Migratory animals across the world are under threat from the impact of humans. In Kenya, fencing, settlements, farms and other developments are cutting off migratory routes and reducing wildebeest’s territory. The number of wildebeest migrating into the Mara has dropped by 73% since the mid-1970s. In some parts of east Africa, migration routes have collapsed entirely. The great migration faces extinction unless we act now.

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What is happening to the wildebeest?

Our study looked at the number of wildebeest in the Serengeti/Mara ecosystem and in other parts of east Africa, using aerial surveys.

We found that the number of wildebeest migrating to the Mara during the dry season has fallen by nearly 73% since 1977 (when data collection began). Those that do enter Kenya are spending less time in the Mara than they used to.

The northern wildebeest migration between Mara and Loita saw 124,000 animals migrating when monitoring began in 1977, but now that is less than 20,000 — a fall of 81%.

I travelled to the region recently and spent ten days researching and taking photos. What one sees in the Mara-Loita region are a very large number of fences and segmented private land. In many places, there are fences are on both sides of the road and animals can travel for many kilometres without finding a way out. I saw lots of wildebeest carcasses, with some trapped in fences.

Fencing, coupled with the expansion of small towns and the intensity of land use by the Masai as they become more sedentary, is blocking migratory paths and making the wildebeest migration more difficult. This is reducing the number of migrating animals as they become resident in conservancies. But there’s another problem.

The impact of fencing and villages on the migration

The Masai in the region used to move around more, being semi-nomadic. Because of this, there was time for the grass to recover from their grazing animals. Today, the Masai are resident in the area but still aspire to keep as many livestock as they can. Our research shows that the number of sheep and goats in the Mara has increased by 276% since the 1970s. These animals graze very close to the ground, and the competition for food is displacing the migrating herds of wildebeest.

The knock-on effect of this is that it increases the sensitivity of the wildebeest to droughts. A drought they might have been able to cope with previously now has a stronger impact. For example, 1993 saw a drought in which 300,000 wildebeest died. More than 75% of the region’s buffalo perished. Because of the high density of livestock and fencing, the recovery period for the animals is much longer. The buffalo population hasn’t recovered to even three-quarters of the 1993 level — more than 25 years later. It is taking a long time.

If we remove fences, the wildebeest could resume the migration. The Serengeti/Mara migration collapsed in the 1890s when the cattle plague pandemic hit Africa. Nearly 90% of the region’s wildebeest perished and it wasn’t until 1962 when a vaccine was created that the migration fully resumed. There was half a century when there was no migration, but then it resumed. When the wildebeest numbers are many, the reasons for migration - food and water - remain. If they can move through the parks, they will migrate. But, if their numbers become too few, they will stop.

When the government of Kenya allowed land privatisation in the Mara, that was the beginning of the problem. When people have private land, the sense of possession leads to fencing. In many instances, people aren’t even fencing their livestock in. They are fencing them out. Everybody thinks there isn’t enough grass for their personal livestock in the dry season, so they fence their land and let their livestock graze outside in open spaces until the difficult time of the dry season when they bring them in.

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How to save the migration from extinction

We need to create a recovery plan and enforce it. We should create separate spaces for settlements, for livestock and for wildlife. Currently, there are towns at every entrance gate to the Mara — and they are expanding fast. This blocks the movement of wildlife and puts pressure on the system.

We also need to have more control over the number of livestock farmers can have and better protect the Mara’s habitat, such as stopping the clearing of vegetation for settlements. In areas where the habitat has been destroyed, we should try to repopulate it.

We also need to stop uncontrolled development in tourist areas. Too many lodges will impact on migratory routes, so it’s important we regulate tourism. Having said that, if people benefit from the wildlife, they’re less likely to build fences. We know that the areas that do not have wildlife conservancies have more fencing. The potential for tourism is high.

This is not just about the Mara. Ecosystems are being lost. It’s time for us to act.

The great migration faces extinction

By Dr Joseph Ogutu

Joseph is a bio-statistician currently based at the Institute of Crop Science in the University of Hohenheim. His research focuses on understanding the decline in the wildlife population of Kenya.

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