April 22, 2009

Wildlife Declining In Masai Mara National Reserve

Researchers reported on Wednesday that numbers of wild grazing animals in Kenya's world-renowned Masai Mara National Reserve have fallen substantially in 15 years as wildlife competes with neighboring human settlements, Reuters reported.

In 2006, a U.S. TV network and newspaper named the Masai Mara, best known for its spectacular annual wildebeest migration, the seventh "New Wonder" of the world as hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the reserve annually.

However, six species -- giraffes, hartebeest, impala, warthogs, topis and waterbuck -- have declined "markedly and persistently" throughout the 580 square mile reserve, according to a study published in the British Journal of Zoology.

Joseph Ogutu, the lead author of the report and a statistical ecologist at the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), said the documented situation paints a bleak picture and requires urgent and decisive action to save the area from disaster.

"Our study offers the best evidence to date that wildlife losses in the reserve are widespread and substantial, and that these trends are likely linked to the steady increase in human settlements on lands adjacent to the reserve," he added.

The growing human population in the area has cut wild animal numbers by taking over wildlife grazing land for crop and livestock production, researchers said.

In the west and southwest of the Mara, some traditional farming communities are continuing to illegally hunt wildlife inside the reserve for food and profit.

The researchers mostly focused on the Mara ranchlands around the reserve, which are home to the Masai.

The majority of Masai were semi-nomadic herders until recently, as recent decades have lead some to quit traditional homesteads for more permanent settlements on the borders of the reserve.

Almost all species, with the exception of waterbuck and zebra, decreased significantly as settlements increased, according to Ogutu and colleagues.

Ogutu released a statement saying: "Wildlife are constantly moving between the reserve and surrounding ranchlands and they are increasingly competing for habitat with livestock and with large-scale crop cultivation around the human settlements."

He said their analysis found that more and more people in the ranchlands are allowing their livestock to graze in the reserve, which is illegal in the impoverished Masai resort during prolonged drought and other problems.

Masai's move to a more sedentary lifestyle had been driven in part by decades of policy neglect that forced many to abandon the more environmentally friendly practice of grazing livestock over wide expanses of grasslands, the report said.

Tourism firms are now cooperating with Masai landowners to set up conservancies where they manage the number of settlements and livestock herds to maintain a sustainable balance. A share of the tourism profits would then be given to the local community.

ILRI boss Carlos Ser© said they know from thousands of years of history that pastoral livestock-keeping can co-exist with east Africa's renowned concentrations of big mammals.

He added that they have evidence that the sharp declines of East Africa's wildlife populations in recent years can be slowed and ecosystem crashes prevented by bettering the livelihoods of the Masai and other pastoralists who graze their livestock near the region's protected game parks.

"Our work demonstrates that scientists, policymakers, and local communities can work together to build the technical means and adaptive capacity needed to keep this region's pastoral ecosystems, and the people who depend on them, more resilient, even in the face of big changes," he said.


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