Kenya’s National Parks Not Safe from Wildlife Decline

12 July 2009


Wildlife in Kenya is on the decline, but surprisingly it's disappearing at the same rate inside Kenya's National Parks.

In a paper published in the journal PLoS One this week, Professor David Western and colleagues at the University of California San Diego compared animal populations in national parks relative to wildlife across the whole country.  This finding illustrates the problems that maintaining these protected areas can create on wildlife and ecosystems inside as well as outside of the parks.

Western's international team looked at data from a period of 25 years, covering over 270 counts of wildlife.  Populations have fluctuated since the early data in 1977 but wildlife populations, both inside national parks and out, had declined as much as 40% by 1997.

There are a number of factors that contribute to this decline.  Population changes due to drought occur over a 5-10 year cycle, and the borders of many of the reserves do not take seasonal migration into account.  Animals are kept within the boundaries of the park, with the laudable aim of keeping them safe from poachers.  This has had an effect on the ecosystem both within and outside the parks.

'Elephants need a lot of space,' Western said. 'They move around. But now that they have been limited to smaller areas, they're taking out the woody vegetation and reducing the overall biodiversity in the national parks."  Because of this, they're seeing a reduction of woody habitats at the expense of grassland ecosystems and as a result the species that thrive in woody areas, such as giraffe, lesser kudu and impala, are under threat.

In addition, some species have become a pest to locals, who rely on the land for agriculture.  To deal with the problem some people willingly invite poachers onto reserve land.

If space is the problem, then bigger parks should be safer for wildlife, but Western found quite the opposite:

'In fact, the biggest losses are occurring in the big parks, rather than the smaller ones. A very big park is much more difficult to protect from poachers."  There's also a problem in that the bigger parks lack the intimate connection with the surrounding communities, who don't see any benefit from the park's existence.

According to Western, "The small parks, such Nairobi National Park, Amboseli, and Nakuru, are surrounded by people who are more educated and better off financially, so they don't see the parks with the same antagonism as the others and they're more amenable to conservation.'

The solution - ecotourism.  Western suggests that to protect wildlife from further declines the benefits of tourism should be shared with local communities.  Although the parks receive many visitors, at present the money brought in only goes to tour operators, hoteliers and the government, with very little benefiting the customary users of that land.

"We need to create 'parks beyond parks' in which we encourage communities to become closely aligned with their own wildlife sanctuaries, their own lodges, their own scouts and their own conservation efforts' said Western.


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