Wildebeest spectacle nears sunset, scientists warn

30Mar 2019
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Wildebeest spectacle nears sunset, scientists warn

EVERY year between July and August, more than a million snorting wildebeest cross into Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve from the plains of Serengeti in the northern tourism circuit.

The spectacle caused by this thunderous migration that also involves thousands of zebras has over the years become a global spectacle — boosting fortunes of East African tourism as visitors rushed in to witness the movement.

However, an international study now paints a bleak future for the region’s tourism industry as massive human and livestock encroachment in the Serengeti ecosystem threatens to end what has fondly come to be known as a “modern wonder of the world.”

“Protected areas across East Africa are under pressure from a wide range of threats. 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,” says Colin Beale from the University of York who was part of the study.

Maasai Mara is a popular game viewing spot thanks to its expanse of savannah grassland, which in turn is the most-visited in the region.

Joseph Ogutu, a lecturer at the University of Hohenheim in Germany, says the number of animals that have been migrating from Tanzania to the Kenyan side over the years have been dwindling as water levels in the park decline.

“The number of wildebeest from the Tanzanian side has been declining over the years as water level in Maasai Mara has been coming down,” said Dr Ogutu.

“Far more wildlife are still found outside than inside protected areas in Kenya, where more than 65 percent of wildlife occur outside protected areas. However, expanding human population size, livestock and human activities pose serious and unprecedented threats to wildlife populations,” he told Business Daily in an interview.

Every year a million wildebeest, half a million gazelle and 200,000 zebra make the perilous trek from the Serengeti park in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara reserve in Kenya in search for water and pasture.

A good number of these animals are devoured by crocodiles as they cross the Mara River, making it a spectacular scene for tourists.

An international team of scientists, through the research that was published this week discovered that increased human activities along the boundaries is having a detrimental impact on plants, animals and soils.

For example, the study established that between 1977 and 2016, the population of cattle in the Mara ecosystem shot up by a massive 1,053 percent while that of sheep and goats has gone up by 1,174 percent. In contrast, the population of wildlife in the ecosystem has dipped 87.4 per cent over the same period.

The authors conclude that even for reasonably well-protected areas like the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, alternative strategies are needed to sustain the coexistence and livelihood of local people and wildlife in the landscapes surrounding protected areas.

“Even for reasonably well-protected areas like the Serengeti and Mara, alternative strategies may be needed that sustain the coexistence and livelihood of local people and wildlife in the landscapes surrounding protected areas.”

“The current strategy of increasingly hard boundaries may be a major risk to both people and wildlife,” the scientists concluded in the report.

The study, led by the University of Groningen and with collaborators at 11 institutions around the world, looked at 40 years of data and revealed that some boundary areas have seen a 400 percent increase in human population over the past decade. Larger wildlife species populations in key areas (the Kenyan side) were reduced by more than 75 percent, the study observed.

The study reveals how population growth and an influx of livestock in the buffer zones of the parks has squeezed the area available for migration of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles, causing them to spend more time grazing on less nutritious grass than they did in the past.

This has reduced the frequency of natural fires, changing the vegetation and altering grazing opportunities for other wildlife in the core areas.

The team shows that the impacts are cascading down the food chain, favouring less palatable herbs and altering the beneficial interactions between plants and micro-organisms that enable the ecosystem to capture and use essential nutrients.

The effects could potentially make the ecosystem less resilient to future shocks such as drought or more unfavourable climate change patterns, the scientists warn.

 Dr Michiel Veldhuis, lead author of the study from the University of Groningen, says there is an urgent need to rethink how to manage the boundaries of protected areas to be able to conserve biodiversity.

“The future of the world’s most iconic protected areas and their associated human populations may depend on it. This finding alters our view on what is needed to protect biodiversity,” the scientist declared.

The wildebeest migration attracts thousands of tourists every year, generating millions of dollars for both countries.

The wildebeest's life is an endless pilgrimage, a constant search for food and water. An estimated 400,000 of their calves are born during a six-week period early in the year — usually between late January and mid-March at the Serengeti.