Protected areas in East Africa flourishing

Said Masudi, chairman of Tunduru WMA, surveys the landscape
Copyright: James Morgan/Panos

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  • Most of East Africa’s protected areas have not been lost to agriculture, says a study
  • But the study study did not consider damage resulting from human activities such as poaching
  • Expert urges local communities to be more involved in species protection and conservation

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East Africa’s protected areas are largely successful at preserving important habitats, with nearly seven per cent turned into agricultural land, a study has shown.

Protected areas, locations in which human activities are strictly controlled to allow endangered species to prosper, are a boon for local communities as they generate tourism income and help preserve ecologically important species. But as human population rises, agriculture and livestock farming begin to intrude on protected land, experts say.

The study which was conducted by US-based researchers demonstrated that since 2001, protected areas in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have held fast, and are expanding in some regions.

Only Burundi lost around 16 per cent of protected areas to farming while in all other countries the amount was very small.

Strict and other protected areas in East Africa Strict and other protected areas in East Africa (Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda)

“East Africa has done a remarkable job at establishing and maintaining a globally significant network of protected areas,” says Jason Riggio, the lead author and a conservationist at the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis, adding that the region exceeds the minimum target of 10 per cent set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Researchers analysed satellite data covering more than 200 protected areas in East Africa. They also checked local species range and prevalence, and how this changed since 2001.

According to the study which was published early this month (4 March) in Global Ecology and Conservation, protected areas cover nearly 30 per cent of East Africa’s terrestrial area. Tanzania has the greatest proportion of protected areas.

The percentage of terrestrial area in East Africa covered by protected areas 

“Encouragingly, we find that only about seven per cent of East African protected areas have been converted to agriculture or other human use since gazettement,” the study adds.

But Riggio tells SciDev.Net that the study did not take into account damage resulting from human activities such as poaching, livestock farming and illegal logging.

Joseph Ogutu, a statistician at the Institute of Crop Science at the University of Hohenheim, Germany, says that protected areas are relevant to biodiversity.  

“Without protection, wildlife species are exposed to strong competition with livestock for space, forage and water,” he says. “There may be some species that become more abundant in cultivated areas. But these are typically generalists [such as] small mammals or birds.”

Ogutu says that the number of sheep and goats that grazed in Kenya alone increased by 76 per cent between 1977 and 2016.

“East Africa has done a remarkable job at establishing and maintaining a globally significant network of protected areas.”

Jason Riggio, University of California, Davis

Another issue identified by the study is that protected areas rarely cover a significant range for the species they seek to protect. Only a quarter of all endemic species in East Africa had at least a half of their range — the territory in which they exist — protected, the study found. Nearly 40 per cent of species only have protection for less than ten per cent of their ranges.

But Riggio says that range alone does not necessarily determine a species’ wellbeing and survival. “There is no one-size-fits-all rule for how much coverage by protected areas is necessary for their persistence,” Riggio explains. “Some species survive quite well in the face of human impacts, while others require large unmodified tracts of natural habitat to survive.”

Ogutu agrees, saying that rather than shutting off small tracts of land, local communities should be involved in species protection and conservation. In Kenya, he says, efforts are underway to pool parcels of land and pay private and communal owners rent to help them conserve species there.

“Local communities also get other benefits from the conservancies, including jobs such as hotel managers and conservancy rangers,” Ogutu tells SciDev.Net. “The main challenge is generating sufficient revenue to sustain the payment of [such] land rents.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


Jason Riggio and others How effective are the protected areas of East Africa? (Global Ecology and Conservation, 4 March 2019)