SPECIAL REPORT: Human pressures destroying Masai Mara wildlife

Posted: 22 April 2009

Author: Denis Gathanju

The wildllife population in Kenya's Masai Mara reserve has been severely depleted by increased human activity in and around the famous park, according to a new study. As a result, says the International Livestock Research Institute, 95 per cent of the park's giraffes have disappeared. In this Special Report our Kenya correspondent reveals the complex reasons for this conservation tragedy

Kenya's Masai Mara, one of the world's most breathtaking and extraordinary game reserves, recently voted one of the seven wonders of the natural world, is seriously threatened by human activity within and without the magnificent game sanctuary.

Giraffes graze in the Mara
Giraffes graze in the Mara
Reticulated giraffes graze in the Mara. Photo © Gathanju
Poaching of wild animals for their ivory and skin, growing competition for pasture between the domesticated animals of the Maasai people who live within and around the game reserve and the mushrooming of luxury hotels and resorts within the reserve are all impacting the reserve's wildlife and the Mara ecosystem.

Poachers have over the past year had a field day in the Mara following a dip to Kenya's tourism arrivals thanks to the post election violence of 2008 after a disputed presidential election in December 2007. Among the prized game that the poachers have been going for are lions and leopards for their skins and elephants for their tusks. According to the Mara Conservancy Trust (MCT) that manages the Masai Mara Triangle, people living in and around the reserve have also been going after the game for bush meat.

The MCT is completely financed through gate charges into the Masai Mara. Its CEO, Brian Heath, says that the damage this is having on the entire ecosystem is irreparable with all indications pointing to well orchestrated illegal activities in the game reserve. This past year alone, over 500 wire snares were recovered from the the expansive game sanctuary with a least 50 game animals found dead in the snares or completely butchered in the wild and another 20 animals being rescued from the death traps set up by the poachers.

Poaching threat

Wildlife conservationists are worried that even though Kenya has recovered from the post- election violence of 2008, tourism arrivals are yet to pick up in the face of the global economic meltdown that has affected most of Kenya's tourism source markets in Europe and North America.

Masai lion guardian
Masai lion guardian
Masai lion guardian finds wildebeest killed by a lion. Photo credit: Wildlife Direct
According to Brian Heath, wildlife security in the Mara will suffer as poaching step up their activities in these harsh economic times. And Dr Richard Leakey, the renowned Kenyan archaeologist and wildlife conservationist, says more funding is needed to help save and protect the wild game that is consistently threatened by poaching activities.

Dr. Leakey is the chairman of Wildlife Direct, a wildlife conservation organization that is raising funds across the world to fund wildlife conservation, argues that Kenya and other nations in African nations cannot adequately conserve and protect their wildlife on gate fees alone, especially during and immediately after such politically instigated violence as the one Kenya went through last year. Dr. Leakey is credited for halting the slaughter of Kenyan elephants in the 1980s. And his organization helped raise $350,000 to help protect the mountain gorillas in the war ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Big cats

The Masai communities within and without the Masai Mara, who have rarely been consulted about the use of their traditional lands, are also part of the bigger picture. They are increasingly letting out their land on the margins of the park to other farmers and turning to settled farming themselves in the place of their traditonal livestock nomadism. This inevitably brings about conflict with free roaming wildlife.

Known to be fearless hunters, the Masai are increasingly killing the big cats in the wild that they claim are killing their prized cows, sheep and goats. And, faced with falling gate fees, the MCT can no longer afford to compensate the Masai pastoralists for any of their cattle that are killed by the lions, the leopards and the cheetahs in the wild.

As well as spearing the wildlife, the Maasai have devised a more ingenious way of dealing with the big cat menace that is threatening their way of life. According to Dr. Leakey, they have discovered the lethal effects of an insecticide called carbofuran that is a sure and effective way of dispatching the big cats. Carbofuran is a very powerful and toxic insecticide. Spread on the soil it is taken up by the plants it kills insects and pests that feed on the plants' foliage. Being one of the largest game reserves in Kenya, the Mara attracts thousands of tourists to witness the diversity of its wildlife and experience the wildebeest migration, arguably the largest wildlife movement in the world that is marked by the ritual trek across the golden plains by more than one million wildebeests and zebras as they cross the crocodile infested waters of the Mara river.

Big money

Kenya earns close to $1 billion from tourism with the Masai Mara generating over 650 million Kenya shillings in annual revenues. It is this cash prize that has led to the unchecked mushrooming of hotels and resorts inside the park in the recent past. This development has, in turn, created rifts between various government agencies, the local county councils and conservation bodies over the past few months as construction in the reserve upsets the sensitive eco balance of the Mara.

African elephant charges
African elephant charges
An elephant charges. Photo © Gathanju
Today, the 1,510 km game sanctuary boats more hotels, resorts and bush camps than any other game park or reserve in Kenya. It now boasts over 140 such facilities with a total bed capacity of over 4,000.

The Kenya Tourism Federation has raised a red flag over the licensing of new developments in the Mara and has called for nullification of newly issued licenses.

Changing land use in the region has also negatively affected the Masai Mara. This follows the dwindling revenues generated from livestock production, which has led to sub-division of the large tracts of land surrounding the reserve into wheat farms and small settlements. This has drastically reduced wildlife rangelands, feeding and breeding sites for the wild game, and further narrowed their options and potentially creating new human-wildlife conflict zones.

According to James Sindiyo, a senior game warden at the Masai Mara Game Reserve, the establishment of small settlements and the expansion of village centres and towns around the Mara presents a serious conservation problem as it effectively cuts off existing wildlife habitat areas, potentially leading to a total blockade of critical wildlife migratory corridors as is the current case in the Nairobi National Park

With such threats Kenya's tourism, and tourism livelyhoods, the Kenyan government and its respective agencies as well as conservation groups have sprung into action to seek solutions that will help mitigate the problems.

A 'stakeholders' forum' that has taken it upon itself to help create a buffer zone around the Masai Mara Game Reserve under a new environmental management plan for the region. The aim is to provide policy guidelines that will allow the reserve to be used for tourism while minimizing the negative environmental impacts to its delicate ecosystem.

Once the proposed new policy framework is in place, it will help map out designated wildlife zones within the park's ecosystem and effectively separate the game rangelands from human settlements and livestock pastures in and around the Mara. It will also stipulate areas that are open to development of tourism within the extensive Mara ecosystem.

Denis Gathanju is a freelance feature writer based in Nakuru, Kenya. He has written extensively on business and conservation matters. He can be reached via his website www.gathanju.com

Related links

To see a report in The Guardian on the International Livestock Research Institute's study, click here

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