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Sunday, May 23, 2010

An Idea in Turmoil: Thoughts on the Future of National Parks and Game Reserves in East Africa

The national park idea was developed in the late 19th century in North America and was exported and applied to natural landscapes of Africa by the colonists. History reminds us that ideas and the institutions that they spawn become outmoded and inconsistent with contemporary realities. Crisis and senescence are not too strong words to use to describe the plight of national park and reserve systems in East Africa.

It is nearly 100 years since the national park and reserve system was introduced in East Africa to save beast from man. But today, the national park system, just like the biodiversity conservations goals that it seeks to promote, faces profound and hitherto unanticipated challenges. The notion of national parks as exclusive and pristine ecosystem assemblages, managed for posterity, is under intense challenge by recent advances in ecosystems ecology and systems resilience.

The cutting-edge ecological understanding and management policies of the 1900s are no longer tenable. Ecological understanding has moved on but park centric conservation practice is standing still. I know few ecologist who still believe that in the absence it human disturbance, natural ecological processes will lead inevitably to ecological balance. Anthropogenic climate change and habitat loss through fragmentation as well as land degradation have profoundly modified the rules that govern ecosystems response characteristics.

A study by Ogutu and others published in the Journal of Zoology in 2008 showed that abundance of six major ungulates in the Maasai Mara National Reserves declined markedly and persistently between 1989 and 2003. Ecologists believe that these declines in wildlife populations are attributable to habitat deterioration owing to recurrent droughts, increasing human population and changing land use in pastoral lands contiguous to the reserve.

Similar patterns of decline have been reported by Kenya Wildlife Services in Amboseli National Park. In 2007, there were an estimated 10,000 zebras. Early this year, only 982 Zebra were counted. Similarly in 2007, there were 7,100 wildebeests compared to 143 recorded in 2010. This massive die-off left lions without prey. In response to this unprecedented decimation of large ungulates, Kenya Wildlife Service relocated 7,000 Zebra and Wildebeest to Amboseli National Park in an attempt restore the predator–prey balance. This relocation was estimated to $1.3 million dollars.

But despite growing evidence that the concept and practice of parks and reserves is problematic, national conservation agencies are still stuck with the doctrine of preservation. For instance, the Kenya Wildlife Service states that it is “responsible for preserving ecosystems and biodiversity and ensuring that these resources remain in optimum condition for the multiple activities the government and local people demand of them”.

According to the Tanzania National Parks Policy, the purpose of national parks is to “preserve areas possessing exceptional value or quality illustrating natural resources to ensure that they retain a high degree of integrity as true, natural and unspoiled examples of a resource”. But many of Tanzania’s national parks and reserves, especially in the north, are becoming increasingly insulated due to human settlement, agricultural cultivation, and the active elimination of wildlife on lands adjacent to the parks. Recent studies have shown that insularization of the national parks and reserves has been an important contributory factor in large mammals extinctions in six northern Tanzania parks over the last 35-83 years.

Uganda’s species conservation and management objective is to promote and maintain viable and representative wildlife populations both within and outside protected areas. According to figures published in the Uganda Wildlife Policy of 1999, between 1960 and 1998, Uganda lost 97% of its Elephants, 85% of its Impala, 57% of its Buffalo and 57% of its very own Uganda Kob.

The evidence that national parks and reserves are no longer an effective means for maintenance of viable populations of wildlife is compelling. But why is the attitude of preservation of wildlife and unimpaired nature through national parks and reserves so entrenched in the mission of wildlife and conservation authorities in East Africa?

At the time of their establishment by the colonists, parks were seen as primarily as “vignettes of primitive Africa”. The traditional mission of national parks and reserves–“to preserve wildness, and as much as possible of the rich biological and cultural heritage of this planet, in a manner that will allow for the sustained, respectful, and non-consumptive enjoyment of these resources by the present and future generations”–is problematic and largely unattainable in the context of contemporary in East Africa.

The mission of the present-day park and reserve systems is a “dinosaur” that faces imminent extinction. This extinction is driven largely by the destabilizing change in landscapes and ecosystems as a result of the complex, uncertain and nonlinear dynamics of human population growth patterns around parks and reserves, habitat degradation, habitat fragmentation and climate change. To preserve wildness as much as possible has become mission impossible.

I propose a new approach for the management of parks and reserves in East Africa. In this approach, the mission of parks and reserves in the 21st century would be to perpetuate as much of the remnant landscapes and wildlife as possible. Key to achieving this mission will be the concept of resilience. The goal would be to manage for parks and reserves for resilience. In this context, resilience is defined as the capacity of a system (park or reserve) to absorb disturbance (drought, habitat loss, biodiversity loss, human perturbation) and re-organize while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure and identity.

In a planet increasingly under assault from human transformation, the role of conservation of biodiversity is critical as insurance to enable resilient ecosystems through sustained flow of ecosystems goods and services to society. But parks and reserves in their current configuration are unlikely allies in a management for resilience paradigm. Under a resilience paradigm, wildlife authorities would have to migrate mentally, from a mindset of static, invariant wilderness in which everything must be saved and embrace uncertainty, complexity and the fact that disturbance, natural or anthropogenic, is inevitable.

I argue here that there is need for a paradigm shift toward networks of dynamic ecosystems in the design and management of parks and reserves. This shift is fundamental if the goal of long-term conservation of biodiversity in a rapidly changing world is to be achieved. I propose the development of a network of interconnected parks and reserves to be used in sustainable management of and biodiversity at the landscape level.

Connecting the parks and reserves of northern Tanzania with the parks and reserves of south eastern Kenya would be an excellent place to start. The objective of the network of parks and reserves is to maintain optimum diversity and ecological within and among functional groups to secure biodiversity as well as enable re-organization and adaptive learning after disturbance.

Can the “dinosaur” mission of national parks and reserves evolve successfully in a world where nearly all of their founding scientific assumptions have been proven wrong? The answer to this question will be found in the ability of conservation practitioners to embrace the concept of resilience while at the same time convincing the public and preservation lobbyists that managing parks and reserves for resilience has long-term socio-ecological value.


  1. Very thoughtful recommendations. any scientific proof that the concept of resilience can work? In theory it is very impressive i must admit.
    What are your thoughts on the introduction of trophy hunting in Uganda?
    Thank you
    Dr. B. Muballe FCOrtho(SA)
    Chairman BoT Uganda wildlife Authority

  2. Thanks for visiting my blog and sharing your ideas. We see resilience every day in our lives and in our communities. We just do not call it that. We are always coping with situations and we constantly re-shaped and by our experiences, especially the not so good ones. An easy to understand case is our collective resilience to the global financial crises. Governments have responded by stimulus spending. But the financial institutions have designed new systems as an adaptive strategy to the past turmoil. The bigger question I think is can we design system resilience rather than react after the fact?

    And yes, trophy hunting can be introduced for species that have viable populations. Hunters in this case will be "predators". But we have to be sure that we understand the natural predation pressures around the animal we want to hunt for trophy.



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