Technology Breakthroughs in Mapping Soil Health Could Advance Conservation Efforts, Curb Human-Wildlife Conflict

WKU biology graduate student Simon Kasaine surveys damage to crops caused by elephants in Kasigau, Kenya. Kasaine is researching patterns of elephant-human conflict for his master’s thesis. This research is part of a larger program of research in human-wildlife conflict in Africa conducted by WKU and University of Nairobi and funded by the National Science Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Photo by Jake Stevens)
WKU biology graduate student Simon Kasaine surveys damage to crops caused by elephants in Kasigau, Kenya. Kasaine is researching patterns of elephant-human conflict for his master’s thesis. This research is part of a larger program of research in human-wildlife conflict in Africa conducted by WKU and University of Nairobi and funded by the National Science Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Photo by Jake Stevens)

New research on conservation, soil and land status mapping could help save Africa’s rapidly declining wildlife population


The latest satellite technology—originally developed to track and map soil health for Africa’s farmers—has been embraced by agricultural scientists and conservationists in an effort to better manage some of the world’s richest game reserves and protected lands.

The goal, say experts at the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), is to reduce the potential of human-wildlife conflicts by informing land managers—livestock herders and crop farmers alike—where to graze and plant new crops that will increase their productivity, reduce land degradation, and reduce conflicts with wild animals.

“Given the rapid decline in Africa’s wildlife, new technologies, like the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS), are more important than ever. These tools can be repurposed to help land users, governments and conservation groups make better evidence-based decisions on land management as part of everyday policy and practice,” said Tor-Gunnar Vågen, a senior scientist at ICRAF and principal investigator for the soil health mapping component of AfSIS.

A case study of Kenya’s Laikipia district, one of the country’s most diverse wildlife regions, sheds light on the interaction between soil and land health and human-wildlife conflict. Satellite images of the region show a high prevalence of soil erosion on land in Laikipia where the conflict has been rife.

By cross mapping this with other datasets that represent progressions in patterns of agriculture amongst pastoralists, shifting paths of migration taken by wildlife, river direction flow changes and land cover change, conservationists can map out areas where the probability of conflict is high. This means that communities can be more effectively educated on appropriate livestock numbers, settlement rotation and the management of shared grazing pastures.

The recent rise in poaching has brought newfound attention to a crisis that has persisted for decades—the steady decline of Africa’s wildlife due to growing human populations and poverty that has put agricultural communities at odds with wildlife for resources. A global analysis published by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in May 2009 documented loss of wildlife from 1989 and 2003 in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve: as high as 95 percent for giraffes, 80 percent for warthogs, 76 percent for hartebeest, and 67 percent for impala.

In Kenya, conflict between land for wildlife and land for farmers and pastoralists has reached crisis level with rampant killing of lions and elephants among other types of important wildlife. Illegal killing of elephants is currently at the highest levels recorded since the 1970s. While wildlife poaching is often related to the international illegal trade of products such as ivory, there are other social and local factors that also determine poaching levels, including complex interactions among human population growth, changes in socio-economic norms resulting in shifts in livestock composition and densities, inefficient government policies, changes in land tenure, and agricultural expansion.

In a country where tourism makes up US$7.3 billion of Kenya’s GDP, experts predict current levels of poaching and human-wildlife conflict will lead to the near extinction of lions in 15 years and the extinction of elephants in 20 years. Offsetting the tourism revenue is the costs of wildlife to pastoral communities and ranches, which are so high that only properties with supplemental income can afford to tolerate wildlife. For many of the communities in places like the Maasai Mara and around the Laikipia, the main source of income is livestock, which compete with wildlife for grazing lands.

“Livestock and farming do not have to always be in conflict with conservation efforts,” said Vågen. “Our research has implications mainly for understanding some of the underlying and often not so obvious causes of poaching—such as land tenure issues, population growth and land degradation.”

The World Agroforestry Centre has created a monitoring framework for measuring impacts on land health at a landscape scale, the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF), using sites that encompass 10,000 ha each (Vågen and Gumbricht, 2012; Vågen et al., 2012, 2013). In Laikipia, for example, four such sites have been established, covering conservation areas such as the sanctuary at Ol Lentille, in North Laikipia and Isiolo Counties, and group ranches in the county.

Historically, these areas were used for dry-season grazing by nomadic pastoralists, but in recent years, burgeoning population and government development policies have led to increasing permanent settlements in the area.

Wajibu MS, a small private conservation company, in partnership with local communities, has conducted field measurements as part of a holistic rangeland management project in North Laikipia. A key feature of holistic management is the use of livestock to improve degraded and denuded lands, for example, by planned grazing to allow recovery periods for grass growth, rotation of pastoralist settlements for manure management, and removal of unwanted invasive plant species.

A recent study by experts at the Mpala Research Centre and the Wildlife Conservation Society found that both wildlife and landowners in the Laikipia region benefited when land-owners were empowered and incentivized to tolerate wildlife (Kinnaird and O’Brien, 2012). Incentives could include access to ecotourism benefits, agreements to maintain wildlife corridors, restoring degraded rangelands, opportunities for grazing leases, and more.

Vågen points out that such incentive systems on a large scale cannot exist without the proper data or systems in place. “It is time that we work in partnership with conservationists to help both animals and people. With proper management of livestock and agriculture, there is no reason that humans and animals cannot co-exist. We have the tools through these methods to make informed decisions that can help reduce conflicts between humans and wildlife,” he said.

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