Increased human activity around one of Africa’s most iconic ecosystems is “squeezing the wildlife in its core”, damaging habitation and disrupting the migration routes of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle, an international study has concluded. 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 while larger wildlife species populations in key areas (the Kenyan side) were reduced by more than 75%. The findings are published this week in the scientific journal Science. Dr. Michiel Veldhuis, lead author of the study from the University of Groningen: “This finding alters our view on what is needed to protect biodiversity.”
The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is one of the largest and most protected ecosystems on Earth, spanning 40,000 square kilometers and taking in the Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve in East Africa. 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 their search for water and grazing land.
Now, an international team of scientists has discovered that increased human activity along the boundaries is having a detrimental impact on plants, animals, and soils. 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 less nutritious grasses 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, favoring less palatable herbs and altering the beneficial interactions between plants and microorganisms that enable the ecosystem to capture and utilize essential nutrients. The effects could potentially make the ecosystem less resilient to future shocks such as drought or further climate change, the scientists warn.
The authors conclude that, 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.Q
Dr. Michiel Veldhuis, lead author of the study from the University of Groningen noted: “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.”
Dr. Kate Parr from the University of Liverpool: ‘Our results show that we cannot rely on the sheer extent of protected areas to conserve biodiversity – human impacts are pervasive and threaten even our most iconic reserves.”