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Masai Mara Wildlife Collapse

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  Jan Monday, 18 May 2009 14:19

Masai Mara Wildlife Collapse

Masai Mara wildlife collapse


A new study has found that the Masai Mara is in a crisis. Based on an analysis of the monthly sample counts indicates that the losses were as high as 95 percent for giraffes, 80 percent for warthogs, 76 percent for hartebeest, and 67 percent for impala. Researchers say the declines they documented are supported by previous studies..” and  “Researchers found the growing human population has diminished the wild animal population by usurping wildlife grazing territory for crop and livestock production to support their families. Some traditional farming cultures to the west and southwest of the Mara continue to hunt wildlife inside the Mara Reserve, which is illegal, for food and profit.”

The report which is based on the analysis of 15 years of monthly counts for 7 species of ungulates; Cokes hartebeest, warthog, waterbuck, zebra, giraffe, impala and topi. The researchers didn’t examine the data in its raw form but manipulated it with a statistical model to illustrate the trends. In doing so, the authors claim that they were able to remove the effects of rainfall in order to highlight the individual impacts of land use, poaching, competition from cattle, range contraction and deterioration of habitat on the ungulate populations.

(For graph see

The graphs in this paper illustrate population trends in all 7 species. For all except zebra, populations initially decline between 1989 and 1993. This is followed by a recovery period peaking in 1995 and then further decline and stabilization until 2001/1 /. After this all species show upward trends as populations recover to 2003. The zebra population however is simply stable from the start of the study in 1989 until 2000 when it shows a dramatic increasing trend to the end of the study in 2003.

Finer detail is provided in a series of 21 graphs illustrating trends in each species giving a clearer picture of how these species numbers have changed in there different blocks of the Masai Mara Reserve. Many show a general downward trend between 1989 and July 2000, and almost all illustrate upward trends after 2000.  For the life of me I cannot find the 95% decline in giraffe in any of the blocks – the greatest decline that I can find is in block 3 where numbers of giraffe decline from 37 to 12 individuals.  That’s only a 67% decline.

The study has attracted global attention and hundreds of news articles. Here in Kenya the report caught many by surprise and prompted disbelief. One paper condemned the report as false  and at least one manager in the Mara refuted the results and said he did not know which part of the ecosystem the study actually referred to.  I spoke to the lead author, Joseph Ogutu to find out more.

Q1. Is the Masai Mara really in trouble?

Ogutu: This study found that the numbers of giraffe, warthog, impala, topi and hartebeest fell by 50% or more between 1979 and 2002. These declines were linked to rapid growth of Maasai settlements around the reserve.

Q2. Your paper documents a fantastic explosion in huts and bomas in the Koyiaki Group Ranch – some people say that this is an exaggeration.

Ogutu. We physically counted and mapped using a hand held GPS. We also used national census data which show more modest population increases. The number of homesteads or bomas increased dramatically because of the recent break up of group ranches into individual land titles. Families that once lived in small communal bomas in a large land area, have now built their own homesteads on their individual parcels of land. This multiplication of settlements has greatly increased the human footprint.

Q3. But the increasing human populations is occurring outside the reserve, how can this affect resident wildlife inside the reserve if these animals are non migratory?

Ogutu. The wildlife that are residential in the Mara Reserve are non migratory but they still move between the ranches and the Reserve seasonally. This is because the constant grazing of livestock outside the reserve keeps the grass low and nutritious in wet season. Inside the reserve the grass grows much faster than it can be consumed and gets tall and fibrous. Tall grass is not only unpalatable, it also hides the predators so grazers seek short grass for safety.  Once the wildebeest arrive on the annual migration, and after fires burn down the grass, these animals move back to the Reserve. Therefore anything that happens outside the Reserve affects what happens to migratory and resident species inside.

Q. 4 I witnessed the migration last year which was hailed as one of the best in recent years. Haven’t you guys exaggerated the situation a little?

Ogutu. Let me warn you that we are in for catastrophic declines in wildlife if we do not act now. He said that it was unfortunate that some people have challenged the study without looking at the data. If you are in the Mara Triangle you will only observe a small part of the ecosystem, and you will be oblivious of what is going on in the entire landscape. The Mara conservancy is a small section of the reserve where wild animals are increasing in number simply due to displacement of wildlife from elsewhere including the Loita plains

Q 5. Is it too late, is the Mara ecosystem collapsing? 

In the Mara Reserve some species are declining to worrying levels, but it is in the greater system Lemek Koiyaki, Loita and Siana there is a real cause for alarm” He says. According to Ogutu, we have already reached the tipping point in the northern wildebeest migration, which is restricted to Kenya. This unique but smaller migration involves the movement of wildebeest from the Mara Reserve to the Loita plains group ranches. The number of wildebeest has dropped from 120,000 – 190,000 in 1979 to fewer than 10,000 today. The wildebeest calving grounds of the Loita Plains have been ploughed, fenced and filled with cattle. Ironically, the increasing numbers of cattle have been paid for from tourism earnings.  Having studied wildlife in the Mara for 20 years now, Ogutu says that it is not clear if this northern migration exists anymore and laments that people see this everyday but nobody is saying anything about it.

