Long-term declines of elephants, giraffes and other animals in Kenya are occurring at the same rates inside the country’s national parks as outside of these protected areas.

Biologist David Western says, “This is the first time we’ve taken a good look at a national park system in one country, relative to all of the wildlife populations across the whole country. And we found that wildlife populations inside and outside of the parks are declining at much the same rate. What we’re now beginning to understand is that the pressures around the parks are also affecting the wildlife in the parks.”

Many of Kenya’s 23 national park and 26 national reserve boundaries do not take into account the seasonal migrations of animals. So when land surrounding the parks is allowed to be developed for agriculture and other uses, migratory routes and important sources of food for wildlife are destroyed. “Parks in Kenya were set aside in areas where people saw large aggregations of animals and typically these were the areas where animals congregated during the dry seasons,” says Western. “They ignored seasonal migrations because people didn’t know where these animals migrated to, in many cases.”

To protect elephants and other endangered species from poachers, the national parks confined these animals within park boundaries. But the researchers found that this practice over time has changed the ecology of many Kenyan parks.”Elephants need a lot of space,” Western says. “They move around. But now that they have been limited to smaller areas, they’re taking out the woody vegetation and reducing the overall biodiversity in the national parks. We’re seeing throughout our parks in Kenya a change from woody habitats to grassland habitats. As a result, we’re losing the species that thrive in woody areas, such as giraffes.”

Another reason for declines in some species, such as elephants, has been the antagonism created by the parks within surrounding communities. Forced to settle in land outside the parks, some local tribes view the parks as threats to their survival. “What happens is that wildlife now becomes a threat to their agriculture and their pastoral way of life,” Western says. “So they willingly invite poachers to get rid of the wildlife.”

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