Growing Pressure on the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem- and the need for community-driven solutions

A prominent new paper in the leading journal Science documents what all conservationists in East Africa already  know: that growing human populations, settlements and infrastructure are increasing pressure on even the largest protected areas, and making it even more important to develop conservation approaches that reconcile the needs of people and wildlife. The paper doesn’t, however, go so far as to examine the real solutions that are currently being enacted in the ecosystem or wider region by a range of community-based conservation organizations that are tackling some of these critical problems, with promising results to date.

Using a range of long-term data compiled by researchers in both Kenya and Tanzania, the new paper describes how increased pressure from livestock grazing and conversion of land to settlements, fenced plots, and cropland is putting ever-increasing pressure on the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem and its migratory wildlife populations. The paper particularly highlights impacts from livestock and settlement in the northern part of the ecosystem, around Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve, where the 1 million+ wildebeest that migrate across the system spend the critical dry season months. In this area, resident wildlife numbers have declined by large proportions (e.g. 58%-87% for some resident species) since the late 1970s, as has been documented by a number of other studies over the past decade.

The Science paper emphasizes the critical importance of conservation strategies that find ways for people to co-exist with wildlife outside the boundaries of core protected areas, even in the Serengeti-Mara where a large array of parks and reserves protect about 30,000 km2 of land. The researchers concluded that while the Serengeti-Mara is somewhat buffered by its size:

"most other PAs across Africa represent now only fragments of formerly much larger ecosystems. This landscape fragmentation has caused the strong decline or extinction of most large-scale migrations worldwide. This calls for new strategies for improving the ecological integrity of fragmented ecosystems as well as for preserving the last remaining places where these large-scale migrations persist,”

"Strategies where humans and wildlife share landscapes under conditions established and enforced by the mutual agreement of local people and regional or national governments are likely the way forward.”

Notably, the paper does not explore the initiatives and organizations that are actually doing this in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, by developing innovative new conservation models that are enabling people and wildlife to co-exist and helping local communities and landowners benefit from and better protect wildlife. For example, one of the most important trends in the Serengeti-Mara over the past decade is the emergence of conservancies around the Maasai Mara, which now cover an area of land equal to the Mara reserve itself (about 1,400 km2). These conservancies, supported by organizations such as the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA) and Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA), both Maliasili partners, are helping protect land and prevent the spread of fencing and agriculture in key wildlife habitats on private lands around the reserve. The basis for these local conservation models is voluntary agreements between tourism operators and individual Maasai landowners, who lease their properties to the conservancy in exchange for lease payments for use of their land.

While the conservancies are relatively new and face a range of governance and economic challenges, significant conservation outcomes are emerging. For example a paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology in 2016 concluded that the conservancies were having a significant impact on lion numbers around the Maasai Mara:

We show that lion densities have increased substantially within the Mara conservancies over the last decade and suggest that the creation of community conservancies has benefitted their survival. This suggests that lions can survive outside of fenced areas within pastoral regions if communities gain benefits from wildlife. We highlight the importance of expanding existing conservancies beyond their current geographical and political scope and forming buffer zones if wildlife ranges outside them.

A year later, another paper published in Conservation Biology reinforced those findings, and concluded that lion densities on the conservancies are actually higher than in the adjacent reserve as a result of the improved protection to wildlife afforded by the conservancies.

Such research findings, and similar new studies documenting wildlife recoveries through community-based initiatives in northern Tanzanian savannah ecosystems, provide important evidence of the kinds of conservation approaches that will be required in the face of growing pressures on protected areas. Researchers such as the authors of the Science paper would do well to not only focus on the trends driving those pressures and ecosystem degradation, but on the solutions that can offer critically important– and economically valuable–landscapes like the Serengeti-Mara a more promising future. Monitoring and reporting the impact of the local organizations that are delivering these results on the ground will be critical to building a lasting future for people and wildlife in East Africa and beyond.  

By Fred Nelson, ED at Maliasili