Q 6. Scientists like David Western claim that the Masai way of life is wildlife friendly, your study suggests that they are villains causing to the collapse of the Mara ecosystem.

Ogutu. The traditional Masai way of life can co-exist with wildlife if their numbers and cattle do not exceed a certain density. Individual land ownership has led to the abandonment of traditional nomadic pastoralism in favour of cultivation which is now occurring right up to the Mara Reserve boundary. Subsistence farming and large scale commercial wheat farming are filling up the plains and destroying wildlife habitats, while rapidly growing developments including the settlements of Talek, Sekenani and Aitong are also blocking the migration routes. Add to this the illegal and unregulated extraction of water from the Mara river, and the destruction of the Mau forests which feeds the Mara River and we have a ticking time bomb. “Without the Mara River, the migration will cease” Ogutu warns.

Q. 7. Is it too late to save the Mara?

Ogutu. One of the most positive signs of hope is the growth in community owned wildlife conservancies. If this can be supported we can keep large parts of the the Greater Mara ecosystem open. Conservancies are becoming increasingly popular. The Masai like the conservancy idea because the land is rented by tourism companies from the individual land owners. This eliminates the corruption which was rife when dealing with elders and chiefs representing large communities on group ranches.

Q. 8 Given the economic opportunity, why have so few conservancies in the Mara ecosystem worked?

Ogutu. It’s no easy task to create a conservancy. Since the land is divided into 100 or 150 acre individually owned units, creating a conservancy needs the collective and coordinated action of numerous families. This can be difficult and slow. Nevetheless, families are signing contracts with tourism concerns. These leases typically run for up to 5 years, it is not a long enough period to ensure sustainable long term management. Longer leases would benefit both the investor and the land owner but neither side is willing to take the risk. Given what happened after the elections in 2007, investors are hesitant to accept full liability should tourism nosedive again, while families want to be assured of payments regardless of visitation.

Another problem that is holding back the speed with which conservancies are being registered, is the absence of policy framework or legal foundation for establishing private conservation areas in Kenya.  KWS, he says, provides no leadership or direction in this area, and are virtually absent on the ground.  As a result, each group ranch works independently, with little or no legal support.

Q 9. What can the world do to help the Masai participate in keeping the land open and saving the Mara and the great migration?

Ogutu. It is critical that some form of security is needed to back up or insure the land owners and investors. We need to create a trust fund to ensure the long term viability of wildlife conservancies in the greater Mara.  He is hopeful that this can happen because many people are interested in saving the Mara, and he mentioned in particular Sir Richard Branson.

After talking to Ogutu I am convinced that we have a crisis on our hands, not only in the Mara but in many of our other ecosystems too. Ogutu fears that this dismissal of the results will delay or even prevent the government from taking action. “KWS and DRSRS have been monitoring wildlife numbers for decades, but are they simply monitoring them into extinction? Why are they not analyzing trends and making the findings available to the public, the policy makers and the land owners?”

Ironically, KWS recently celebrated the launch of their new strategic plan which was proudly presented to the public by the Minister for Wildlife and the KWS Chairman who hailed it’s contribution to Kenya’s vision 2030. I asked the Director why members of the conservation community who contribute so much to the state of knowledge of wildlife in Kenya and on whose land most of Kenya’s wildlife resides, were not involved in drafting the document. He said it was done in-house but did not seem to agree that the voices of the public would have helped to create a more useful document. Amongst his strategies, he intends to improve customer service and raise park fees to improve the viability of the KWS.

I can’t help feeling that this blind business approach is why we are hemorrhaging wildlife in Kenya. No longer are wildlife or wilderness areas viewed as worth saving in their own right. Wildlife is now viewed as a commodity, something that should be paid for, and it’s assumed that only tourists appreciate it.  To everyone living outside of conservation areas, wildlife is a pest that costs $$ and should therefore be eliminated.  To unscrupulous traders wildlife anywhere, represents trophies or meat that can be sold for $$. To pastoralists and poor communities, parks are just stolen grazing or farming lands and many are fighting to have these protected areas degazetted.

There seems to be a shrinking community of Kenyans who visit wilderness areas to enjoy the peace and pleasure of unspoiled landscapes, to hike for health reasons, and who are excited by just watching zebras playing, lions greeting each other, or birds feeding their young. I can’t tell you all how sad I was to see that the new KWS strategy does not mention strategies to inspire Kenyans to care about wildlife. Instead KWS is looking to extract more money from the few Kenyans who do still go to the parks. No wonder, the KWS Director feels alone when neither the public nor businesses come out to support his proposals for greater government commitments to our wildlife heritage.

Leave a comment with your ideas, how can we turn around the situation in Kenya around. Or send me a question to ask the KWS director! What can we do to win over the general public, the communities, the government bodies and the management authorities?

Article, photos and graph at: