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Kenya’s wildlife populations are in ‘widespread’ and ‘catastrophic’ decline—New study


Cattle and Maasai herders and zebra share grazing land in Kenya (Photo credit: Rob Pringle/Harvard University).

Here’s a wake up call for all those who care about Kenya’s rich heritage of wild animals, rangelands and pastoral peoples. A new study reporting on the period from 1977 to 2016 says wildlife on the rangelands of Kenya, which still support some of the richest herds of mammals on earth, is in precipitous decline while populations of goats and sheep are increasingly sharply.

These results are published in a new paper, Extreme wildlife declines and concurrent increase in livestock numbers in Kenya: What are the causes?, written by Joe Ogutu, a Kenyan scientist formerly working at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and now at the University of Hohenheim, and Hans-Peter Piepho (University of Hohenheim), Mohamed Said (ILRI), Gordon Ojwang (Directorate of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing [DRSRS]), Lucy Njino (DRSRS), Shem Kifugo (ILRI) and Patrick Wargute (DRSRS).

One of the solutions advanced is strengthening community-based wildlife conservancies:

With the right incentives and support wildlife conservancies can and have been an avenue for addressing wildlife loss.
Dickson Ole Kaelo, CEO, Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association

From the results section of the paper

The most salient features of the trends
were a striking increase in numbers of sheep and goats and camels
and concurrent
extreme declines in numbers of 14 of the 18 common wildlife species
throughout Kenya’s rangelands between 1977 and 2016

‘The numbers of sheep and goats aggregated across all the 21 rangeland counties (“national” trend) increased markedly by 76.3%, followed by 13.1% for camels (Camelus dromedarius) and 6.7% for donkeys (Equus asinus) while the number of cattle (Bos indicus) dropped by 25.2%. In sharp contrast to the increasing trends or moderate declines in livestock numbers, the aggregated numbers of the common wildlife species declined precipitously, and for certain species catastrophically, in the same period in the Kenyan rangelands.’

From the abstract to the paper

‘There is growing evidence of escalating wildlife losses worldwide. Extreme wildlife losses have recently been documented for large parts of Africa, including western, Central and Eastern Africa. Here, we report extreme declines in wildlife and contemporaneous increase in livestock numbers in Kenya rangelands between 1977 and 2016. Our analysis uses systematic aerial monitoring survey data collected in rangelands that collectively cover 88% of Kenya’s land surface. Our results show that wildlife numbers declined on average by 68% between 1977 and 2016. The magnitude of decline varied among species but was most extreme (72–88%) and now severely threatens the population viability and persistence of warthog, lesser kudu, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, oryx, topi, hartebeest, impala, Grevy’s zebra and waterbuck in Kenya’s rangelands.

‘The declines were widespread and occurred in most of the 21 rangeland counties. Likewise to wildlife, cattle numbers decreased (25.2%) but numbers of sheep and goats (76.3%), camels (13.1%) and donkeys (6.7%) evidently increased in the same period. As a result, livestock biomass was 8.1 times greater than that of wildlife in 2011–2013 compared to 3.5 times in 1977–1980. Most of Kenya’s wildlife (ca. 30%) occurred in Narok County alone. The proportion of the total “national” wildlife population found in each county increased between 1977 and 2016 substantially only in Taita Taveta and Laikipia but marginally in Garissa and Wajir counties, largely reflecting greater wildlife losses elsewhere.

‘The declines raise very grave concerns about the future of wildlife, the effectiveness of wildlife conservation policies, strategies and practices in Kenya. Causes of the wildlife declines include exponential human population growth, increasing livestock numbers, declining rainfall and a striking rise in temperatures but the fundamental cause seems to be policy, institutional and market failures. Accordingly, we thoroughly evaluate wildlife conservation policy in Kenya. We suggest policy, institutional and management interventions likely to succeed in reducing the declines and restoring rangeland health, most notably through strengthening and investing in community and private wildlife conservancies in the rangelands.’

From the introduction to the paper

‘Rapid human population growth is driving wildlife population declines in Africa through its influence on expansion of agriculture, settlements and development of infrastructure. Deterioration in wildlife and livestock habitats caused by major land use and cover changes is exacerbated by climate change and variability, piling enormous pressures on pastoralism, ranching and wildlife conservation in African rangelands and protected areas. . . .

‘Rangelands cover about 512586.8 km2, representing 88% of the 582,646 km2 land surface of Kenya. They are hot, semiarid or arid with highly variable rainfall, often averaging less than 600 mm per year and thus are drought-prone and less suitable for sustainable crop production. The rangelands are currently home to 32.6% of the Kenyan population (12,582,028 of 38,610,097 people in 2009), principally pastoral communities and are crucially important for extensive livestock production and wildlife conservation in Kenya. More than half of the Kenyan livestock populations are found on these rangelands’

From the main section of the paper

What should be done to stop the wildlife declines?

