27 Aug 2009: Report

The Growing Specter of
Africa Without Wildlife

Recent studies show that wildlife in some African nations is declining even in national parks, as poaching increases and human settlements hem in habitat. With the continent expected to add more than a billion people by 2050, do these trends portend an Africa devoid of wild animals?

by richard conniff

On the road from Nairobi into the Great Rift Valley not long ago, a 48-year-old Kenyan taxi driver named Jagata Sospeter pointed out how the landscape had changed in his memory — here a soccer field where rhinos were once commonplace, there a river where hippos used to live, and everywhere, as Kenya’s human population continues to boom, the endless sprawl of shambas, tin-roofed farmhouses surrounded by an acre or two of parched maize plants in place of open range. The one consolation, in a nation where tourism accounts for 10 percent of the gross domestic product, was that wildlife was at least secure within Kenya’s national parks and protected areas.

But a new study says that sense of reassurance is false, with wildlife disappearing just as fast inside Kenya’s national parks as out. According to an analysis by David Western and his co-authors, wildlife declined by 41 percent in national parks from 1977 to 1997, and the decline does not appear to have slowed since then. The study, published on PLoSOne, was commissioned by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which manages the country’s national parks. Shortly after the Western study appeared, a KWS spokesman announced that Kenya’s lion population, “the symbol of national strength,” is now declining so fast that lions could be extinct there within 20 years.

The Western study has attracted little media attention inside Kenya or beyond, in part because control of the national government remains a more pressing issue in the aftermath of a controversial 2007 presidential election. Reaction within the conservation community was also muted, in part because Kenya has long been notorious for mismanaging its wildlife — and also because Western himself is a long-time participant in the national bickering about how to fix the problem.

But the new study follows a raft of recent papers reporting similar declines in other protected areas across the continent. There are notable exceptions to this trend, particularly in the southern African nations of Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. But together with continuing increases in human population, these studies raise the specter of an Africa without animals.

During the rampant poaching of elephants and rhinos in the 1980s, the outside world was shocked at the improbable idea that wildlife could survive in Africa only in parks patrolled by armed guards, and often behind fences. But if wildlife continues to decline as rapidly inside national parks as out, it could lead, biologists Tim Caro and Paul Scholte predicted in a 2007 article in the African Journal of Ecology, to “a continent containing isolated pockets of large mammal diversity living at low population sizes. Just like Europe.”

The new Kenya study compiled data from 270 wildlife counts over 30 years, mostly focused on antelopes, the feedstock on which lions, leopards,
The wildlife declines point to the need for a radical review of conservation policies.
African wild dogs and other predators depend. Western, who was director of KWS in the 1990s, described it as “the first time we’ve taken a good look at a national park system in one country, relative to all of the wildlife populations across the whole country.” The paper notes that the wildlife declines “raise grave concerns about the adequacy of parks and point to the need for a radical review of conservation policies.”

But despite the trends revealed in his study, Western disputed the idea that Kenya could soon lose all its wildlife. Elephants and rhinos seemed to be going down to extinction in the 1980s, he said in a telephone interview with Yale Environment 360, but they didn’t “because people were alerted to this threat” and took action. He argued that the same kind of shift is happening now, especially as studies provide hard statistical evidence of the decline.

Western, a long-time advocate of involving local communities in wildlife management, argued that the answer is to continue expanding the focus “from national parks only to parks plus private lands and communal lands.” In the past, the benefits of tourism generally flowed to tour operators and KWS, he said, leaving nothing for local people, who naturally came to regard wildlife as a threat rather than a benefit. But wildlife populations are holding on, he said, in areas with “local participation.”

Co-author Samantha Russell cited the example of the Shompole conservation area and tourist lodge managed since 2000 by the Masai community on the Tanzania border near Lake Natron. “They’ve had wildlife increases and they’re very proud of that fact,” she said. Asked if the project has produced the sort of community benefits that Western sees as the key to changing attitudes toward wildlife, she said, “In theory, there’s a lot of money to be made.” But she conceded that “benefit sharing is always a tricky one to work out.”

Despite considerable optimism and international support over the years, community management schemes have frequently failed. A 2000 paper by Alexander Songorwa of the Tanzania Wildlife Division recited a lengthy catalogue of impediments, including government reluctance to turn power back to locals, resistance from national park services, the inability of illiterate locals to handle new accounting systems, and lack of wildlife management expertise. But Western argued that much has changed in the years since Songorwa wrote his article, with Kenya training hundreds of local wildlife scouts and, more recently, resource assessors to keep track of changes in the habitat. “Once you give them a voice, you give them opportunity, you give them skills and training, that changes very rapidly. They’re not locked into backwardness, which really that view implies.”

