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Barriers to migration: The negative impact of fences on ungulate populations in Africa 

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The mass migration of ungulates (hooved mammals) around the world is under threat. As the human footprint expands, more and more barriers are introduced to the landscape, blocking traditional migration pathways with devastating effects on ungulate populations. A group of researchers led by Dr Joseph Ogutu from the University of Hohenheim, Germany, explores how the proliferation of fences is creating barriers to migration in Kenya and how this is contributing to declines in both resident and migratory ungulate populations. Using this information, the researchers suggest strategies and interventions that can be used to help these populations recover. 

It’s called Nature’s greatest show, and it’s one of the few natural events that can be described with only two words: Great Migration.

There isn’t anywhere else in the world where you can see such a magnitude of animals on the move, with 1.3 million wildebeest, 400,000 Thomson’s gazelle, 200,000 zebra and 12,000 eland travelling together between the green grass of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the vast plains of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Along the way, there’s drama aplenty, as thousands of animals perish at the hands of cunning predators, such as lions and crocodiles, and thousands are born each year to maintain the circle of life.

The sights and sounds of this migration are heart-stopping, a natural event on a truly epic scale. Every year, the opportunity to see thrilling scenes of wildebeest jumping into dangerous waters or quieter views of vast herds grazing calmly across the plains attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. This region has the most vibrant tourism industry in Kenya and is a source of revenue and employment, not only for the people who live in the region but also for many businesses in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

But these animals provide so much more than just a good photo opportunity. Without these migrations, the environment, and so many of the creatures associated with Africa, would disappear. The huge number of animals trampling stops tree seedlings from growing, which prevents woodlands from invading grasslands and keeps migration routes open. Migrants also transport nutrients, consuming tonnes of grass daily, which is digested and redistributed as they travel. This provides much needed fertiliser for many plant species. In addition, an ever-moving grazing system allows grasses to grow faster after being grazed, increasing forage production for other species. And there are benefits for local communities; indigenous populations use these animals as traditional food sources, as well as their hides for clothing, blankets, and other home furnishings. It’s a win-win for everybody.

Sadly, these migrations are under severe threat. Large fenced areas built to protect livestock and farmland are blocking migratory routes, limiting wildebeest’s range. Since the mid-1970s, Kenya’s wildebeest population has declined by >70%. Most migratory routes have collapsed entirely. This devastation is not unique to Kenya. Across the African continent, populations have declined dramatically in neighbouring Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

Dr Joseph Ogutu, University of Hohenheim, Germany, has been a champion for these animals for many years. He has dedicated much of his career, highlighting how their loss would not only lead to severe biodiversity decline but also endanger tourism and local livelihood opportunities. His team believes that urgent efforts are needed to protect wildebeest migratory paths to ensure these great migrations do not become a distant memory only viewed by the world’s population through the silver screen.

In the team’s view, fences are the enemy of migration and the leading direct and indirect cause of animal death. These structures may have been erected with the best of intentions – to protect crops or to control disease transmission between livestock and wildlife – but soon turned into one of the main factors contributing to the drop in the wildebeest population by interrupting their traditional migratory pathways. An increase in roads and railways, oil and gas pipelines and dams has also created further barriers that are often incompatible with wildlife.

Photo credit: MMWCA

Unfortunately, this is not a theoretical problem, and it’s not just confined to Kenya. There are many examples of lost migrations around the world. For example, Mongolian gazelles are now constrained by railways and fences. In Botswana veterinary fences built in the 1950s caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra. In Russia, the construction of a railroad divided the wild reindeer population and eliminated the longest of the region’s migrations; and in South Africa, thousands of springboks that once travelled across the Karoo desert were eradicated by a combination of fencing, disease, and hunting before the end of the 19th century. Undoubtedly, humans pose great threats to biodiversity but – with the right approaches – they may be able to restore the natural balance.

Barriers to Migration
Migratory animals enjoy a high level of protection when they’re inside a national park or reserve, such as the Maasai Mara or the Serengeti National Park. There are no fences or human settlements to worry about. However, the story changes when they leave these safe havens and cross the boundaries of the reserve to continue travelling. Inevitably, they come across an environment increasingly dominated by humans where land uses are becoming incompatible with their needs.

For Dr Ogutu, the fundamental problem is that protected areas, such as game reserves and national parks, are not large enough to protect the full ranges of many migratory species. Protected areas only tend to cover the land the animals occupy during the dry season, but wildebeest and their travelling companions must venture outside to reach their wet season ranges.

Since the mid-1970s, Kenya’s wildebeest population has decreased by over 70%, and most migratory routes have collapsed entirely.

Moreover, the government established parks and reserves on lands owned by local people but offered no compensation for commandeering their land. In practical terms, landowners receive minimal or, in some cases, no benefit at all from wildlife crossing their land. In fact, they often incur costs, removing any incentive to help conserve these migrants. Consequently, human settlements established in the lands surrounding these protected areas are expanding without any consideration for the need to maintain open ground to accommodate migratory wildlife. This only aggravates the situation and adds to the isolation of protected areas.

Further complicating matters, exponential human population growth is placing an extra strain. In Kenya, the human population has increased dramatically over the last 70 years. It has grown by 780% from 5.4 million people in 1948 to 47.6 million people in 2019, and is projected to reach 95.5 million in 2050 and 157 million in 2100. Other countries in the region follow a similar pattern.

As a consequence of this population boom, the country’s livestock and farming sectors have skyrocketed in recent years to feed the growing masses. But increasing numbers of livestock have led to overgrazing with damaging effects to the environment. Too many animals grazing and trampling in a small area affect plant growth and reduce soil fertility. Inevitably, this reduction in grass also creates an environment where trees can grow more easily – the first sign of land degradation. As trees become more established, grazers like wildebeest and zebras struggle to find food and become easy prey for ambush predators like lions. The population boom is also driving massive tree felling in wildlife habitats outside protected areas for fuel, wood and charcoal, on which 70% of Kenya’s population relies for energy.

In addition to problems caused by increasing human populations, erratic weather patterns due to global warming are also beginning to impact the migration patterns of Kenya’s wildlife. Changes in the rainy season, for example, are affecting the ability of animals to arrive at their feeding or calving grounds as foliage appears, reducing their ability to forage, access water or breed successfully. With their migratory routes altered, migrating herds often venture out of protected areas and become easy targets for poachers or run into fences.

Climate change can also increase the chances of extreme weather events, such as prolonged drought or intense rains. In future, severe droughts could, for example, cause the Mara River to dry up completely, and would have dramatic consequences not only for the migrating animals but also for the predators waiting for their meals. On the other extreme, intense rainfall could make any river crossings a serious threat. Wildebeest find crossing the Mara River difficult enough as it is, they don’t need heavy rains to make it even more dangerous to complete their journey.

Wildebeest crossing Mara River in Mara Region (Tanzania).

Examples of Migration collapses in Africa
Dr Ogutu warns that this devastating scenario is not something that may potentially happen in a distant future. It is happening now. Kenya and Tanzania have already lost four of their signature mass migrations. The researcher believes this was caused by a growing number of farms in the area and unplanned proliferation of fences, roads and other infrastructure. In Kenya, losses have occurred mainly in the Mara-Loita Plains, the Athi-Kaputiei Plains and the Amboseli National Park and surrounding pastoral lands. In Tanzania, the most affected areas include Tarangire National Park, as well as Lake Manyara National Park and Ranch.

Maasai Mara ecosystem in Kenya
Geographically, the Greater Maasai Mara ecosystem is located in southwest Kenya and covers an area of approximately 7,500 km2. Within this area, about 1530 km2 form the actual Maasai Mara National Reserve; the rest is privately owned, mainly by Maasai landowners. Arguably the most iconic tribe in Africa, the Maasai are easily recognised by their traditional dress of red or brightly coloured “shukas” or body drapes. These semi-nomadic pastoralists with herds of cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys have lived in this region for centuries in relative harmony with wildlife.

