12 July 2010, by Tamera Jones
Africa's national parks aren't protecting the animals they were set up for anywhere near as well as they're supposed to, report scientists.
Numbers of zebras, giraffes, lions and other large mammals have plummeted by a staggering 59 per cent across the continent's national parks since the 1970s, the first study of its kind has found.
The team behind it say the likeliest explanation for the decline is over-hunting and changing habitats, both of which are driven by fast-expanding human populations.
Strong hunting culture
'There's still a very strong hunting culture in many countries in Africa. Local people hunt illegally in reserves for bushmeat,' explains Ian Craigie, who led the research during his PhD at the University of Cambridge and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
National parks are the cornerstones of most countries' conservation strategies, set up to protect charismatic creatures from hunting, poaching and habitat decline.
'Conservationists have known for a long time that there's a problem, that some parks don't work. But we were surprised at the scale of the problem.'
Ian Craigie, the Zoological Society of London
Africa's national parks cover around 15 per cent of the continent, or five million square kilometres – an area more than ten times that of the UK. They're home to buffalo, wildebeest, antelope, cheetah, leopard and elephant to name just a few.
African national parks are meant to play a vital role in defending some of the best-known species on the planet. But, until now, no one has looked in detail at whether or not they work.
Craigie says part of the problem is monitoring. 'There are literally hundreds of national parks in Africa, but most do not monitor their animals enough. You need aerial surveys, which are expensive,' he says.
Many national parks in western and eastern Africa are in some of the poorest countries in the world. Not only this, but these countries have rapidly expanding populations, which put huge pressure on surrounding reserves.
To get a better idea of what makes a good park, Craigie and a team of researchers from ZSL, the University of Cambridge and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds collected data for 583 mammal populations from 78 so-called Protected Areas.
Data included information on 69 species – most of them large herbivores – stretching back as far as 1970. More than half of the data came from peer-reviewed journals and published reports, or secondary sources, and 47 per cent from unpublished reports.
Exactly 63 per cent of the data came from aerial surveys, while the rest came from ground surveys. Data came from countries in western, eastern and southern Africa. Their report is published in Biological Conservation.
The researchers found the steepest declines in large mammals in western Africa, while the only region in which populations grew was in the south of the continent.
'Southern African parks are much better funded than parks across the rest of Africa. They're better managed, have more staff and so are better at defending against poachers and other threats,' explains Craigie.
Conservationists have long known that management is crucial to a park's success. 'There's generally a good correlation between good management and a lower risk of threats like hunting.'
'Conservationists have known for a long time that there's a problem, that some parks don't work. But we were surprised at the scale of the problem,' he adds.
The researchers point out that data in the study came from the best parks that do at least some monitoring, suggesting the study may underestimate the extent of the decline.
Craigie's keen to emphasise that this doesn't necessarily mean that African national parks aren't working at all. On the contrary, 'many creatures like rhino and wild dog only exist in the national parks. If it wasn't for these parks, the situation might be far worse.'
He says the solution lies in funding. Most parks are funded by governments, but in impoverished parts of Africa, although they may have set aside land, they have struggled to find the funds to manage parks properly.
Millions of people visit Africa every year with the specific aim of going on safari. But income from these tourists could decline if parks lose too many of their main attractions. 'This could create a vicious cycle leading to even worse park performance,' explains Craigie.
'In most parks, managers know their jobs. They know what's happening, but they don't have the resources to deal with it,' he adds.