Early Warning in Amboseli: It's going to be a 'bad' year.

Thu, 2008-06-19 07:08 by hcroze · Forum/category:

Cattle in park

Human-wildlife conflict is increasing everywhere: human populations burgeon; land use changes erode natural ecosystems. Conflict escalates when sporadic natural events dramatically reduce the availability of food and water for people and animals alike. Long term monitoring and ecosystem surveillance by the Amboseli Elephant Research Project provides early warning of impending natural deficits and alert us to the need for short-term responses to defuse clashes. 2007-08 is likely to be a bad year in Amboseli.

What's a 'bad' year?

Harvey Croze, Soila Sayialel and Keith Lindsay reply …

A year with inadequate rainfall to get people, wildlife and livestock through the long dry season (May-October).

Amboseli only has on average some 330 mm (13 inches) of rain per year. And it can only support the magnificent array of wildlife and Maasai stock because of the additional input of water and food from the swamps that are fed by the water percolating from the Kilimanjaro forests.

If rainfall is poor, cattle and wildlife converge on dwindling water and forage resources, and conflict ensues: cattle and goats get killed; elephants and lions get speared.

2007-08 rain
2007-08 Amboseli rainfall

What's happening this year?

Too little, too late.

From the first graph, we can see that rainfall every month since the middle of last year (except December and March) has been well below average. The second graph shows that there's a cumulative deficit this year (yellow) compared to the 41-year average (blue). Even with the March 'pulse' of rain, this year is comparable to three other years ('83-84, '96-97, 99-00) in which rainfall was poor and there were increased incidents of elephants being speared or livestock getting injured when they bump into elephants at waterholes.

How bad is this year?

Apart from the good, but short-lived, rainfall in March, it is close to a disaster.

Cumulative comparison
Cumulative rainfall for selected 'bad' years

We can fine-tune the analysis using our long term data and derive a Forage Abundance Index, which is a measure of the amount of annual plant production (based on rainfall) combined with the length of the long dry season: see the bar graph which shows the FAI since 1973, with orange/brown bars indicating years with values well below the long term average. The FAI gives an indication of drought severity and thus provides an early warning of forage shortage.

Forage Abundance Index
Forage Abundance Index since 1973-74

It's possible to predict that 2007-08, with a low rainfall total and virtually no effective rain after March, will be a year with a lower than average forage reserves by the end of the dry season. And obviously, water will be at premium as well. The shortages will make life difficult for both wildlife and livestock, and are very likely to lead to high levels of competition and conflict over dwindling resources throughout August, September and October.

What can be done?

Well, since we cannot make it rain, we have to find ways to show the Maasai community that we are concerned about the plight of their livestock as well as the elephants. We believe we should try to pre-empt conflict and build goodwill by helping the Maasai in key areas with access to water away from the central swamps in the Park. After talking to community leaders, we think the best 'pre-emptive strike' would be to help refurbish some critical silangas.

What are 'silangas'?

Silangas are earthen dams dug by hand or machine across a gradient to capture rain water runoff.

Ole Nanganya's silanga
Ole Nanganya's silanga

Typically a Maasai family or group of families get together and hire a bulldozer and labourers from Tanzania -- non-Maasai tend to be more predisposed to hand labour -- scoop out a pond in the path of a seasonal stream, and perhaps augment the feed with one or two hand-dug ditches into the pond.

What do silangas have to do with elephants?

As the dry season progresses, elephants and other wildlife turn to any sources available. Thornbush exclosures keep zebra out of the silanga, but eles just plow through the fences and earthen walls to get at the water. Apart from compromising the structural integrity of the dam, they drink and reduce the dam's sequestering life for the season.

So the Massai want to get rid of elephants, right?

