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The great wildebeest migration under multiple threats

 MAASAI MARA (KENYA), Sept 1 - The great wildebeest migration from Serengeti (Tanzania) to Maasai Mara (Kenya) that sees the herbivores in their millions undertake a perilous journey in search of water and pasture is under increasing and multiple threats – not the least those stemming from climate change.

The scientific community is of the opinion that while a booming human population in East Africa and the consequent pressures of development eating into vital wildlife habitats constitutes a big challenge to the annual ritual, no less threatening are the intense and growing variations in rainfall patterns, floods and droughts.

After it had peaked a historic high of 1.5 million a decade ago, the wildebeest herd has now been down to 1.2 million. Scientists believe that aside factors such as deforestation and poaching, climatic changes vis-à-vis rainfall are also having a bearing on the fall in wildebeest numbers.

“The great migration that chiefly comprises wildebeests besides zebras and gazelles is the world’s biggest and most exciting wildlife spectacle. Tourists flock to the Maasai Mara to view what is also regarded as among the seven modern wonders of the world. While the migrating wildebeests still number well over a million, scientists are worried that habitat destruction and fragmentation besides climate change-induced floods and droughts are posing a long-term threat to the animal’s well-being,” Pamela Wanjugu, a Nairobi-based eco-tourism consultant, said. This year, the wildebeest migration kicked off earlier than normal – something conservationists and scientists are attributing to change in weather patterns.

While the wildebeest migration normally begins by mid-June and continues to August, this year, the animals started their long trek at the end of May. A similar phenomenon was witnessed six years ago when the herbivores started migrating from late May.

According to a Kenya Wildlife Service official, heavy rains in Tanzania – a possible result of climatic alterations – besides depletion of resources in one area could have triggered an early wildebeest migration.

The wildebeest, also called gnus, move from Tanzania to Kenya in mid-June for fodder and in September they move back from Kenya to Tanzania to breed.

Most of the migration occurs within the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem comprising national parks, reserves, and private and community conservation areas sprawling over some 25,000 sq km in Tanzania and Kenya.

“Wildebeests play a key role in shaping the ecosystem as they move. They crop grass and fertilize the land with their droppings. They also fall prey in large numbers to predators such as lions, crocodiles, cheetahs, hyenas, etc., that helps maintain the ecosystem,” he said.

According to a recent scientific study that appeared in the journal Science, growing human activities along the boundaries of wildlife reserves was adversely impacting plants, animals, and soils.

“There is an urgent need to rethink how we manage the boundaries of protected areas to be able to conserve biodiversity. The future of the world’s most iconic protected area and their associated human population may depend on it,” says lead author Michiel Veldhuis, from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in the report.

The study, which is the result of research on 40 years of data, discovered that some boundary areas have seen a 400 per cent increase in human population over the past decade, while larger wildlife species populations in key areas (the Kenyan side) fell more than 75 per cent.

The study reveals how population growth and an influx of livestock in the buffer zones of the parks has constricted the area available for migration of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles, causing them to spend more time grazing less nutritious grasses than they did in the past.

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