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Nature

A Natural Spectacle No More?

How humans are challenging the future of the great wildebeest migrations.

OLEG ZNAMENSKIY / SHUTTERSTOCK

For as long as the history of mankind, vast stretches of the East African savannah have provided a stage for large-scale wildebeest migrations. In one of nature’s most iconic and surviving spectacles — that of the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem migration — more than a million of these ungulates instinctively herd themselves into moving columns, all in search of water, lush short-grass plains and calving grounds.

Due to their size and habits, wildebeests largely shape the ecosystems in which they live and move, making them one of what scientists consider a “keystone species.” But just as the vast herds of zebra and Thomson’s gazelle that once migrated between Kenya’s Lake Nakuru-Elementaita region and Lake Baringo are no more, the wildebeests and their millennia-old migrations are under threat. The cause remains the same: humans. 


Falling numbers and increasing threats

In 2009, conservation biologists Richard D. Estes and the late Rod East released a research paper confirming that wildebeest populations across East Africa are declining drastically. Recent corroborative studies by Kenyan researcher Joseph O. Ogutu and his colleagues found that all four of Kenya’s wildebeest populations are diminishing.

The Athi-Kaputiei ecosystem has witnessed the most extreme change, as fewer than 2,000 migratory wildebeest moved between Nairobi National Park and the Athi-Kaputiei plains in 2011 — a sharp decline from the 30,000 recorded in 1978. In Tanzania, similar studies unearthed an 88-percent drop in the number of wildebeest migrating in the Tarangire-Simanjiro ecosystem between 1988 and 2007. 

In both cases, human activity — notably, settlements and agriculture — blocked or fragmented the migratory corridors and dispersal areas, preventing the animals from reaching water and grass during
dry seasons.

Additionally, an estimated 70,000-129,000 wildebeest are killed for human consumption each year in the Serengeti National Park alone, according to research by Tanzania-based Dr. Dennis Rentsch, a technical advisor for the Frankfurt Zoological Society. Poaching for bush meat in the Maasai Mara National Reserve is likewise said to be at “high intensity” level.

On top of it all, climate change — arguably caused by human activity — continues to deliver more woes to the East African plains, with a combination of severe flooding and droughts that threatens food availability.


A threatened safe haven 

Stretching 25,000 square kilometers wide, the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem is home to the “Great Migration” — the largest movement of wildebeest, once named the seventh New Wonder of the World. Its vastness and self-contained nature somewhat shield its migratory wildebeest from a number of threats that are quickly reducing herds elsewhere, but struggles nonetheless remain.

Five years ago, amid pressure from the global environmentalist community, the Tanzanian government put off plans to build a highway through Serengeti National Park’s northern area. Had these plans lived to materialize, a 600-page environmental impact assessment study estimated that 3,000 vehicles would use the road daily by 2035 — equating to more than a million vehicles per year. With the road, linear settlements would have become inevitable, further fragmenting the land while endangering the migrations.

As of January 2014, work began to upgrade a number of often impassable roads used by villagers living in the communities surrounding the Serengeti. The government pledged that the section across the national park will remain a slower, gravel road, but environmentalists fear this will eventually pave the way for a tarmac highway. The battle between conservation and human development efforts continues.


Humans reacting to human-made problems

Thankfully, African governments and conservationists are beginning to take action to stem further decline and protect the migration spectacles for future generations. Kenya, for example, recently passed more severe anti-poaching laws.

Tanzania is also stepping up its efforts, with the additional recognition that tourist dollars are too important to lose. For example, wildlife conservation programs (financed by donor aid, tour operators, and both Kenyan and Tanzanian governments) are paying landowners in several crucial ecosystems to keep their land open for the animals’ migratory corridors and dispersal areas.

But unless even more is done, the story of the last large-scale animal migration will resemble other doomed migration tales: of the bison that once embellished the plains of North America, the Saiga antelope that once frolicked in Central Asia, and the zebra and gazelle that once moved between Kenya’s lakes.