Actually, no. Take Mzee Ole Nanganya, a much-respected community elder in the candy-striped cloak in the image of community members speaking to Soila. He dug the silanga in the first image. According to him, eles mean no harm, and they have a right to drink and eat as much of the rest of us. He would never cause an elephant to be speared in defense of the silanga, for he feels that the spilled blood would leave a stain of misfortune and bad luck. He says he weeps for a world where there is not room and water enough for Maasai and elephants. One of his peers said when Ole Nanganya speaks, others listen.

And what does Ole Nanganya's say is the answer?

Soila with community
Soila talks to Ole Nanganya (lower left)
and others

He and his peers reckon that if the sides of the silangas were repaired and the surface area enlarged, then there would be more water and perimeter to share with wildlife. The water would also last longer into the dry season, thereby delaying the time when the herds are driven into the park swamps (there is a tacit agreement with KWS that in the worse part of the dry season, the Maasai may take their herds into the edge of the park to drink at high noon).

But doesn't provision of water for wildlife just exacerbate the problem?

To a point. There is good evidence, from South Africa, for example, that providing artificial water reduces dry season mortality, increases impact on local vegetation, and in effect improves survival to increase population size leading to even greater impact in the future. But the silangas are not permanent: they dry up, too, eventually, so that natural negative feedback to population growth can still work to some extent.

What about the people when the drought gets really bad?

Soila's brother, a former Olkeduado County Council member, has secured Community Development Fund and donor money to dig or repair six boreholes in the area. His vision is a combination of permanent clean, reliable water for people and livestock, and seasonal silanga water for both livestock and wildlife. Now, apart from the potential problem of increasing stocking rates on these marginal rangelands, we subscribe to 'buying time' to reduce the period when demand will be on the resources of the park.

Are there longer-term solutions?

Soila is working on them every day. She just wrote from Ol Tukai:

“I keep on getting reports from the community on eles finishing the water in the one silanga belonging to Mr. George Lupempe. What I am trying to do with KWS is make sure that it deploys rangers any time eles decide to drink water during daytime, which is very dangerous to humans and livestock.

“The proper committee to address this water issue is the Conflict Resolution Committee (CRC) where I am a member. We are trying to revive it soon since we have a lot ahead of us. The problem is these committees sometimes are functional or non-functional depending with the senior warden on the ground. But now that we are many wardens so we have the mandate of making decisions.” [Soila and a couple of other community leaders were recently appointed Honourary Wardens for Amboseli, see this note].

At another silanga
Soila, elders and a dust devil at silanga

So how big is the immediate problem, and what's the cost?

Soila has determined that in the region of Lengisim and Olgulului to the north and northwest of the park, there are some ten silangas that have been compromised by elephants and zebra, in particular. The average cost per silanga of renting a bulldozer, buying diesel and hiring the necessary hand labour would be some KES 90,000 (about USD 1,500).

Are there any contributors so far?

The field operations portion of the ATE programme is supported by several generous donors, for example, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the National Geographic Society, and the Born Free Foundation, and several loyal private foundations that have been supporting core monitoring operations through the years. In September 2008, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Division of International Conservation provided ATE with a sizable grant in support of field operations, the Maasai Elephant Scouts and the refurbishing of silangas. Two pilot silangas are now ready: if only it would rain!

If you want to help, please visit our blog at WildlifeDirect, or donate via Click-and-Pledge in the sidebar to the left.

Are there precedents for such assistance?

ATE has run for a number of years a 'Consolation Scheme', wherein we obtain donor money to reimburse to community members for the loss of livestock from elephant attacks outside of the national park. The scheme is extremely well accepted by the community, and it gives Soila a model for managing and extending the concept from livestock to silangas.

What would be the results?

Improving the livelihoods of the local community, delaying or at least reducing the magnitude of the seasonal 'invasion' of cattle into the park, and, last but certainly not least, generating goodwill and enlisting elephant allies in what will certainly be a long dry season.

And, as a bonus, the goodwill generated by this short-term action will certainly extend well beyond this particular ‘bad’ year, and strengthen the partnership between ATE and the local communities in working to achieve Mzee Ole Nanganya’s vision: a world with room for both people and elephants.

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