Why our national parks have become dinosaurs

Monday August 23 2010

By ALEX O. AWITI

A study published in the Journal of Zoology in 2008, revealed that the numbers of six major ungulates in the Maasai Mara National Reserve declined markedly and persistently between 1989 and 2003.

Ecologists believe that these declines in wildlife populations are attributable to habitat deterioration owing to recurrent drought, increasing human population and changing land use in pastoral lands contiguous to the reserve.

Similar patterns of decline have been reported by the Kenya Wildlife Service in Amboseli National Park.

In 2007, there were an estimated 10,000 zebras.

Early this year, only 982 zebra were counted.

Similarly in 2007, there were 7,100 wildebeest compared with the 143 recorded in 2010. This massive die-off left lions without prey.

In response to this unprecedented decimation of large ungulates, KWS relocated 7,000 zebra and wildebeest to Amboseli National Park in an attempt to restore the predator–prey balance.

This relocation was estimated to cost $1.3 million dollars.

Meanwhile, many of Tanzania’s national parks and reserves, especially in the north, are becoming increasingly insulated due to human settlement, agricultural cultivation, and the active elimination of wildlife on lands adjacent to the parks.

Recent studies have shown that insularisation of the national parks and reserves have been an important contributory factor in large mammal extinctions in six northern Tanzania parks over the past 35-83 years.

Again, according to figures published in the Uganda Wildlife Policy of 1999, between 1960 and 1998, Uganda lost 97 per cent of its elephants, 85 per cent of its impala, 57 per cent of its buffalo and 57 per cent of its very own Uganda Kob.

The evidence that national parks and reserves are no longer an effective means for maintenance of viable populations of wildlife is thus compelling.

But why is the attitude of preservation of wildlife and unimpaired nature through national parks and reserves so entrenched among wildlife and conservation authorities in East Africa?

At the time of their establishment by the colonialists, parks were seen as primarily as “vignettes of primitive Africa.”

Their mission — “to preserve wildness, and as much as possible of the rich biological and cultural heritage of this planet, in a manner that will allow for the sustained, respectful, and non-consumptive enjoyment of these resources by the present and future generations ” – is problematic and largely unattainable in the context of contemporary East Africa.

The present-day park and reserve system is in fact a dinosaur that faces imminent extinction driven largely by the destabilising change in landscapes and ecosystems as a result of the complex, uncertain and nonlinear dynamics of human population growth around parks and reserves, habitat degradation, habitat fragmentation and climate change.

To preserve wildness as much as possible has become Mission Impossible.

What is worrying is that despite the evidence of their inefficacy, conservation authorities in East Africa still believe parks and reserves, as conceived a century ago, to be the only tools for biodiversity conservation.

Ecological understanding and management policies of the 1900s are no longer tenable in the context of 21st century socio-ecological imperatives.

Cutting-edge ecological understanding has moved on but park-centric conservation practice seems immutable.

I know few ecologists who still believe that in the absence of human disturbance, natural ecological processes will lead inevitably to ecological balance.

Diversity of resources

Today, parks and reserves in East Africa, large or small, are islands in a sea of humanity.

They are isolated and wildlife is trapped in habitats that lack the requisite diversity of resources.

Historical migration corridors that predate parks and reserves and that hitherto enabled spatial and temporal distribution of resource utilisation are either threatened or no longer accessible.

Spatial connectivity among currently isolated parks and reserves has the best chance to preserve ecological memory, optimum diversity, and adaptive self-renewal, a key component of ecological resilience.

Resilience in this context is the capacity of parks or reserves to absorb disturbances — drought, floods, habitat degradation, disease epidemics — and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function and structure — savannah, forest, wetland).

Designing spatial connectivity among parks and reserves must take a holistic ecosystems approach.

This means that the location and connectivity of parks and reserves must be based on a dynamic understanding of how wildlife uses landscape components, especially pasture and water.

We have much to learn from the centuries old migration corridors of wildebeest to inform the design principles for spatial connectivity between and among parks and reserves, both at national and regional levels.

Legions of wildebeest and zebra migrate between Kenya’s Nairobi National Park, Maasai Mara Game Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro conservancy.

Hence, formulating and implementing trans-boundary management plans for the parks and reserves of northern Tanzania and southwest Kenya would be an excellent and exciting place to start.

When recent declines in wildlife populations are examined in the context of patterns of human settlement, the natural dynamics of ecosystems and climate change, it becomes obvious that we must rethink the design and management of parks and reserves.

However, this is not to suggest that existing parks and reserves be eliminated.

The point is that parks and reserves need not be isolated safe havens of biodiversity.

So, there is a need for a paradigm shift toward spatially connected, interdependent parks and reserves if the goal of long-term biodiversity conservation is to be achieved.

Connectivity will enable dynamic interactions among species and diverse ecological resources across space and time to ensure the long-term ecological integrity and viability of wildlife populations.

The bigger challenge lies in negotiating access to or acquiring portions of wildlife migration corridors currently under private ownership.

However, there is a great opportunity here to create the largest and most lucrative ecosystem service markets in Africa.

Landowners can be persuaded by financial incentives through ecosystem service payments to lease their land for use as wildlife corridors.

Indeed, the ecosystem service market could be developed further to enable trading of such leases in the region’s stockmarkets.

Implementing trans-boundary management of parks and reserves will require novel policy, legal and institutional regimes to co-ordinate multiple stakeholders, including governments, national wildlife authorities and private/communal interests such as pastoralists, agriculturalists and game ranchers.

The East African integration process through the EAC Secretariat provides a legitimate platform for an earnest negotiation of a protocol for joint management of trans-boundary wildlife corridors.