Covering such a large area, it’s not surprising that the Maasai Mara area is home to several distinct wildebeest migrations. Undoubtedly the most famous of all migrations is the Great Migration moving in an everlasting circle between Kenya and Tanzania. There is a second, equally important but less well-known, ungulate migration in the Greater Mara ecosystem – the Mara-Loita migration. Sadly, in contrast with the Great Migration, which has seen numbers of animals stabilise over the past few decades, the Mara-Loita migration is in a rapid downward spiral.

This migration used to be concentrated around the Loita Plains that lie just northeast of the Maasai Mara reserve. Historically, this area was home to wildebeest, gazelles, zebras and eland in the wet season, but as the grass dried up in the early dry season, most animals journeyed southwest to the Mara Reserve in search of food and water. Typically, during the late dry season, they joined with the Great Migration coming from the south and the Mara plains would become a mass of wildebeest in search of remaining grass and water. By the wet season, the two migrations were on the move once again: The Great Migration heading south towards the Serengeti, while the Loita wildebeest made their way back to the Loita Plains just in time for the fresh pastures to start greening up.

The fundamental problem is that protected areas, such as game reserves and national parks, are not large enough to protect the full migratory ranges. 

Up until the late 1970s, this migration involved the movement of up to 120,000-150,000 wildebeest, 78,000-94,000 Plains zebra, 126,000-169,000 Thomson’s gazelle and 5,700-8,200 eland. However, it has virtually collapsed over the past five years. Today, a few of the less than 20,000 remaining Mara-Loita wildebeest embark on this journey as many of these animals have apparently adopted a sedentary lifestyle in the Mara Reserve and nearby conservancies. The downward spiral of the Mara-Loita migration started in the 1970s when the Kenya Government co-designed, approved, strongly promoted and arranged multi-lateral funding for large-scale commercial wheat schemes in Narok County, including in the middle of the wet season wildebeest feeding and calving range on the Loita Plains. The Kenya Government further promoted erecting game control moats and fences to protect wheat farms and tacitly approved control shooting of wildebeest alongside other animals, to maximise farmers’ profits.

For Dr Ogutu, fences are to blame. Over the past few years many new settlements have sprung up in and around the Loita Plains. This increasing population is forcing the local Maasai people to forfeit their traditional nomadic ways and find a permanent place to keep their livestock. Due to poor land privatisation policies, this move comes with a sense of possession and fences quickly go up to exclude access to resources by others.

The recent dramatic increase in fences on the Loita Plains has also coincided with two other major changes. The first is unusually higher rainfall in both the wet and dry seasons during 2015-2020 than at any other time since recording began in Narok County in 1913, associated with the warming of the Indian Ocean surface. This has created transient conditions suitable for fenced ranching. The second is devolution of 15% of the national revenue to Kenya’s 47 county governments in 2013, including the Narok County, following the promulgation of a new constitution in 2010. Plans currently underway to further increase the devolved revenue to 35% of the national revenue, if adopted without adequate land use planning, will almost certainly greatly accelerate the rate of development and the loss of wildlife and their habitats in Kenya.

Dr Ogutu believes that decades of inadequate wildlife management capacity and poor government land policies have undermined the interests of Kenya’s most iconic natural assets – free-ranging, large mammal migrations.

This has caused portions of the Loita Plains to become inaccessible to wildebeest and other migrating animals. When trying to cross this maze of fences, it’s not uncommon for animals to get trapped in the wires or even be killed struggling to jump over them. With the instinct to keep going, many wildebeest look for alternative routes. However, these new paths often mean that the herds need to overcome dangerous barriers or travel much longer distances to reach their destination.

The negative effects of fences are further amplified by major tarmac roads being built across the Mara ecosystem without any consideration for safe wildlife crossings. Additionally, unplanned and rapidly expanding urban centres block migration routes and displace resident wildlife.

