National parks failing in Africa

A new study has revealed massive declines in the populations of large mammals since the 1970s.
By Ellin Williams July 19, 2010 Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page

AFRICA’S NATIONAL PARKS ARE failing to protect large animals, including the iconic Big Five – lions, elephants, buffaloes, leopards and rhinos – according new research.

Since the 1970s, large mammal populations inside African national parks have suffered a near 60 per cent decline, say researchers from the UK.

“This study dispels the common myth that once a park has been created that everything inside it is safe,” says lead researcher and conservation scientist Ian Craigie from the University of Cambridge. “It shows that ongoing work and funding is required to protect these parks, and that this has been in short supply.”

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Shocking decline

Ian and coworkers from the Zoological Society of London studied the annual populations of 69 species in 78 protected areas, including the well-known parks in the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania. Parks in Africa attract millions of tourists each year hoping to catch a glimpse of its unique big cats and other big mammals.

The analysis revealed an average decline of almost 60 per cent of key species – including lions, wildebeest, zebras and giraffes –  between 1970 and 2005. Parks in West Africa suffered the greatest losses, with 85 per cent of their populations on the decline. The study was published last week in the journal Biological Conservation.

“The results are surprising because of the extent of the problem – it is not just one or two parks that are struggling but most of them,” Ian says. The severe decline in animal populations in West Africa is the likely result of high rates of habitat degradation, the growing bush meat trade and lack of funding and policing.

“The parks may lose business so that they get less income and are even less able to protect their animals because of budget shortfalls,” Ian says. “This could cause a vicious cycle that is bad for both tourists and conservation.”

Though the news is bad for national parks, “the situation outside parks is undoubtedly worse” Ian says. “Some species like rhino are now virtually extinct outside parks.”

Human-related causes

Peter Clark, associate director of Zoos South Australia, based in Monarto Zoo in Adelaide, believes that national parks are essential but at risk of being “trimmed” by governments. “It is a possibility you’re going to lose wildlife not just through poaching, but when livestock is introduced and the neighbouring people are hunting for food. It’s a worry,” he says.

When the research began in the 1970s, Africa’s black rhino population became an endangered species, Peter says. Despite national park protection, its population was reduced to less than 10 per cent by the mid-1980s largely because human-related activities such as civil unrest, demand for rhino horn and changing governments.

According to Peter, the key to animal protection is encouraging people to work with the land and helping them to understand why conservation is important.

“Nothing is really going to work unless the people are in on it,” Peter says. 

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