PROTECTED areas such as national parks, wilderness areas, community conserved area and nature reserves are the mainstay of biodiversity conservation and provision of ecosystem services which contribute to people's livelihoods.
They could be interpreted as geographical space, dedicated and managed through legal or other effective means to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.
Among the important protected areas is the Serengeti- Mara Ecosystem that supports the most diverse migration of grazing mammals on earth. The Mara Ecosystem, although only a quarter of the total ecosystem area, is crucial to the survival of the entire ecosystem.
It is the source of forage for wildlife migrating through the Serengeti during critical period in the dry season. A research has been carried out on the above mentioned ecosystem for a long time by the University of Groningen with collaborators from 12 institutions around the world under the AfricanBioServices consortium, a project funded by European Union under Horizon 2020.
They were looking at 40 years of data, and have revealed that some boundary areas have seen a 400 per cent increase in human population over the past decade while larger wildlife species populations in key areas (the Kenyan side) were reduced by more than 75 per cent.
One of the lead researchers, Prof Han Olff says that an increase in human activities around Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve are having a detrimental impact on plants, animals and soils.
The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is one of the largest and most protected ecosystems on Earth, spanning about 40,000 square kilometres. Every year more than one million of wildebeest, half a million gazelle and 200,000 zebra migrate from the Serengeti National park in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara National Reserve and adjacent areas in Kenya, searching for water and pasture.
"In regions with high human density, the sharp contrast in natural resources across Protected Areas (PAs) boundaries lead to 'hard edges', which exacerbate human-wildlife conflict leading to two opposing intervention strategies; fencing PAs as form of 'land sparing' from intensively used surrounding areas can solve some human- wildlife conflicts but also prevents beneficial temporary use of areas outside the reserve by wildlife and requires intensive management that can be too costly for large reserves in developing countries.
"An alternative strategy involves 'land sharing', which promotes the coexistence of humans and wildlife, especially in buffer zones. Most of earth's PAs are not fenced, raising the question of whether anthropogenic activities at the edges are increasingly compromising the ecological processes in the core," Professor Olff unveils of the findings of the researchers.
As the way forward, the scholars urged that for relatively intact and contiguous ecosystem such as the Greater Serengeti- Mara Ecosystem (GSME), sustainable long-term solutions are likely to be found in ambitious land use plans that actively manage resources beyond PA boundaries.
"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.
This will require continually monitoring both ecological integrity and social trends in communities surrounding PAs. "Building more trust with local communities that they will keep sharing in the benefits of natural resource conservation; and ensuring that livestock numbers, settlement and cropland do not go beyond a point where they impair the key structure and functioning of the underlying sociological system," they said.
Professor Olff said that having finished their study and give out the findings, were ready to offer advice so as GSME does not collapse, as by now increase of human activities sees less green grass.
One of the most famous and high impact Scientific Journal in the word "SCIENCE" - has published the outcomes of the research that also involved the lead author Dr Michiel Veldhuis, Professor Mark Ritchie, Dr Joseph Ogutu, Thomas Morrison, Dr Colin Beale, Anna Estes, William Mwakilema, Gordon Ojwang, Dr Catherine Parr, James Robert, Patric Wargute and Grant Hopcraft.
Conclusion of the international study was that increased human activity around Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem is ' squeezing the wildlife in its core', damaging habitation and disrupting the migration routes of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle.
The study shows that the impacts are cascading down the food chain, favouring less palatable plants and altering the beneficial interactions between plants and microorganisms that enable the ecosystem to capture and utilise essential nutrients.
The effects could potentially make the ecosystem less resilient to future shocks such as drought or further climate change, the scientists warn.
What do others say in the SCIENCE? Dr Colin Beale, from the University of York's Department of Biology, said: "Protected areas across East Africa are under pressure from a wide range of threats.
Our work shows that encroachment by people should be considered just as serious challenge as better known issues such as poaching and climate change."
Dr Michiel Veldhuis, lead author of the study from the University of Groningen, says: "There is an urgent need to rethink how we manage the boundaries of protected areas to be able to conserve biodiversity.
The future of the world's most iconic protected area and their associated human population may depend on it." What does Tanzania say on the matter? Dr Simon Mduma, the Director of the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) says: "These results come at the right time, as the Tanzanian government is now taking important steps to address these issues on a national level.
This paper provides important scientific evidence of the far ranging consequences of the increased human pressures around the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, information that is now urgently needed by policy makers and politicians."
Spokesperson of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Ms Doreen Makaya, says that with the goodwill of President John Magufuli about people settling adjacent protected areas, she is hopeful the sectoral team that is going on with its work, would at the end identify areas where people could settle while others might be given an alternative land, if they are settling in a dangerous or critical wildlife area adjacent protected areas.
TAWIRI's Head of Wildlife and Information, Dr Janemary Ntalwila says it is pertinent to raise awareness among communities around the protected areas and sensitive ecological areas, specifically GSME, adding that if wildlife decreases in Serengeti it would mean reduction in tourism activities and revenue to the Government.
She called for policy makers and conservation Management authorities to use research findings in better planning that will enable the country to meet both conservation and community development goals especially those residing adjacent to PAs.
She also calls for those who are in need of wildlife data and research finding stored at TAWIRI to follow the procedures to obtain them and make use of them for sustainability of both people's livelihoods and wildlife conservation.
Professor Ritchie from the Syracuse University says keeping people out of an area to protect biodiversity is not enough. He is of the opinion that there is a need to integrate human activities and conservation outside reserves as well.
Dr Joseph Ogutu from the University of Hohenheim says intense compression of large protected area, such as the Serengeti - Mara should ring alarm bells because most other protected areas are far small in size and therefore experience even more intense pressure from human activities impinging on their borders.
"In countries where far more wildlife are still found outside than inside the protected areas, such as Kenya where more than 65 per cent of wildlife occur outside protected areas, expanding human population size, livestock and human activities pose a serious and unprecedented threats to wildlife populations," says Dr Ogutu.
Dr Parr from the University of Liverpool says that the results show that people cannot rely on the sheer extent of protected areas to conserve biodiversity.
"Human impacts are pervasive and threaten even our most iconic reserves," she says. Dr Probert from the University of Liverpool says as the Serengeti - Mara is one of the largest trans-boundary protected area complexes in the world, and yet there are found negative impacts of human activities impacting its core, it is clear that even large protected areas, with strict restrictions on what human activities could take place, can indirectly be affected by human populations at their boundaries.
With the findings, it is expected that respective authorities and organs will take action in line to ensure dangers are eliminated in the said ecosystem.
It is well known that protected areas constitute an important stock of natural, cultural and social capital, yielding flows of economically valuable goods and services that benefit society, secure livelihoods, and contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.
Moreover, protected areas are key to buffering unpredictable impacts of impending climate change.