Animals No Safer Inside Kenya's Parks Than Outside?

Nick Wadhams in Nairobi
for National Geographic News
September 2, 2009
Wildebeests, antelope, and other iconic African animals are declining just as quickly in Kenya's parks and reserves as in the country's unprotected lands.

That's the finding of a recent study that questions a central tenet of Kenya's wildlife conservation strategy.

Based on existing data, the team estimates that key animal populations have fallen by 40 percent over the past 30 years both inside and outside parkland.

The work seems to confirm what Kenyan environmentalists have suspected for years:
Aside from a few success stories, such as elephant and
zebra conservation programs, efforts to sustain wildlife numbers in Kenya seem to be failing due to poor monitoring and enforcement.

(Related: "Hordes of Zebras, Elephants Moved to Restock Kenya Park.")

The paper adds to growing evidence that many of Africa's protected parks are seeing wildlife declines as a
result of poaching for trophies and bush meat, habitat destruction, and human encroachment.

In Kenya "we're seeing that the settlement of livestock and the settlement of
people is beginning to degrade the rangelands," said David
Western, one of the report's co-authors and chair of the African Conservation Center.

"I think we're at the beginning of another sort of downturn that is going to be quite serious."

Nowhere to Run

The study, published online by the journal PLoS ONE, looked at data on population counts for herd animals such as wildebeests and gazelles collected over the past 25 years by the Kenya Wildlife Service and other government branches.

According to the authors, the new work is one of few attempts to measure the overall conservation success of parks
and reserves, which now account for 10 percent of the world's land

Kenya, which has a population of around 40 million, has 49 parks and reserves
covering 8 percent of its 224,081 square miles (580,367 square kilometers).

One of the problems, the report notes, is that none of the country's protected areas cover the full ranges
of the migratory animals that inhabit the parks and reserves.

That means animals frequently move out of the parks and come
up against the growing number of towns and farms cropping up around
the edges of protected regions.

(Related: "Lions, Elephants Speared Near Kenya Wildlife Park.")

Such settlements are on the rise in Kenya, as land that was once communally owned is parceled out for individually owned farms and an increasing number of semi-nomadic Maasai herders decide to stay put.

Animal declines are "a problem across African wildlife areas mainly because of
increasing human population," said Noah Sitati of the Eastern Africa Regional Programme Office for the conservation nonprofit WWF.

"Most of the
former wildlife range has been turned into settlements and

A drop in wild herd animals is particularly worrisome for Kenya, because wildlife
tourism is central to the country's economy.

The loss of the famed wildebeest
migration through the Masai Mara National Reserve, for instance, could lead tourists to go elsewhere, the report authors note.
(Watch a wildebeest migration video.)

What's more, the recent increases in Kenya's elephant population, a trend hailed as
one of the country's greatest conservation successes, may be hurting
other animals, the study authors write.

In both Masai Mara and the Amboseli
National Park, elephants have destroyed woodland where antelope forage and hide, exposing the antelope to more predation and forcing them
to search for new territories.

"It's what we call ecological dislocation, which is a much bigger
problem than anything else," study co-author Western said.

"It's the dislocation of
all these processes that is leading to the loss of diversity and the
loss of different sorts of species."

Perilous State

Kenyan officials say they are aware of species declines within protected lands, and they point to multiyear efforts to overhaul
the country's decades-old wildlife policy.

One of the problems is that Kenya hasn't had the funding to support long-term wildlife monitoring and enforcement in its parks.

The Kenya Wildlife Service is starting an endowment fund that it
hopes will attract foreign donations for wildlife conservation.

"The problem is not alarming, but sooner or later it's going to become
alarming, given pressure of human population, loss of habitat, and
dispersal of wildlife population," wildlife service spokesperson Paul Udoto said.

In the paper, Western and his co-authors point to studies that suggest greater community involvement in wildlife protection can help
reverse the declines.

But some conservationists worry that community efforts might amount
to little without strong government support.

"In a sense the question is, does Kenya value its wildlife
sufficiently to do long-term monitoring?" said Allan Earnshaw, a
safari operator and conservationist who is trying to implement a
management plan for the Masai Mara reserve.

"I don't think [the government]
values wildlife sufficiently to look after it, which is why it's in
the perilous state it's in. All wildlife is suffering because of bad
implementation of laws or bad policies."

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