area strategy, making sure that conservation efforts do not stop at protected area boundaries,” said Dr. Simon Mduma, director general at Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, in a statement.

To map out human activities in and around protected area borders, an international team from 11 different institutions combined 40 years of data on wildebeest migration with recent human population data, a decade of livestock population counts and 62 aerial surveys dating back to 1977.

But their main indication of cattle migration has been the pattern of burned areas. Grazing diminishes grassland fires, so maps of burned areas dating from 2001 to 2016 reveal annual grazing patterns of local cattle.

Inside the Serengeti National Park, February 2019. (Photo courtesy Richard Pampuro)

The nearly 9.9 million-acre Serengeti-Mara ecosystem expands the migration routes of more than a million wildebeest and 200,000 zebra between dry and wet habitats.

Good fences make good neighbors, but they are impractical in many large protected areas like the Serengeti-Mara which is managed by several different organizations, and would be impossible to patrol. Fences also impede wildlife migration.

Many areas around the Serengeti-Mara promote land sharing among local peoples, allowing the indigenous Maasai people to continue living as they have for thousands of years. But increasing population density has led to increasing encroachment on borders of protected areas. 

Area population jumped from 4.6 million in the late 1990s to 5.6 million people at the beginning of this decade.

East of the Serengeti, the Maasai pastoralists often follow their cattle on multiday grazing trips, up to 10 kilometers inside protected areas. Agropastoralists in the west, who occupy more permanent settlements, also allow their cattle to graze inside protected zones but make shorter trips.

With increasing human population density and far-grazing cattle reducing vegetation, researchers found migratory wildebeest are avoiding the margins of core protected zones – indicating that their own fluid boundaries are shrinking. Overall wildebeest populations remained steady, but their migration patterns are shifting dramatically with a 75 percent reduction of animals on the Kenyan side of the Serengeti-Mara.

“There is an urgent need to rethink how we manage the boundaries of protected areas to be able to conserve biodiversity. The future of the world’s most iconic protected area and their associated human population may depend on it,” said Dr. Michiel Veldhuis, lead author of the study from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Inside the Serengeti National Park, February 2019. (Photo courtesy Richard Pampuro)

But the answer isn’t better patrolling – it’s in the investment of local people. Fortress conservation doesn’t work, Veldhuis said in an interview.

“Instead we should try to get local people involved. In the long run, local people will profit from nature conservation but the problem is most people are thinking about short-term benefits,” Veldhuis said.

The Serengeti National Park alone receives 350,000 visitors each year to its nonprotected areas, contributing greatly to local ecotourism. Parks can also increase local stakeholder interest by hiring locals and building schools.

“We have many small-scale solutions, but the big problem is how do you get people to stop extracting resources, to stop harming society has a whole? The overall solution is that people start feeling responsible for wildlife and elephants and poaching,” Veldhuis said. “People need to think of protected areas as inherited natural capital.”

Led by the University of Groningen, this AfricanBioServices Project was funded by a grant from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program as well as by the National Science Foundation and the German Research Foundation.

Inside the Serengeti National Park, February 2019. (Photo courtesy Richard Pampuro)
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