Africa / Biodiversity / Botswana / East Africa / Environment / ILRI / Kenya / Report / Southern Africa / Wildlife

Wildlife populations reported to be crashing in Africa’s renowned Mara and Okavango wildlife refuges

African Cape buffalo

The African Cape buffalo (photo credit: ILRI/Elsworth).

Is conservation of wild mammals and their environments in Africa at a crisis point? Are wildlife populations “crashing” in Africa’s most renowned wildlife reserves? Two new reports suggest that may be the case. The following was reported in the Guardian today.

‘The Okavango delta in Botswana has suffered “catastrophic” species loss over the past 15 years, researchers have announced , in the latest sign of a growing crisis for wildlife in Africa.

‘Some wild animal populations in the delta, one of the wonders of the natural world, have shrunk by up to 90% and are facing local extinction, according to the most comprehensive aerial survey yet undertaken there.

‘The findings come after a study this month showed dramatic declines in animal numbers in the Masai Mara wildlife reserve, south-west Kenya, raising anxiety about the effectiveness of conservation across the continent. . . .

‘”The results were unexpected,” said Mike Chase, founder of Elephants without Borders, which did the aerial survey of the region. “There has been a cosy pretence that wildlife is thriving and doing well in the Okavango delta. Our survey provides the first scientific evidence that wildlife is declining, and pretty sharply too. That cosy pretence has been blown out of the water.”

‘He added: “It is still one of Africa’s great wildlife destinations, but doing nothing will jeopardise that reputation.”

‘Chase’s study found that 11 species have declined by 61% since a 1996 survey in Ngamiland district, the location of the delta. Ostrich numbers were worst hit; there was a 95% drop, from 11,893 animals to 497 last year. Some 90% of wildebeest were also wiped out, along with 84% of the population of the antelope tsessebe, 81% of warthogs and kudus, and nearly two-thirds of giraffes.

‘”The decline of wildebeest has been catastrophic. The numbers have fallen below the minimum of 500 breeding pairs to be sustainable. They are on the verge of local extinction. These are grim statistics. You would have expected to see serious decline since the 70s in somewhere like Kenya, but our trend analysis only goes back to the 90s. To have seen decline on our watch is totally unacceptable,” Chase said.

Chase suggested a drought in the 1980s and 1990s, plus bushfire, habitat encroachment and poaching, as the main reasons for the nosedive. “The causes are multiple and complex, but drought is the over-arching one.”. . .

‘The study was funded by Botswana’s government and Chase was due to present his findings to ministers and scientists on Friday. . . .

‘One politically sensitive topic is the fencing to separate wildlife from farmers’ livestock. Joseph Okori, a local wildlife expert, said: “We did see a great impact from fences on species like springbok, kudu and zebra. When drought comes these fences blocked them from normal migration patterns and access to water.”

‘The Okavango delta is not the only tourist destination in Africa to face a loss of natural bounty. Researchers found that in the Masai Mara, numbers of impala, warthog, giraffe, topi and Coke’s hartebeest had declined by more than 70% over three decades.

‘Scientists at Hohenheim University in Germany, and the International Livestock Research Institute [ILRI] in Nairobi, said wildebeest had again been badly hit: their celebrated migration now involved 64% fewer animals than it did in the early 1980s. Zebra numbers inside the reserve had fallen by three-quarters.

‘Joseph Ogutu, a senior statistician in the bioinformatics unit at Hohenheim University [and formerly a scientist at ILRI, where he did this research], said: “There is a crisis. And what we’re seeing in the Mara is not specific to that region.” The conflict between wildlife and farming livestock was seen as significant here too. Ogutu told of a 1,100% increase in cattle grazing in the reserve, along with poaching and changing land-use patterns – the primary causes of the Mara’s downward trend in wildlife populations.

‘Conservationists believe there are lessons to be learned from both trouble spots. “One of the big problems in both the Mara and the Okavango delta is that we are not looking at how the land around them is managed,” said Drew McVey, species programme officer at WWF-UK. “It’s very important that we have a more holistic approach to conservation and development and don’t seen these as isolated islands. We need to think of them as full ecosystems.”. . .’

Read the whole article in today’s GuardianDrought and poachers take Botswana’s natural wonder to brink of catastrophe, 18 June 2011.

Read more about ILRI’s recent comprehensive study in Kenya’s Masai Mara on the ILRI News Blog: Numbers of wildlife in Kenya’s famous Mara region have declined by two-thirds or more over last 33 years, 1 June 2011.

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