Kenyan elephants risk a slow extinction in a bleak, ever-shrinking “ecological island” in one of the country’s most picturesque and photographed landscapes, according to a government report.
The animals face a grim future as habitat loss is exacerbated by the pandemic’s impact on tourism, which is pushing landowners to sell off areas for development, and a growing trend towards a sedentary lifestyle among the pastoralist Maasai people, says the new 10-year management plan.
Increased and unregulated grazing in the Amboseli national park is destroying plant and animal diversity, aggravating conflicts between humans and wildlife and intensifying the negative effects of climate crisis with flooding and drought.
If nothing is done urgently to secure the ecosystem, the report says, the park risks becoming an “ecological island”, confining the 1,800 elephants that live there into a tight circle of five animals to each square kilometre as opposed to their basic survival threshold of one elephant to every square kilometre.
Amboseli includes the 39,200 hectare national park – one of the most photographed landscapes in Africa, where elephants and other wildlife are framed by the backdrop of Kilimanjaro – and seven group ranches belonging to the Maasai community that cover 506,329 hectares.
It is the constant subdivision of this land into smaller parcels and their possible change of use into commercial ventures that conservationists fear will lead to loss of wildlife dispersal areas and close corridors used by animals to visit adjacent conservation areas, such as Tsavo and Kilimanjaro.
“Isolation of the park from the rest of the ecosystem would have adverse impacts on wildlife populations and tourism in the area. If the park is isolated, there would be less wildlife species diversity, which would necessitate a reduction of elephant numbers, while 15% biomass potential of wildlife in the ranches could be lost,” says the management plan.
It is not just the elephants that face imminent danger. Four other inhabitants of Amboseli: the Maasai giraffe, lion, cheetah and hippo are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. Amboseli is also one of the 62 important bird areas (IBAs) in Kenya and a member of Unesco’s global network of biosphere reserves. Of the 503 bird species recorded in the park, 17 are on IUCN’s Red List.
According to the management plan, elephants in Amboseli act to balance the larger ecosystem, boosting the survival of diverse species. For example, the elephants have traditionally used a southern corridor to connect with others on the northern slopes of Kilimanjaro. But it is closing fast as commercial farming increases, with the report warning of “imminent extinction of species”.
“Connecting Amboseli national park and Kilimanjaro forest on the Tanzanian side is a narrow strip of land, the Kitenden Corridor, which allows wildlife movement, and particularly elephant movement, between the two protected areas. The Amboseli populations may act as an important gene pool, particularly for the small population of eland in the moorland and alpine zones of Kilimanjaro, which might be prone to natural extinction if passage through the corridor is blocked,” says the plan.
Jackson Mwato is the executive director of the Amboseli Ecosystem Trust, an umbrella body which is championing the cause of more than 27,000 landowners, but with an eye on sustainability. In February, Mwato brought together conservation officials and landowners to discuss the development of an action plan, a measure they hope will lead to the survival of the wildlife animals and improve Maasai livelihoods.