East Africa Protected Areas

East Africa Protected Areas

Photo Credits: COURTESY

Researchers find protected areas in East Africa do a good job of preventing human encroachment

The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania is home to some of the most incredible natural spectacles on earth. Every year in Serengeti, millions of wildebeests and zebras undertake the planet’s only remaining great migration of mammals. The park also has the largest population of lions anywhere in the world. Serengeti, alongside other protected areas in East Africa, are an important bastion of wildlife and biodiversity. Unfortunately, East African protected areas have a bad reputation.

“We hear lots of terrible conservation stories about paper parks, poaching and deforestation within park boundaries,” said Jason Riggio, a postdoctoral scholar with the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology at UC Davis who studies East African protected areas.

Despite this reputation, a study published in January tells a hopeful story about one aspect of these protected areas. Jason Riggio and other scientists from UC Davis used satellite imagery to analyze how effective East African protected areas were at preventing human encroachment.

“What we found in East Africa, at least in terms of deforestation and habitat loss, is that these countries were doing a really good job at protecting their protected areas,” Riggio said.

Safeguarding biodiversity, the variety of species on earth, is a pressing topic. Global biodiversity is rapidly declining due to a variety of factors, and biologists are concerned that the drop poses a major threat to the planet. East Africa is one of the most biodiverse regions, but also one of the most threatened. Preventing human development in the rangelands of animals is a crucial step in protecting the biodiversity of the region. As the population of East Africa grows, the pressure on the last remaining wildlands will increase which is why the effectiveness of protected areas in preventing development is important. Unfortunately, protected areas have a problematic history in East Africa.

“These protected areas were originally set up as game reserves so that colonial hunters could go there and shoot big game; big trophies,” said Andrew Jacobson, an author on the paper and assistant professor of the Environment and Sustainability at Catawba College. “Given that history, there are still some social challenges with protected areas in that region.”

Adding to concerns, East African protected areas were not necessarily designed to maximize protection of biodiversity. Modern ecological considerations, such as a focus on protecting endemic species or species found nowhere else in the world, were not used.

“Most of the protected areas weren’t set up with the goal of protecting 10% of the habitat type, or covering all these endemic species,” Riggio said. “They were really set up because someone said hey there are gorillas over here, let’s protect that, look there’s lions and elephants over there let’s protect that.”

The researchers were interested in examining the effectiveness of the protected areas because of these challenges. To investigate, they meticulously traced the edges of human development surrounding the protected areas using satellite imagery from Google maps. Then they compared the official protected area boundaries with their traced borders. Their results were encouraging.

“Roughly only 6% of the land area of protected areas in East Africa had been lost to land conversion,” Riggio said. “In strict protected areas, the most restrictive forms, like National Parks, that was less than 2%.”

The researchers also wanted to know how well the protected areas covered the ranges of endemic species. They compared their map of the protected areas with pre-existing range maps, and found that, despite concerns about how the areas had been set up, they did a really good job of covering the ranges of species unique to East Africa. The research also suggested some places new protected areas could potentially be set up.

Although the study is encouraging, it only looked at one aspect of the effectiveness of protected areas. Key issues like poaching and park management were not considered. In addition, the research did not discuss the unique land needs of the animals which inhabit the protected areas. According to Douglas Kelt, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at UC Davis who was not involved in the project, the paper is a first step in a much larger effort.

“Understanding the extent to which existing protected areas actually protect the diversity of habitat types is a very important first step in understanding how well we are protecting the biodiversity in these habitats,” Kelt said. “A critical second step is “linking” the actual size of protected areas to the real needs of the associated biota.”

Kelt noted that a recent study in Science found that the human pressure at the borders of protected areas cause animals to concentrate in the center which can exacerbate severe droughts by reducing the quality of soil in the area. The study in Science demonstrates that, just because protected areas are doing a good job at keeping humans from expanding into wildlands, does not mean that the protected areas are adequately serving the animals they purport to protect, or that humans are not having a negative influence on animals in those areas. All of those issues warrant further study as researchers scramble to figure out how to best preserve the remaining biodiversity on earth.

Regardless of these limitations, the protected area boundary research provides proof that protected areas can work even in areas of the world with difficult challenges.

Written by: Peter Smith — science@theaggie.org