As a way to offset some of these negative impacts, the government has established several protected areas, including game and nature reserves that collectively cover 8% of Kenya. The idea sounds good, but Dr Ogutu unveiled 40 years of evidence showing that these areas are just too small to maintain the migratory herds. As a comparison, it’s possible to see that The Great Migration is still going strong because both the dry season range in Kenya as well as the wet season range in Tanzania are primarily within protected areas. To put it in simple terms, Kenya has lost its “own” Mara-Loita migration because it did not protect the wildebeest’s wet season range on the Loita Plains. 

Athi-Kaputiei Ecosystem in Kenya
Regrettably, the story of the Mara is not unique. An even more catastrophic migratory collapse occurred about 20 years ago in the Athi-Kaputiei ecosystem. This region covers almost 2,500 km2 and includes the Nairobi National Park (117 km2), on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital city. The park has a wide variety of wildlife and attracts over 200,000 visitors every year. Early accounts of this migration described a spectacular ecosystem teeming with wildlife. Wildebeest and zebra would arrive at the park during the dry season, drawn by the rivers and swamps providing permanent water. When the rains returned, the migrants would move south back onto the Athi-Kaputiei Plains, their wet season breeding and feeding grounds.

Today, this is no longer the case. The decline started in the early 1900s when settlements and farms spread across the area and it continues to this day. Fences have virtually blocked all movements of migratory wildebeest and zebra between the Nairobi National Park and the Athi-Kaputiei Plains. As a result, the migratory wildebeest decreased from 30,000 animals in 1978 to less than 1,000 today. And, as if fences weren’t enough, these migrating animals now face a new set of challenges with the recent expansion of the Athi-Namanga road, the Nairobi southern by-pass, and the new railway line that cuts right across the park, despite the underpass provided in its design. 

To make matters worse, the Ngong National Reserve (512 km2), gazetted in 1949 and abolished in 1961, and the Kitengela Conservation Area (530 km2), created in 1965, can no longer provide safe dispersal areas during the wet season. Worryingly, the extermination of wildlife in both reserves has not only crippled the migration, but seriously jeopardised the future of the Nairobi National Park. In fact, it may come a point where the Park will no longer be able to support the numbers and variety of wildlife seen today and tourists will stop coming. Plans currently under consideration to fence the small, remaining open section still connecting the Nairobi Park with the Kitengela area to the south, if implemented, will only speed up the degradation and complete the isolation of the Park.

Amboseli ecosystem in Kenya
Uncontrolled expansion of fences, growing settlements, as well as uncontrolled land subdivision are also contributing to the collapse of wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelles in the Amboseli region in Kenya. Located in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, the 8,000 km2 area includes vast wetlands and swamps providing water and ample forage for migrating herds in the dry season. As the rains start, wildlife move out of the park into the area that spans Kajiado and Longido, across the border into north-eastern Tanzania.

Outside the protected park (392 km2), some grazing areas are still available for migratory herds, but most have been converted to farmland by the Maasai people and are now subdivided into small, individually-owned parcels and fenced. Like in Maasai Mara, major roads are also being built without allowing for safe wildlife crossings or regard to migration routes. In addition, most of the freshwater available is used for agriculture, leaving wildlife thirsty and further restricting seasonal migratory movements. Consequently, wildebeest population has declined sharply (16,300 animals in 1977 to 2,400 in 2014). 

Tarangire-Manyara ecosystem in Tanzania
This problem is not unique to Kenya. Although small in comparison to the Great Migration of the Serengeti-Mara, the Tarangire-Manyara migration is just as important to save. This region covers the Tarangire (2,850 km2) and Lake Manyara (649 km2) National Parks, as well as a private conservancy known as the Manyara Ranch (177 km2). This protected area is surrounded by farms, livestock grazing areas, game management areas and national reserves.