‘Since policy, institutional and market failures are at the heart of wildlife declines in Kenya, we examine important gaps in the current wildlife conservation and management policy which need to be addressed to stem the wildlife losses.

To be successful, efforts aiming to slow down or halt the declines and restore the depleted wildlife populations and the degraded rangelands must address the twin crux issues: what is wildlife beneficial for and who mainly benefits?

‘Such efforts must also account for the possibility that large areas of East Africa will inevitably pass over to more lucrative activities, as has happened, for example, in South Africa, which no longer has any counterpart of subsistence pastoralism. Counteracting this progression will require that some pastoral lands retaining wildlife should be buffered against such changes to ensure that they deliver the multiple benefits that they provide sustainably.

This demands a far-sighted land-use plan to secure wildlife habitats from the impacts of the rapidly expanding human and livestock populations.

‘Such a plan would benefit from incorporating the biosphere concept of a protected core area enlarged by a multi-use buffer zone with compatible activities.

‘As the future role of wildlife has become a leading issue globally it is not surprising that different countries are following different routes in search for solutions, including (1) laissez-faire as traditionally prevalent in Kenya, (2) multiple economic uses including hunting, as in Tanzania and earlier in Botswana, (3) devolvement of full financial control to local communities, as in Namibia, (4) fenced protected areas as tourist attractions or living museums, as in South Africa, (5) private ownership in fenced ranches or conservancies, as in South Africa, and (6) transfrontier protected areas, consisting of a mosaic of wildlands and settlements. Despite the diversity of these approaches, the basic issues confronting all countries with wildlife are primarily those of land ownership and devolvement of financial benefits.

A crucial need is thus for part of the benefits of protected areas and conservancies to filter down to impoverished neighbours.

‘Although East Africa still supports the richest herds of wildlife on earth, our analysis shows that the future of Kenyan wildlife is in serious jeopardy without urgent, far-reaching and far-sighted changes to their current conservation and management. The new Act therefore not only restores some badly needed hope but also recognizes that for much of Kenya, environmental imperatives have progressed far beyond “conservation” to “recovery” and “restoration”. . . .

‘One of the hallmarks of the new Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013 is that it promotes private and community conservation and transition from open-access to private property regimes. It thus provides a framework within which communities can be empowered to use, manage and receive expanded economic benefits from wildlife. Greater benefits enhance the importance of wildlife as a component of livelihoods and development, help pay the costs of conservation and reduce human-wildlife conflicts. Yet, widespread poverty and inequality still deny many landowners the opportunity to benefit from wildlife. This reduces interest and investment in conservation because, understandably, attitudes of people towards conservation on private or communal lands are often shaped by the amount and distribution of financial benefits from supporting wildlife on their lands. Communities getting no benefits from wildlife and having little say in national policy, as most pastoralists are, are more likely to be more intolerant to wildlife.

‘Although initially started by individuals and communities in a policy vacuum, wildlife conservancies have had some tangible success in Kenya, associated with direct economic benefits to poor landowner households, poverty alleviation, rising land values and increasing wildlife numbers within the conservancies.

As a result, conservancies are fast emerging as the centrepiece of natural resource conservation on the rangelands and broader development institutions for championing community development projects around the conservancies and ensuring sustainability through land use planning, managing wildlife, livestock, rangelands, and forests, trading in conservation beef, organic products or carbon—because traditional institutions have collapsed in the pastoral lands.

‘Community conservation in conservancies is also important in complementing limited capacity and skills of state agencies and dwindling state resources for conservation in the wake of mounting conservation challenges.

Important wildlife policy gaps that should be addressed to stop the declines

‘Here, we highlight some root causes of wildlife declines that are not adequately addressed by the current wildlife conservation policy and hence need to be urgently addressed. It is crucial to regulate livestock stocking levels to limit the number of livestock that can be reared on the available rangelands in conservancies, or ranches to minimize rangeland degradation through overgrazing. Reducing livestock stocking levels is also important to ensuring economic viability and sustainability of wildlife conservation on the human and livestock dominated pastoral lands. High livestock stocking levels are associated with declines in large mammalian species richness, abundance and distribution. Regulating livestock stocking levels will also help ensure that pastoralists do not regularly move increasingly large livestock herds to conservancies, parks and reserves, as currently happens.

As most ordinary pastoralists still earn more from livestock than wildlife, it is crucial to maintain some balance between conservancies and livestock, make and enforce rules that control livestock grazing in conservancies. These measures will ensure that communities benefit from wildlife without necessarily having to sacrifice all their current major livelihood—livestock.