James Deutsch, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Africa program, praised the Western study for producing the first hard evidence of the “extremely depressing” changes in Kenya’s national parks. But he also questioned the study’s “black and white conclusions.” He noted that community management success stories rarely come from East Africa these days, but mainly from southern Africa, particularly Nambia, which has a stable national government and a low population density — unlike Kenya.

Deutsch accepted the study’s argument that the wildlife decline is due in part to bad design and siting of national parks, which often include only a
The pretence that all is well in Kenya’s protected areas has been blown out of the water.”
fraction of the migratory range of major species. But that doesn’t explain, he said, why the largest parks in the study suffered the worst declines, while some small parks actually showed increases. He dismissed the study’s rosy assessment of the security provided by KWS, and blamed poaching across the border from Somalia for the 78 percent decline in Meru and the 63 percent decline in Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks.

Deutsch also noted that the study implicitly re-plays a dispute that has raged in Kenyan wildlife circles for 30 years, “often generating more heat than light.” On one side, Western pushes his community-involvement approach. On the other, Richard Leakey, another former KWS director, argues for “fences-and-fines.”

“For me, the world is complicated,” said Deutsch, adding that he’d be interested in a study “that doesn’t have an axe to grind from the start.” He rattled off a series of challenges to the survival of wildlife in Kenya — badly-flawed parks, little or no benefits flowing to people living around parks, a lack of income from legal trophy hunting and other consumptive uses of wildlife, the bushmeat trade, political corruption, inadequate protection against poachers — and suggested that in any given situation, either Western’s approach or Leakey’s might be the right way to go.

Soon after the new study appeared, a columnist in Swara, the East African Wildlife Society quarterly, took the entire Kenyan conservation establishment, including Western and Leakey both, sharply to task: “The cosy pretence that all is well within Kenya’s Protected Areas has been simply blown out of the water... Have the courage to admit that everything you have recommended, supported, funded and implemented over the last 30 years in Kenya to conserve wildlife has been a failure — or was it your intention to sit idly by while some 70 percent of wildlife vanished from under your very noses?”

Yet the prospects for reversing this grim trend seem small. The human population of sub-Saharan Africa continues to boom, with a projected increase of a billion more people across the continent by 2050. So both fences and community-friendly approaches will almost certainly need to work — along with some miraculous remedy still to be devised — if Africa’s rich and potentially lucrative wildlife legacy is to last through this century.

POSTED ON 27 Aug 2009 IN Biodiversity Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Africa Europe 

COMMENTS


Sadly, as always, it is poverty that is killing another major source of income: wildlife. How can we expect Kenyans to not poach if there is very or no hope for their future? You would as well!

I am not saying that we should give up and nothing should be done to protect wildlife, but the key is the Kenyans and not the protection of wildlife. If I had a clear solution for the problem I would be very happy to share it with you. Unfortunately it is a very complex matter that might take a few generations to solve. Let's hope the Kenyans will come to the conclusion that they have 'gold' in their hands and that they will not slaughter all their wildlife.

Johan
Posted by Johan Knols on 28 Aug 2009


Southern African nations are apparently not so strong an exception to the downward trend as I have suggested. University of Witwatersrand ecologist Norman Owen-Smith points out that populations of certain antelope species have declined substantially even within the huge, but fenced, Kruger National Park in South Africa, despite intensive managerial intervention (Ogutu & Owen-Smith 2003, Owen-Smith & Mills 2006).

            
            

Posted by Richard Connif on 28 Aug 2009


Very interesting article, presenting some aspects of the challenge and debate re wildlife conservation and the need for comprehensive, not piecemeal, approaches.

Clearly fencing-in protected areas will lock management authorities into expensive, intensive interventions that may save some species but will doom many others. And just as clearly, maintaining the connectivity of habitats for wildlife will require effort at all levels — from legislative reform and law enforcement through participatory land use planning and zoning to grassroots partnerships with communities, landowners, NGOs, private sector and government — to reconcile human interests with those of wildlife.
Posted by Keith Lindsay on 01 Sep 2009


Excellent article on a subject very close to our hearts. In fact Jeff Worden and I did an analysis of 19 years of data 1977-1996 in 1997, a memo to Western that predicted the "extinction dates of 15 wild species and 4 domestic ones in each of 18 Kenya range land districts. All we got was the usual "Kill the messengers rap"! This seems like our work now recycled after a decade of "ageing" with a few specific results thrown in from some parks.

Until Kenya articulates and backs a policy of wildlife first in livestock free areas we will continue to lose it all. Now I'm a cattle and people guy but I am not an over grazing guy and I also know we even lose cattle when range lands are abused.