Traditionally, wildebeest stay in the Tarangire National Park during the dry season and move to the Simanjiro Plains, the Manyara Ranch, the Lake Manyara National Park or one of the nearby game management areas in the wet season. However, between 1984 and 2000, over 700 km2 of land were converted to farms, blocking routes traditionally used by these migratory wildebeest. These changes in land use were solely responsible for the precipitous decline in the migratory wildebeest population (49,000 animals in 1990 to under 8,800 by 2011).

Fences are the enemy of migration and the leading cause of animal death. 

Ultimately, what has caused Kenya’s migrations to collapse?
Dr Ogutu believes that decades of inadequate wildlife management capacity and poor – sometimes perverse government land policies, before and since independence, have undermined the interests of Kenya’s most iconic natural assets – free-ranging, large mammal migrations.

Under Kenyan law, wildlife is considered a “public good” and the responsibility for managing the country’s wildlife rests solely with the government. However, for the past few decades, resources needed to manage the country’s national wildlife heritage have been woefully inadequate. Making matters worse, wildlife policies adopted 50 years ago, including the controversial cessation of sport hunting, have had devastating effects. Not only did they block all options for landowners to benefit from attracting wildlife onto their land, but also limited the way rangers and wardens could protect wildlife outside state-owned parks and reserves. In practical terms, it could be said that the Kenyan government neither took adequate responsibility for its wildlife nor allowed local citizen landowners’ attempts to do the same.

In addition, large numbers of wildlife were killed under the guise of “problem animal control”, in some cases with the active involvement of Kenyan wildlife authorities. This clash can be traced back to the early 1900s, when European settlers started arriving in Kenya attracted by the rich wildlife heritage. By mid 1930s, thousands of wildlife had been killed by government officials and white farmers to avoid damages to crops and intrusion into human settlements. Because of fences and uncontrolled shooting by early European farmers and hunters, the seasonal mass migration of thousands of plains zebra and Thomson’s gazelle between the Kenyan lakes Nakuru-Elementaita and Baringo regions, had gone extinct by the 1920s.

Unfortunately, this view persisted over time and the repercussions are still felt today. Only 40 years ago, in Kajiado and Narok Counties, for example, thousands of wildebeests and zebras were shot each year by the Kenya Police Dog Section and the Kenya Army under the pretext of vermin removal. Added to all of this, Dr Ogutu defends that Kenya’s land privatisation policies had far-reaching negative impacts on wildlife heritage. Beginning decades ago, the post-independence government created the conditions for land grabbing by some of the country’s affluent and elite. Unsurprisingly, this situation left most of Kenya’s rural communities disenfranchised as they were saddled with costs of sharing their land with wildlife, with no benefits. Inevitably, owners were compelled to construct fences to protect their land, excluding the livestock of neighbours and blocking migratory routes in the process.

What can be done to reverse these declines?
Wildlife heritage in Kenya has gone through several major changes in the past few decades, particularly in terms of ownership, management and conservation. To move forward, the country needs to proactively develop innovative models that will devolve the rights to manage Kenya’s wildlife to those communities that currently share their land with these much-valued wildlife assets.

The future of these wildlife populations depends on the goodwill and support of local communities. These are the people who continue to welcome wildlife on their private lands despite the enormous costs they incur. These are the people who will ultimately determine the fate of Kenya’s wildlife heritage and they must be given the opportunity to play a leading role. If nothing else, a century of Kenya’s conservation experience has conclusively shown that excluding communities only leads to massive wildlife losses.

It took some time but, after years of debate, new conservation and management policies were put in place in 2013. The new law was devised to restore the rights of Kenya’s rural communities to benefit from user rights to rebuild the spirit of community pride and prestige in the custodianship of the country’s wildlife heritage.

One critical piece of legislation is the establishment of a legal framework to recognise the formation of “wildlife conservancies”. This aims to protect >70% of Kenya’s wildlife, which can be found scattered outside the country’s formal protected areas, while still allowing owners to use the area for controlled grazing of their livestock. Eighty eight percent of these conservation-compatible areas are found mostly within privately held or community-owned land.

