On a recent busy visit to Kenya, John and Margaret Cooper visited a number of locations where there is competition for land and where wildlife – and local people – may suffer as an outcome.
One of these was particularly noteworthy. This was a short, 48-hour, trip to Maasailand, a few kilometres outside Kajiado, where the Coopers stayed on a farm with American friends who have lived in Kenya since the 1960s . The location is beautiful, with breath-taking views from the hills across apparently untouched Maasailand savannah, from the Athi Plains in the north to the Tanzanian border in the south. Cattle, sheep and goats co-exist with humans and wildlife although, in the drought conditions being experienced when the Coopers were there earlier this year, gazelles and other species were often not immediately visible.
The Coopers survey the terrain from the top of their hosts’ four-wheel drive vehicle
Maasailand is named after the Maasai who live in Kenya and Tanzania along the border of the two countries. They speak Maa, a Nilotic ethnic language and despite western cultural influences have largely clung to their traditional way of life, including nomadism and, generally, a respect for wildlife.
Kenya Maasailand is not, however, as peaceful or unchanged as it appears. In recent years it has changed rapidly from what was once an ecosystem teeming with diverse resident and migrating wildlife to a region that faces diverse problems. In particular, there are major changes in the use of the land as a result of approaching urbanisation and population growth. To the north of Kajiado near to Nairobi, individuals and companies have purchased land that was once a critical habitat for animals and an important area for grazing by nomadic people. The situation has been exacerbated by the construction of new roads and the erection in some places of fences. The new railway line, being built by the Chinese, presents a fresh challenge, as do plans to establish a wind farm near to a nesting site of vultures – birds that are already declining drastically in Africa.
So what is the actual impact of this “development” on wildlife?
Zebra manage to look plump and to feed, even in very dry areas
The main effect on large mammals has been much reduced access to pasture and drinking water. Animals’ traditional migratory pathways have been blocked completely or in part by fences, roads and buildings. For instance, zebra and wildebeest are now severely hampered in their attempts to move between Nairobi National Park (their dry season range) and the Athi-Kaputiei Plains (their wet season breeding and feeding grounds).
Recently published surveys of the Kajiado region have indicated significant declines in numbers of large mammals in recent years. Between 1977 and 2014 the number of Thomson’s gazelles declined by over 70%, impala by more than 86% and Grant’s gazelle, hartebeest, eland and giraffe by at least 64%. Wildebeest have been the most adversely affected, with a drop in actual numbers of animals from almost 30,000 in 1978 to around 509 in 2014. Only a few elephants survive.
Inevitably, poachers who hunt wildlife for bushmeat have capitalised on the situation. There are numerous reports of widespread illegal killing of wildlife, especially of wildebeest.
While these wild animal populations decline, attacks on livestock (cattle, sheep, goats) by hungry lions and other carnivores are increasing. As a result these carnivores too are facing persecution by farmers. They are also liable to be killed by fast traffic on the newly renovated road to Namanga and Tanzania.
Wildlife are, increasingly, killed on the roads. This is a rare striped hyaena
Maasailand remains a stunning landscape in which one can relax and quickly forget the busy world elsewhere. It is still of great significance in terms of biodiversity, geography and anthropology. However, it now faces problems that need to be resolved if it is to retain such a status and reputation and if the Maasai people are to be allowed to adhere to some, at least, of their traditional practices. The pressures in Kenya of overpopulation, social unrest and corruption are now, alas, making their mark on “the cradle of mankind”.
Many of Maxwell’s Knight’s fears and forebodings five decades ago are beginning to be realised – not just in the fields and hedgerows of England but also in the tropical bush of East Africa.
“……. no one in his right senses could even begin to think of anything so terrible and fantastic as the virtual disappearance of living things from the face of the earth or the ocean deeps”
Maxwell Knight. The Frightened Face of Nature
By John (JEC) and Margaret Cooper (MEC) – the Coopers
Photographs courtesy of Margaret Cooper
JEC/MEC April 2017