Just back from the Mara and the MMNR is totally overrun by cattle including and estimated 9,000 plus on the Olare Orok and Ntiakitiak plains in the vicinity of our camp. There has also been ~ 50 percent encroachment by cattle onto the "Cattle free" Olare Orok Conservancy where we stayed last week and return to on 6th September for a week. But on the 5th of Sept the landowners meet to deal with a request to open up the rest of OOC to cattle.

Our clients pay $80 a day to see wildlife including lions without the chronic disturbance of cattle but our Cattle Barons want it all and no one seems able to stand up to them.

We are not so much Homo Sapiens as simple BUTT SHUFFLING NICHE THIEVES! as Johnathon Kingdon observed about our "Lowly Origin" in 2003. We will live in a whole world without wildlife- not just Africa and no one will do a damned thing about it because of our Special Mammalian Character!

I will circulate this as see if anyone agrees or even comments with my politically "incorrect" assessment. And by the way- Samburu is on it's way to becoming both wildlife and livestock free with the attending cultural conflict over the little that is left.
Posted by Mike Rainy on 01 Sep 2009


Like many here in Kenya I am astounded that things are as bad as these studies say and there is a deafening silence about the statistics from KWS.

After all, that the current Director won the CEO of the year award and KWS won 2nd place in company of the year award — yet lions are on the verge of extinction! The science completely contradicts what the Kenyan public think about the management of our parks. Kenya has an extraordinarily free press. Scientists publish for an academic audience and generally fail to excite the Kenyan public.

We are up in arms about the Mau forest - we feel the results - no water and no power. Most Kenyans have no economic connection to wildlife or parks - thats why they aren't jumping up and down. It's not just bad management that's leading to wildlife declines. There are many mitigating factors with population growth, deepening poverty but I think it's the total absence of incentives for poor people in Kenya to get involved in conservation. Most of us feel that we need a complete re-look at what Kenya wants and where wildlife fits in — our road map Vision 2030 talks about developing tourism but it does not seem to recognize the role of wildlife and protected areas in this.

Instead there is a focus on developing agriculture and livestock — two of the main reasons why our wildlife is declining so rapidly. The wildlife policy arena has been hijacked and Kenyans hardly visit the protected areas now because they are too expensive — all geared to generating more revenue from rich tourists.

It's a sorry situation and we still pull our hair out — we can see why things are going wrong but we can't do anything about it. I think things are changing though, attitudes, expectations and transparency. We talk to conservationists on the ground daily — the economic situation is nothing short of a crisis. Sadly it may be too late as climate change is having a devastating impact on our rangelands and that's got nothing to do with poachers or fences.

How did America raise 23 trillion dollars in economic bail outs — but not even 1 tn dollars has gone to help African countries since the 1960s! And, why is nobody asking about how these bail outs will affect the environment and climate? We are rescuing industry that is eating into natural capital and destroying the planet....and Africa's wild places. The developed world wants Africa to be full of wildlife but frankly isn't willing to help pay for it. It feels to me like poor Africans the only ones paying.
Posted by Paula Kahumbu on 01 Sep 2009


Paula, You make a very interesting remark at the end and I agree: The developed world wants Africa full of wildlife. Than you say that the developed world is not willing to pay for it.....hold on.

Tourists are already under the impression that their money is going to conservation. So why pay extra to keep everything protected? Many companies have 'green policies' and the entrance fees to the parks are high. Surely that money is going into the protection of wildlife?
You and I know that a lot of money disappears into the state treasury and that this money is distributed into the Kenyan economy, NOT necessarily into conservation.

The high costs for a safari create another problem. Only wealthy tourists can afford to come, but those are the same people that create protectionism at home and have a negative influence on the trade with Africa. As with taxes (where more people pay them if the tax percentage is low) we need lower safari prices and get the average Joe on safari. I am certainly not saying that operators should run at a loss, but the average Joe is much more willing to create a noise at home and thus increase awareness for a deteriorating situation.
Another problem is the greediness of most African politicians. They are using their wildlife like milk cows.

They will soon come to realize that even a milk cow needs some rest otherwise the milk will start to get sour.
Posted by Johan Knols on 02 Sep 2009


Until Kenya articulates and backs a policy of wildlife first in livestock free areas we will continue to lose it all. Now I'm a cattle and people guy but I am not an over grazing guy and I also know we even lose cattle when range lands are abused.

Just back from the Mara and the MMNR is totally overrun by cattle including and estimated 9,000 plus on the Olare Orok and Ntiakitiak plains in the vicinity of our camp. There has also been ~ 50 percent encroachment by cattle onto the "Cattle free" Olare Orok Conservancy where we stayed last week and return to on 6th September for a week. But on the 5th of Sept the landowners meet to deal with a request to open up the rest of OOC to cattle.