However, these policies are yet to be fully regulated, resulting in a worryingly slow pace of implementation. In addition, Dr Ogutu defends additional legislation is needed to provide greater support for implementation and enforcement of the 2013 law. This is particularly relevant regarding the sections that promote active involvement of local communities.

Unfortunately, it’s been hard to change the government’s pervasive and unyielding view that they carry all the responsibility for the conservation of Kenya’s wildlife. This mentality has stalled much-needed reform of the country’s approach to managing this important national asset, making it a challenge to create a truly enabling environment for wildlife to thrive. If the government continues down this line – denying private and community landowners’ responsibility to conserve wildlife on their lands and simultaneously benefit from these activities – Dr Ogutu predicts that migrating herds will continue to suffer heavy losses.

After losing several migrations over the past few decades, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the impact of increasing human population is reaching catastrophic proportions. At this stage, the failed policies of the past or the lack of implementation of the newer ones must be redressed as a matter of urgency. It is imperative to secure the historical migration routes; otherwise, it will be too late to prevent further losses. This will be beneficial not only for migrating species but also help the environment to which they belong.

The research team predicts that migrating herds will continue to suffer heavy losses.

Dr Ogutu believes that communities sharing their land with wildlife must receive financial incentives to wholeheartedly engage in conservation. Crucially, these incentives have to match or exceed the income obtained from current use of these same areas. This would ensure that their choices remain compatible with long-term conservation objectives rather than maximising short-term profits which could lead to unsustainable use of the land.

Informed planning regarding land use is also badly needed to slow the pace of land sales that are rapidly fragmenting the landscape. Such plans need to regulate land subdivision and identify land suitable for peri-urban development, small-scale and intensive farming and pastoralism.

In addition, in areas critical for the integrity of migratory systems, the only way to secure more land is by urgently reducing human and livestock population densities and removing fences. Ultimately, this will not be easy to achieve but Dr Ogutu defends that it can be done with active partnering of communities and government at all levels. This is where “win-win” situations for people and wildlife become more difficult and true trade-offs will be needed.

If these trade-offs require sacrifices or limitations on the livelihood options for local communities, then they must be compensated properly. Ideally, this can be achieved with monetary benefits, with innovative financing models that go beyond tourism. These incentives should cover the costs of removing existing fences and dissuade the building of new ones. To make this possible, local communities need significantly more support to plan, expand and manage new and existing wildlife conservancies.

Despite the obstacles, Dr Ogutu hasn’t completely lost hope yet. Land-lease programs already exist, providing private and community conservancies with significant payments. This remuneration serves to offset their costs and discourage them from subdividing their land, installing fences or illegally harvesting bushmeat from wild species. In addition, once critical habitats have been secured and restored to normal, wildlife species can be re-introduced and re-stocked as necessary. It is important to monitor all interventions to identify successful factors so that management actions can be adapted to ensure that wildlife populations are protected in perpetuity.

Migrations failed due to a total lack of planning for the
most suitable use of the land. 

Reports after 10 years under the conservancy model show encouraging results. However, most of the conservancies established to date rely exclusively on photographic tourism revenues to support lease payments, provide jobs and stimulate local livelihoods. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these once-healthy and reliable revenues have all but come to a standstill. At the moment, funding is limited and reliance on bushmeat is becoming a popular option once again. Without concerted action to develop alternative funding models to support the true cost of conserving wildlife, these valiant efforts will likely meet an untimely end.

Outstanding data needs
Progress is only possible with the support of a detailed analysis of both past and existing migratory routes and an understanding of how migrating herds interact with their surroundings. In other words, it is imperative that researchers not only map each migration but also understand what makes the animals move along each particular route. When complete, this information will form the basis of planning to protect these species while benefiting local landowners, including finding the best spots for new conservancies and animal sanctuaries. It goes without saying that these new plans need to be backed both by the government and local landowners to have any chance of success.

