The Serengeti ecosystem extends into surrounding farms, villages, and towns. Ultimately, people and wildlife share this extended ecosystem and their fates are intertwined.
Poverty, the ultimate threat to the Serengeti
Tourism brings jobs and income, yet most people living around the Serengeti get little share of these benefits. In fact, people bear much of the costs due to human-wildlife conflict in the form of destoyed crops, livestock and even human life.
Without improved welfare from wildlife conservation, local communities cannot be expected to be good stewards of their land nor respect boundaries that separate them from wildlife. Resistance, poaching, and encroachment will be the result.
There needs to be improved health care, education, water supply, agricultural and livestock practices, compensation for damage by wildlife, job opportunities, and opportunities for women.
In the end, socio-economic factors within East Africa will decide the Serengeti’s fate. Without addressing social, economic, educational, health issues, all other efforts will be for naught.
One huge obstacle to improving human welfare is the high rate of human population growth.
Tanzania’s population is on track to more than double by mid-century, from 57 million people in 2017 to 137 million in 2050. At this rate, it will reach nearly 300 million by 2100.
Population growth rates around the Serengeti are the highest in Tanzania. The Mara District, adjacent to the park on the western side, has the highest fertility rate in the country (5.9), followed by Shinyanga District to the south of the Serengeti (5.6).
Population density maps for Tanzania showing increase in density around the Serengeti. Top 2016 . Bottom 2050. (Amy Haak)
In the western Serengeti there were 600,000 people in 2010. This may be over 900,000 by 2050. Around the Masai Mara in Kenya, population is set to quadruple by 2033, in just fourteen years! One Maasai leader states that without urgent intervention it is “the end of the world as we know it.” Because of human-wildlife conflict in this area, fencing is fragmenting a once open rangeland.
How can development keep up? How can protected areas like the Serengeti survive such an onslaught of human presence and basic needs?
Population growth means more agricultural land, more livestock, overcrowding and stress on rangeland, more demand for water, roads, schools, and medical facilities.
It means more human-wildlife conflict, compensation for damage to crops and lives, invasive species, and poaching.
It means more demands for fencing, as is happening around the Masai Mara reserve. A recent study of this is entitled, “Fencing bodes a rapid collapse of the unique Greater Mara ecosystem.”
“Most of the area outside the [Serengeti] has been lost to cultivation, and a large proportion of the area inside the Park has been significantly altered by poaching. Some 40% of the natural ecosystem has been lost. This has occurred through the expansion of the human population. Today, there is no sign this loss is abating and it may be accelerating.”
– Anthony R. E. Sinclair, Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia
We can project how many wildebeest and other animals might be killed when human population doubles. Researchers state that “wildebeest offtake cannot remain sustainable if communities continue to grow at an exponential rate and the per capita demand for bush meat remains at the current level.” At the current rate, poaching would go from a low estimate of 100,000 to 200,000 wildebeest per year by mid-century. Other wildlife face a similar fate, including lions.
“If the Tanzanian population does reach 160 million people in the next few decades, as predicted, I don’t see much hope for the conservation of many of the large habitats we see for the African lion today, unless there is an enormous change in attitudes.”
–Craig Packer, Lion expert in National Geographic