8 September 2007

Africa: Game Parks Offering Protection in Name Only?

Brooklin, Canada — The sharp decline of Africa's abundant wildlife is now happening inside the continent's protected areas, a new analysis indicates.

Africa's world renowned parks are destined to become isolated pockets of wilderness with few large animals left, as is the case in Europe, conclude the authors of an article in the current edition of the 'African Journal of Ecology'.

"It is not a pleasant conclusion," said Paul Scholte, co-author of the article, and a researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

"Where we have good data, there are dramatic declines in wildlife inside parks and protected areas," he told IPS. "It was a shock. The declines are far worse than we expected."

The steep population decrease for large numbers of mammals outside of parks and game reserves in the past 15 years has been well documented. Illegal hunting, the bushmeat trade, and expansion of agriculture and urban settlements are the main causes of this trend.

However, a continent-wide overview of the status of wildlife in Africa's vast protected areas didn't exist until the analysis done by Scholte and co-author Tim Caro of the University of California and the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute in Arusha, northern Tanzania.

According to the official declaration of the 2003 World Parks Congress, held in the South African port city of Durban, Africa is home to more than 1,200 protected areas which cover upwards of two million square kilometres, some nine percent of the continent's total land area.

Scholte and Caro combined the available data from all parks and reserves, and were able to use new statistical methods that can help make sense of information from disparate sources. These included a 40-year collection of monthly wildlife census reports by park guards in six Ghanaian national parks, and decade long collections of aerial censuses done over huge wildlife areas in Kenya and Tanzania.

Details on antelope populations turned out to be the most measured and consistent sets of data throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

"What new data shows, however, is even relatively well-organised protected areas cannot be relied on as long-lasting conservation tools, at least for antelopes and their predators," Scholte and Caro conclude in their paper.

While he has called for studies on other mammal populations, Scholte believes these findings are indicative of what is happening to most mammals in Africa's parks. The rise in elephant numbers in Eastern and Southern African reserves is one of the few exceptions to this trend.

Rampant bushmeat hunting is largely behind declines in Katavi National Park in Tanzania, the Ipassa Man and Biosphere Reserve in Gabon, and Comoe'National Park of Coàte d'Ivoire. In West and Central Africa, this form of hunting is often the most common factor in the pressure being brought to bear on antelope populations, the study notes.

Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve has seen populations of herbivores ranging from buffalo to giraffe to wildebeest crash. Drought, poaching and increased wheat farm acreage in surrounding areas account for this decline: since Kenya established its world famous parks, the country's human population has increased four times.

Every 20 years, Africa's human population doubles, Scholte said. That puts enormous pressure on wildlife in terms of competition for land, water and food resources.

In South Africa's Kruger National Park, the situation is somewhat different. Here, dry weather, not human activity, is behind the decline in antelopes and other herbivores.

Unforeseen consequences of management interventions within parks constitute another factor in the declines, says Norman Owen-Smith of the Centre for African Ecology at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa's commercial hub -- Johannesburg.

"This does not mean that parks cannot succeed, but rather that they need to be made larger to buffer against human influences and climatic variability," he observed in an e-mail interview.

Conservation successes in parks like South Africa's Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park are largely due to high intensity patrolling against illegal hunting, Owen-Smith added.

Although many of Africa's parks are in fairly dire straits, there are a few that give cause for optimism, said Grant Hopcraft: a researcher for the Frankfurt Zoological Society of Germany who is based in Arusha.

"(There) are shining examples of good conservation, Serengeti being one, that perhaps could be used as models," he wrote in an e-mail message. "Undoubtedly the continent wide situation is very serious, but I dread to think it is irreversible."

Notes James Deutsch, director of the Africa Programme at the Wildlife Conservation Society, a U.S-based group working in 54 countries, "There are substantial conservation successes in East and Southern Africa, although major threats and challenges remain."

The most successful parks are those with the strongest tourism business and where the local community directly benefits from the tourism, he adds. "It's disastrous (for wildlife) outside of the protected areas."

With little industrialisation, many of Africa's 700 plus million people live off the land, where much of the soil is poor and water scarce, Deutsch explains: "Successful and sustainable development is the key to long-term conservation of Africa's wildlife."

However, African parks have a tiny fraction of the budget of their European counterparts, according to Scholte, and the continent as a whole less than 10 per cent of what it needs to operate and protect its parks.

"If the international community increased funding by 10 times then there is hope. But I don't think that's realistic," he said.

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