From a practical point of view, tracking individuals with GPS collars is a vital tool for mapping wildlife migration routes. It provides useful information on the exact ways that migrating animals travel. When these maps are combined with other geo-referenced information (topography, infrastructure, farmland), barriers to migration that might otherwise go unnoticed become apparent and even artificial barriers that are causing critical obstruction can be identified accurately.

Proposed measures can have a positive impact, map the exact migratory routes and identify the most critical obstructions. Photo credit: Dickson Kaelo

Identifying the barriers is only the first step. Then negotiations with landowners can begin to have them removed to create wildlife-compatible migration routes. Over the past few years, migration maps have been increasingly used to identify which fences need to be removed and to highlight where road-crossing structures could benefit wildlife. They also help local people better understand the wildlife on their doorstep and discourage further land conversion where it would be most threatening.

Recognising the value of this approach, the researchers are already developing a country-wide version of a national digital repository for Kenya, where all relevant geographic information on animal abundances, migratory movements and their drivers can be both stored and interactively viewed by policymakers, planners and the public.

Such online data visualisation and planning tools are the perfect way to share critical insights and debate the inevitable trade-offs with indigenous, local, regional, national and international decision-makers. In the short-term, it’s a good starting point to develop new plans to restore migratory pathways and prevent the collapse of further populations.

To move forward, what the country needs now is innovative models of communal use to be implemented that meet the needs of Kenya’s wildlife.

Take home message
Large mammal migrations are among the world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. Sadly, many of these most amazing shows are under threat, and humans are mostly to blame. Loss of habitat due to agriculture, poaching and barriers that block migration, including fences, roads and railways, have progressively disrupted historical migratory routes and driven massive declines of many of the once spectacular migratory herds.

Yet Dr Ogutu refuses to lose hope. The researcher and his colleagues have proposed measures that can have a positive impact on migratory pathways. The idea is simple: first, map the exact migratory routes and second, identify where the most critical obstructions are placed. The next step is to remove these barriers and restore traditional migratory pathways.

As a final note, none of this will be possible without the full support and active engagement of local communities, who can provide the background knowledge needed to develop new land use plans; and targeted action by the national and county governments, who can develop and implement new policies and essential actions. This is our best bet to ensure that migration populations in Kenya and other countries in Africa stop facing imminent declines and potential extinction.

In your opinion, what can wildlife management groups and conservationists do to make people in general care about their local wildlife? 

Wildlife conservation should generate benefits to local communities and offset the costs of conservation and sharing land with wildlife. 

  • Promote incentives that increase economic returns from wildlife and discourage land subdivision and expansion of cultivation in wildlife habitats.
  • Promote and protect community land and user rights and restore community land where possible.
  • Conservation benefits should be shared equitably, and not be captured mostly by elites.
  • Increase the proportion of conservation-tourism revenue re-invested in wildlife conservation and management activities.
  • Diversify sources of conservation revenue to reduce reliance on tourism alone and enhance resilience to such shocks as the current COVID-19 pandemic and to generate revenue to finance conservation in areas with low tourism potential.
  • Invest in community capacity building for better ecosystem and financial management.
  • Promote business enterprises, conservation land leases, easements, and land trusts to transform conservation into economic and social advantage and reduce the environmental threats while ensuring continued availability and access to the critical portions of the pastoral lands.
  • People living with wildlife should be promptly compensated for wildlife-related injuries and fatalities, property damage, including livestock depredation and crop raiding, to minimise retributive killing of wildlife. But compensation would become irrelevant if communities were granted wildlife ownership and custodianship.
  • Open the conversation about compensating pastoral people for land loss to conservation and to individuals who have acquired their land corruptly.
  • Develop and implement far-sighted spatial plans and ecosystem management plans to secure wildlife habitats from the impacts of rapidly expanding human and livestock populations and infrastructure. The spatial land use plans should ensure that other development goals do not undermine wildlife conservation goals as currently happens.
  • Wildlife conservation policy should recognise that wildlife is not just a local or national but also a global heritage, conferring upon nations both global and local responsibilities that require sustained funding for conservation and habitat restoration.
  • Engage communities in ecosystem recovery and restoration efforts.
  • Enhance communication and engagement with local communities by honouring what they know, highlighting their knowledge, empowering their voices and using languages they fully understand.
  • Support the Maasai and other pastoralists who live with wildlife to educate other Kenyans and foreigners about the value of wildlife which is intrinsic to their culture and indigenous knowledge.
  • Increase the use of media conservation TV shows plus social media platforms to educate and influence the younger generation to be more conservation-aware and support wildlife conservation.
  • Support new pastoral leaders, both men and women, to lead conservation efforts by enhancing capacity building efforts.
  • The private sector, private citizens and communities should be more engaged in funding conservation and promoting more sustainable and efficient institutional arrangements for conservation, including customary institutions.
  • Encourage “green fences” where ecologically sensible.
  • Construct ‘underpasses’ or ‘overpasses’ for wildlife where roads, railway lines or other barriers must cross migration pathways.
  • Improve the translation of research and monitoring results to policy, management actions and development in wildlife areas.
  • Increase investments in wildlife research and monitoring and act timely and seriously on the findings to guide conservation initiatives rather than monitoring wildlife populations to extinction.
  • Land use in wildlife areas should be regulated to be compatible with conservation to minimise land use conflicts.




