Amboseli Conservation Program’s five decades of continuous monitoring the Amboseli region shows an astonishing turnaround for wildlife after years of decline. Many species are now more abundant than forty-five years ago, a remarkable contrast to the rapid losses across Africa and around the world.
What explains this small point of light in a gloomy outlook for wildlife? What lessons does Amboseli offer conservation? And how can the success be kept up as the space for wildlife shrinks?
As scientists patch together wildlife counts of the past few decades, a dismal picture emerges. Joseph Ogutu and associates (2016) show wildlife to have declined by over two thirds in Kenya since the late 1970s. Western and colleagues found similar declines in protected areas (Western et al., 2009), and yet other biologists show numbers to have fallen by well over a half across Africa (Caro and Scholte, 2007; Craigie et al., 2010).
Africa’s wildlife losses mirror worldwide trends. The World Wildlife Fund’s distillation of 14,000 populations of 3,700 species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles have slumped by nearly sixty percent in forty years (WWF 2016). The causes? Over-harvesting, land and habitat loss, ecosystem degradation and climate change.
In our ACP counts of the eastern Kajiado’s former pastoral lands north and south of Amboseli we find the same picture. Here, where migratory populations of wildebeest, zebra, elephants, giraffe and eland spread from the slopes of Kilimanjaro to the Mombasa Road in the early 1970s, the herds have all but vanished. Amboseli stands alone as the only ecosystem in Kenya to have sustained its wildlife numbers since the 1970s. More remarkably, the numbers of two threatened species, the elephant and giraffe, have grown.
Let’s take a closer look at the Amboseli record and the cause of its conservation success.
The causes of wildlife declines in eastern Kajiado as in Kenya generally include population growth, land pressures, sedentarization, pasture degradation, poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and drought (Western et al. 2009a, Ogutu et al. 2014, Okello et al. 2016). Of the many threats, by far the gravest is subdivision and settlement.
The impact of privatization and burgeoning permanent settlements on wildlife in the formerly open pastoral lands is well documented after the subdivision of the Kaputei Group Ranches north of Amboseli. Here, wildlife declined sharply from 1970 to 2005 following land subdivision (Western et al. 2009a). In stark contrast, wildlife increased on the adjacent open lands of Mbirikani Group Ranch (see figure below). The losses on the privatized Kaputei ranches arose from displacement by closely spaced settlements and pasture losses due to heavy year-round grazing (Groom and Western 2013). Aerial counts we’ve conducted since 2005 show wildlife declining faster still on Kaputei and Mbirikani rebounding strongly after the severe drought of 2009.
A closer look at the two of Africa’s threatened species, the elephant and giraffe, highlights the success of Amboseli—and the formidable hurdles in keeping the migratory lands open as the migratory lands become privatized.
Africa’s elephant population fell from over 1.2 million in 1970 to under 600,000 in 1989 when a world-wide ban on ivory took effect. After a brief recovery, a second surge in poaching followed the reopening of the ivory trade in 2008, causing numbers to fall to some 450,000 Africa-wide. The following illustrations tell the story of the impact of heavy poaching in the 1970s on the numbers and spread of Amboseli elephants, and the strong recovery once community-based conservation kicked in after 1977.
The success of Amboseli is now threatened by the same land subdivision and settlement forces closing off land and displacing wildlife across the pastoral lands. Ololorashi Ogulului Group Ranch, which spans most of the migration range of Amboseli’s wildlife, is currently subdividing the land into individual holdings. Selengei and Mbirikani Group Ranches are following suit.
If subdivision follows the Kaputei route of permanent settlements on each allotment, the future of wildlife and pastoral herds is bleak. If on the other hand Ololorashi Ogulului carries out its land use plan to keep the pastoral lands open and set up a land trust for its members, it could sustain the a healthy population of livestock and wildlife as it has done for millennia.
This report summarizes the extensive findings of the long-term ACP monitoring report which underpinned the Amboseli Ecosystem Management Plan. Fuller reports have been submitted for publication in international journals. The most important conclusion is that space, mobility, and supportive communities are vital to conserving wildlife populations.
- Caro, T., and P. Scholte. 2007. When protection falters. African Journal of Ecology 45:233–235.
- Craigie, I. D., J. E. M. Baillie, A. Balmford, C. Carbone, B. Collen, R. E. Green, and J. M. Hutton. 2010. Large mammal population declines in Africa’s protected areas. Biological conservation 143:2221–2228.
- Groom, R. J., and D. Western. 2013. Impact of land subdivision and sedentarization on wildlife in kenya’s southern rangelands. Rangeland Ecology and Management 66:1–9.
- Ogutu, J. O., H.-P. Piepho, M. Y. Said, and S. C. Kifugo. 2014. Herbivore dynamics and range contraction in Kajiado County Kenya: climate and land use changes, population pressures, governance, policy and human-wildlife conflicts. The Open Ecology Journal 7.
- Ogutu, J. O., H.-P. Piepho, M. Y. Said, G. O. Ojwang, L. W. Njino, S. C. Kifugo, and P. W. Wargute. 2016. Extreme wildlife declines and concurrent increase in livestock numbers in Kenya: What are the causes? PloS one 11:e0163249.
- Okello, M. M., L. Kenana, H. Maliti, J. W. Kiringe, E. Kanga, F. Warinwa, S. Bakari, S. Ndambuki, E. Massawe, and N. Sitati. 2016. Population density of elephants and other key large herbivores in the Amboseli ecosystem of Kenya in relation to droughts. Journal of Arid Environments 135:64–74.
- Western, D. 1994. Ecosystem conservation and rural development: the case of Amboseli. Page in D. Western, R. M. Wright, and S. C. Strum, editors. Natural connections: perspectives in community-based conservation. Island Press, Washington, DC.
- Western, D., R. Groom, and J. Worden. 2009a. The impact of subdivision and sedentarization of pastoral lands on wildlife in an African savanna ecosystem. Biological Conservation 142:2538–2546.
- Western, D., S. Russell, and I. Cuthill. 2009b. The status of wildlife in protected areas compared to non-protected areas of Kenya. PloS one 4.
- WWF. 2016. Living Planet Report 2016. Risk and resilience in a new era. Page World Wide Fund for Nature: Gland, Switzerland.