‘However, policies that can guide the development of models for optimally integrating livestock and wildlife in conservancies to ensure economically viable conservancies on pastoral lands rather than completely separating pastoral livestock and wildlife, especially in areas with low tourism potential, are still lacking. Although there are some benefits to be gained by not completely separating wildlife from livestock in conservancies, including mutually beneficial long-term modifications of rangeland habitats, livestock grazing and herd size in conservancies should be regulated and monitored. This is especially important because a major problem for conservancies currently is that some pastoral land owners benefitting from conservancies use their incomes to buy more livestock that then compete with wildlife and degrade rangeland habitats. Equally important to regulate and monitor to stem widespread destruction of woodland habitats is clear felling of woodlands for charcoal trade, fuel wood, fencing, and construction materials in pastoral lands.

‘. . . There is . . .  need to build community capacity in wildlife conservation, management and protection, conservation planning, effective leadership, security operations, conservation business enterprises, technical and negotiation skills, access to information, democratic and effective collective or collaborative action. . . . [T]he participation and support of pastoral land owners is critical to the success of conservancies because they have to vacate their lands for conservancies, refrain from erecting fences and other developments. Wildlife conservation policy should also recognize that wildlife is not just a Kenyan heritage but a global heritage, conferring upon Kenya both global and local responsibilities that need funding for conservation and habitat restoration. . . .

Wildlife policy should embrace a strong paradigm shift away from the past and current bureaucratic uncertainty, crippling restrictions on use, and extracting most wildlife revenues from community areas.

Wildlife policy should also do away with state nationalization, monopolization and centralization of wildlife and grant local communities responsibility and authority over local conservation decisions within a wider and carefully crafted framework of accountability, regulation and governance.

Read the paper, published on PLOS ONE, Extreme wildlife declines and concurrent increase in livestock numbers in Kenya: What are the causes?, by Joseph Ogutu (University of Hohenheim, formerly of ILRI), Hans-Peter Piepho (University of Hohenheim), Mohamed Said (ILRI), Gordon Ojwang (Directorate of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing [DRSRS]), Lucy Njino (DRSRS), Shem Kifugo (ILRI) and Patrick Wargute (DRSRS), 27 Sep 2016.

The following excerpts of a related and earlier policy paper provide more context: ‘More than half of the wildlife habitat in Kenya is located outside protected areas, dispersed in private and community grazing lands. The traditional pastoral approach to livestock husbandry is considered compatible with and complementary to wildlife. However, these areas have undergone increasing land use pressure within the past decades, leading to land degradation largely due to climatic factors, notably recurrent droughts and low and declining amounts of rainfall, increasing human and livestock population and unsustainable land uses. Pastoralists range has become too restricted for traditional livestock grazing practices forcing them to diversify livestock-based economies and agriculture. As the pressure on land intensifies, there is potential for conflict between wildlife and people over grazing land, characterised by competition for key resources, predation on domestic livestock, and disease transmission. Wildlife populations and their habitats have been adversely affected by these changes. Restoration of degraded arid environments is critically needed as a mitigation measure against land degradation, biodiversity loss, climate change (Lal, 2009) and for enhancing the adaptive capacity of the local agro-pastoral communities. . . .

‘One of the key ecological constraints in the coexistence of livestock and wildlife at the livestock-wildlife interface environments is pasture scarcity. Since the pastoral economy is pinned on livestock keeping, land degradation has led to depletion of livelihoods base, leading to poverty, food insecurity and resource conflicts which pose a serious conservation challenge. Implementation of NRM plans including land use zoning within the community wildlife conservancies is a step towards finding the right solution. . . .’ (Taken from: Range Rehabilitation for Wildlife Conservation and Pastoral Livestock Production, Policy Brief 1, Feb 2013, USAID and Higher Education for Development).

And further, and on a more hopeful note, you can watch American Robin Reid, an ecologist formerly with ILRI and a colleague of the paper’s authors Joe Ogutu, Mohamed Said, Shem Kifugo and also Dickson Ole Kaelo, and, since 2008, founding director of the Center for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University, describe how collaboration can change pastoral lands and lives:

Robin Reid gave the eighth ‘President’s Community Lecture’ hosted by Colorado State University in Fort Collins on 27 Sep 2016:

Walking with Herders (and Others):
Bringing Different People Together to Work with Nature

‘Dr. Robin Reid has found ways to bring together businesses, government, citizens, and scientists to work out solutions for complicated conservation problems.’ In this public lecture, Reid tells the story of her unexpected discovery of just how much ‘collaboration’ among East Africa’s wildlife populations, savannah landscapes and pastoral peoples has benefitted all three.

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