Research Objectives

Dr Joseph O. Ogutu hopes to improve our understanding of mechanisms underpinning wildlife population declines. 


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 641918 through the AfricanBioServices Project and from the German Research Foundation (DFG, # 257734638).


Dr Hans-Peter Piepho is Professor of Biostatistics and Chair of the Biostatistics Unit, Institute of Crop Science, University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany. His research focuses on the development and application of statistical methods to biological data. 

Dr Han Olff is Professor of Community and Conservation Ecology at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. He is an expert in connecting fundamental insights in the structure and functioning of marine and terrestrial ecosystems worldwide to conservation management and nature protection recommendations.  

Ms Jully S. Senteu is the Coordinator of the One Mara Research Hub program under the Kenya Wildlife Trust. She has studied water sciences, has a passion for conservation, and is a doctoral candidate in conservation ecology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. 

Mr Gordon Ojwang is Assistant Director at the Directorate of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing of Kenya (DRSRS), a natural resource scientist, and a doctoral candidate in conservation ecology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. 

Dr Mohammed Y. Said is an Ecologist and Geospatial Analyst affiliated with the Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation at the University of Nairobi and East Africa Institute at the Aga Khan University, Nairobi. 

Mr Shem C. Kifugo is a Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analyst and a doctoral candidate in conservation ecology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. 

Dr Robin S. Reid is Professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University, USA. She is the author of Savannas of Our Birth: People, Wildlife and Change in East Africa. 

Dr Holly T. Dublin is a Systems Ecologist focused on landscape level planning and management, the building of Africa’s wildlife economy and the incentivising of local communities to contribute to conserving biodiversity. She is a Senior Adviser to IUCN ESARO, International Institute for Environment and Development and Maliasili and has worked in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem for over forty years. 


Dr Joseph O. Ogutu is a Senior Statistician at the Biostatistics Unit, Institute of Crop Science, University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany and an Adjunct Professor at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, Arusha, Tanzania. His research explores processes and mechanisms underlying wildlife population declines, including collapse of ungulate mass migrations, as a basis for developing insights, strategies and interventions that promote their population recovery. 

Dr Mohammed Y. Said

Mr Gordon Ojwang

Ms Jully S. Senteu

Dr Han Olff

Dr Hans-Peter Piepho

Dr Joseph O. Ogutu

Dr Holly T. Dublin

Dr Robin S. Reid

Mr Shem C. Kifugo

University of Hohenheim 
Institute of Crop Science 
Biostatistics Unit 
Fruwithstrasse 23 
70599 Stuttgart, Germany 

E: [email protected]
T: +0049 711 459 23022

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