Posted by sohbet on 12 Nov 2009


Until Kenya articulates and backs a policy of wildlife first in livestock free areas we will continue to lose it all. Now I'm a cattle and people guy but I am not an over grazing guy and I also know we even lose cattle when range lands are abused.

Posted by sikiş izle on 25 Nov 2009


It is true that Kenya wildlife populations are generally on the decline (elephant and rhino populations are on the up, thanks to some concerted conservation and breeding measures). The main reason for this sorry state of affairs is, I think, the human-wildlife conflict. Around the Masai Mara National Reserve, Masai herders use carbofuran to kill off Big Cats that threaten their livestock. The situation is aggravated by the drought that is ravaging the country as to the predators, livestock is much easier prey.

Getting local communities involved - in managing the national parks and sharing the revenue – will certainly help as it will give them a stake in country's wildlife. However, the climate change-induced perennial drought, the explosive land question and high population density in Kenya imply that there are no easy answers.

Posted by Ateenyi on 03 Feb 2010


Until Kenya articulates and backs a policy of wildlife first in livestock free areas we will continue to lose it all. Now I'm a cattle and people guy but I am not an over grazing guy and I also know we even lose cattle when range lands are abused.

Posted by christopher on 19 Feb 2010


Until Kenya articulates and backs a policy of wildlife first in livestock free areas we will continue to lose it all. Now I'm a cattle and people guy but I am not an over grazing guy and I also know we even lose cattle when range lands are abused.

Posted by anne bebek on 12 Jul 2010


Just back from the Mara and the MMNR is totally overrun by cattle including and estimated 9,000 plus on the Olare Orok and Ntiakitiak plains in the vicinity of our camp. There has also been ~ 50 percent encroachment by cattle onto the "Cattle free" Olare Orok Conservancy where we stayed last week and return to on 6th September for a week. But on the 5th of Sept the landowners meet to deal with a request to open up the rest of OOC to cattle.

Posted by Réplique Montre on 01 Oct 2010


Until Kenya articulates and backs a policy of wildlife first in livestock free areas we will continue to lose it all. Now I'm a cattle and people guy but I am not an over grazing guy and I also know we even lose cattle when range lands are abused.......that's all.

Posted by daily post net on 08 Oct 2010


Am shocked to read this - the public perception here in Kenya is quite upbeat that there ostensibly have been a turn-around as far as wildlife conservation is concerned.

In fact Kenya has tried to built a new image as an example to go by including the recent stand against the lifting of the ban against Ivory trading and the construction of a new highway linking the towns of Arusha and Musoma through Serengeti National Park in Tanzania which could could destroy the world's greatest wildlife migration.

My take is that what has been portrayed in the media and the general public opinion that the Kenyan government is doing enough is more anecdotal than factual. We need more of these scientific findings brought into the public domain with a clear call to action.

Needless to say, if the current state of complacency goes on, it might end up being to late to act.

Posted by Gaita on 09 Oct 2010


My take is that what has been portrayed in the media and the general public opinion that the
Kenyan government is doing enough is more anecdotal than factual. We need more of these
scientific findings brought into the public domain with a clear call to action.

Posted by free willing individual on 05 Nov 2010


My take is that what has been portrayed in the media and the general public opinion that the Kenyan government is doing enough is more anecdotal than factual. We need more of these scientific findings brought into the public domain with a clear call to action.

Posted by sikiş on 09 Dec 2010


The concern on African wilderness and the enthusiasm for conservation efforts are based on
good studies, which has to be concerned by the related policy makers. But the pettiest thing is that these concerns are not considered as challenging problems by the political leaderships.

Posted by Rajan on 15 Dec 2010


My take is that what has been portrayed in the media and the general public opinion that the Kenyan government is doing enough is more anecdotal than factual.

Posted by sikis on 10 Jan 2011


Am shocked to read this - the public perception here in Kenya is quite upbeat that there ostensibly have been a turn-around as far as wildlife conservation is concerned.

Posted by sikis on 17 Jan 2011


putting Kenya aside, other countries policies on protecting wildlife are rather uncertain. the wildlife in Queen Elizabeth National park Uganda is also under great threat from the oil drilling and mining in nearby Hoima district. The Ugandan government has however not come out to clearly how they are going to protect the park and surrounding habitats.

Posted by Africa on 02 Apr 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
richard conniffABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Conniff is a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow and a National Magazine Award-winning writer, whose articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic. His latest book is Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals. He is the author of six other books, including The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide and Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales of the Invertebrate World. He blogs for the Web site www.strangebehaviors.com. Conniff has also written for Yale Environment 360 about the pursuit of the carbon-neutral building and a green scorecard for rating U.S. economic stimulus projects.
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