National parks aren’t doing the trick in Kenya

Elephants have changed the ecology of Amboseli and other national parks in Kenya. Credit: David Western

Research in PLoS ONE today shows that animals in Kenya’s national parks are declining at the same rate as the same species outside the parks.  This means, potentially, that the protection of animals in safe spaces may not lead to their recovery or success.

David Western, the author and founder/director of the African Conservation Centre in Nairobi, said in a statement that pressures around the parks are affecting the wildlife in the parks. When protected areas are delineated, human-made infrastructure, such as agriculture, can jut up against it. Many large mammals migrate seasonally, and the small areas within the parks can thwart their travels.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe parks, said Western, were formed around places where people saw large aggregations of mammals, including elephants, giraffes and impala. This technique ignored the animals’ season migrations, mostly because people just didn’t know where the animals were migrating to.  What’s more, elephants are effective ecosystem engineers. Said Western:

“Elephants need a lot of space. 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. We’re seeing throughout our parks in Kenya a change from woody habitats to grassland habitats. As a result, we’re losing the species that thrive in woody areas, such as giraffe, lesser kudu and impala.”

Another reason these national park populations might be declining, said Western, is that local farmers perceive it as a threat. Because they can’t use the lands to grow food, they willingly invite poachers onto the land.  In fact, the biggest parks are experiencing the worst declines, possibly because they’re in pastoral lands surrounded by farmers. In smaller parks near cities, Western said, the population is more educated and financially stable, so they don’t view the parks negatively.

Western suggests that to end farmers’ antagonism toward national parks, the government should share some of the financial benefits with local communities.

Read more in the PLoS ONE (open access).

Western, D., Russell, S., & Cuthill, I. (2009). The Status of Wildlife in Protected Areas Compared to Non-Protected Areas of Kenya PLoS ONE, 4 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006140